Thursday, May 21, 2015

From Feivel to Faisal

Occasionally one is freshly overtaken by gratitude for the internet –more specifically, for the wonderfully strange things that one can find out about – and then see for oneself – under its auspices. The knowledge that beloved animator Don Bluth made a 2009 propaganda short for the nationalized Saudi oil company, Aramco, is one of these cases. (Is “gratitude” really the right word?  Yes – it is. I am in fact grateful for this knowledge, in spite of myself.) Allow me to fill in some background, and the means by which I came to learn this.

Don Bluth, the animator, is the guy behind most of those animated movies you remember from your childhood in the ‘90s that were not in fact created by Walt Disney Studios, but that we all probably, in a moment of laziness, lapsed into calling "Disney movies" (in much the way that certain ignorami will still use the word “Coke” to refer to all brands of soft drink). The Land Before Time, Anastasia – you know the ones I mean.

Myself and a friend from way back, with whom I made the Aramco discovery, share one of those half-ironic and all-nostalgic affections for Bluth that are so common in our demographic cohort. It is a love founded on the sympathetic attraction one must instinctively feel toward the second-best, the almost-made-it, and the “guy-who-isn’t-Disney” guy. Not to mention the entirely secondary, indeed incidental point, that some of those movies are actually really good. I would defend An American Tail against anyone.

I cannot tell you exactly how Bluth, this cherished patron saint of runners-up, came to animate a P.R. piece for that upstanding pillar of American petro-imperialism and Saudi despotism, Aramco. (Who could have predicted he would go from Feivel to Faisal?) All I know is that my friend and I were sitting around one night asking the great “Where is he now?” question, and we decided to look him up on IMDB. There, cresting the chronological list, was something called The Gift of the Hoopoe. There was no sign as yet of any connection between this innocuous-seeming production, with its bug-eyed characters, and the liquid cash exhumed in such quantities over the last half-century from the Empty Quarter and used to fund American wars and American client states (not that we looked very closely for one, as I have to admit). We did not look in the trivia section long enough to realize the film was released in order to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Saudi monarchy. All we saw was what looked like a usual cast of entities who appear in this kind of thing—some sort of giant cricket, what I took to be a pterodactyl, and two wide-eyed innocents in the front row who would presumably offer much nugatory and aww-inspiring wisdom.

The real thing was a lot worse than the scenario we began to construct from this limited data-set, though you can judge for yourself. The Gift of the Hoopoe is available for free on YouTube, given that it is a PR vehicle for the oil company and the regime it sustains and is therefore meant for public consumption.

The story is not impossible to follow, for those willing to apply themselves. Two children in Saudi Arabia, who are apparently sunk deep into the twin vices of video-gaming and text-messaging, are a constant source of frustration to their parents, who are saintly (I guess they must work for Saudi Aramco). This pair of enfants maudits are eventually shown the error of their ways by the pterodactyl, who materializes out of a magic book and is in fact a bird. This entity, the “Hoopoe” of the title, is some sort of cross between Miss Frizzle and Dory the Fish-- though you'd have to imagine adding to both characters a property of extravagant malice. It overstays its welcome even within the confines of the show’s brief, 20-min run time.

The pterodactyl takes the children through three intolerably hectoring and at last psychologically scarring moral parables, designed to show the children how hopelessly (though not, unfortunately, hoopoelessly) lost and irredeemable they are.

The first tells the story of a donkey and a mule, both of whom are carrying heavy loads. The donkey, being smaller, can’t keep up, and the mule refuses to help. As punishment, the owner lets the donkey rest and loads his pack onto the mule. The story ends with the latter animal bewailing his damnation: “Oh, why, why wasn’t I kinder to that donkey?” or something like that.

The pterodactyl cannot let the impenetrable subtlety of this message stand. It tells the two children, “You are the mule,” in case they missed it. The kids, whom we were led to believe are awful brats, in fact absorb this criticism with great dignity, as they will all of the terrible comparisons, insults, and judgments that this flying reptile throws at them. (I forget exactly why they are faced with such total condemnation. I guess they use their portable electronics a lot. No objection is raised that the parents might not have bought them these devices, or might have limited the amount of time they spent on them, or otherwise gotten involved.)

The second story is a variation on the same theme, this one told through Aesop's parable of the Grasshopper and the Ant. The grasshopper, as you may recall from the story, has too much fun dancing and singing during the summer and therefore forgets to lay up resources for the cold seasons. The more calculating ant, by contrast -- a sort of insect suburbanite -- takes care of his own needs in advance, and makes no effort to help the grasshopper survive the unforgiving winter when it arrives. In the original story, the ant crows over the grasshopper's demise, telling him that he can enjoy dancing all winter. In the Hoopoe's version, the outcome is still harsh but somewhat less overtly vindictive: We don't hear from the ant at the end, but the grasshopper is still left shivering, without any help from the snug (and smug) ant. Once again, the kids receive all the blame at the end. “You are the grasshopper,” the boy is told.

In the story itself, there is no hope for the grasshopper by the end of it. For the boy, however, there is one thin ray of hope, if he will but see it. The boy tells the bird he wants to be a video game designer when he grows up, and the bird responds by introducing him to what is plainly the next best thing-- petroleum engineering. If he works hard enough, it says, he just might get the chance to go study at the glistening oasis that is the Aramco Petroleum Institute – the one worthy aspiration a Saudi boy might undertake to fulfill. (Ludicrous propaganda, of course, but not a totally misleading commentary on the country's lopsided oil dependence and blatant inequality. As Hugh Eakin writes of a trip to Aramco headquarters in the New York Review of Books: "At the sparkling [...] campus, both Saudi and foreign workers now inhabit what the scholar Steffen Hertog has called an 'island of efficiency' in a country otherwise plagued by corruption [...] When I visited last year, it was hard not to miss the radical contrast between life on the campus—where there are no religious police and women are unveiled and permitted to drive—and the situation in the underdeveloped Shia villages only thirty minutes away.")

But none of these can compare to the devastating final chapter of the tripartite saga. It is apparently now the girl's turn to be in the hot seat, and she is judged and condemned for being, of all things, too judgmental. Apparently, she never gave a decent chance for friendship to a classmate at school (her lab partner in science class -- is she training for a career in petroleum too?) who was excluded from her social set.

It's a fair point, but the bird's way of making it is somewhat indelicate. Using its invasive powers of magical espionage (the bird would plainly make a fine addition to the Saudi religious police), it reveals to the girl that her own supposed "friends," at school, whom she thought accepted her, in fact say terrible and crushing things about her when she's not around. The bird reads off a few of them. Instead of crying, running from the room, and being damaged for life as one might expect, however, the girl instead thanks the squawking menace for opening her eyes to the horrible reality of things. At last, merrily, the two sad dopes wave goodbye to the pterodon as it zooms off into the night. Presumably they are reformed, though God knows why or how. And the show ends.

Some might question whether a 20 minute PR spot from an oil company deserves the level of analysis I now intend to provide. Others might intrude the very real possibility that I have spent more time already in summarizing its contents than its makers took in writing it. And yet, while acknowledging the validity of both points, I found that I could not let this one go. It managed even in its brief run to offend both my Bettelheimian instincts and my democratic ones, and these are two things that, readers may have noticed, animate me a great deal more vividly than Don Bluth animated Rock-a-Doodle. I realized I needed to have my say about this thing that no one else will ever watch, in this medium that no one will ever read, or else I could not rest.

To begin the fight on the Bettelheimian front, I cannot forgive the sheer emotional and narratological tone-deafness that this film displays in its attempt to speak to children. One of the many points Bettelheim makes in The Uses of Enchantment that is obvious and yet consistently forgotten, is that no kid ever responded positively to a story in which he or she was cast as the villain -- and especially not to one in which that villain is condemned at the finish without possibility of retrieval. Bettelheim flags our tale of the poor grasshopper and vindictive ant as a violation of the principle. "The grasshopper," he writes, "much like [...] the child himself, is bent on playing, with little concern for the future. [... O]nly a hypocritical prig can identify with the nasty ant [...] but after having identified with the grasshopper, there is no hope left for the child [...] For the grasshopper, [...] nothing but doom awaits." (p. 43)

So too, what kind of young soul would actually warm to the hectorings and lecturings of that wretched bird? Its stories hold out no avenues of progress, nor positive exemplars -- only "thou shalt nots" with the implied threat of dreadful punishment. Its message is unmistakable: you are bad, because you do not recycle, you do not do chores, you do not study in school, etc. Oh, and your friends at school are only pretending to like you.

All of which is especially rich coming from Saudi Aramco, by the way, which leads me to the second axis of affront-- that of the democratic instincts. According to the YouTube description, this film teaches, among other things, lessons in "conservation" and "tolerance." Need I point out to you the ironies involved? Probably not, but I will anyway.

Aramco, which stood originally for the Arabian American Oil Company, has served for much of the last century as the greatest living embodiment of a grinding American hegemony in the region and of the rule of the autocratic regimes that it has propped up to serve its interests. The Saudi monarchy in the form we know was arguably a creation of Aramco, and while today that monarchy has complete national control over the oil company, up until the 1980s the company had partial American ownership. Likely the main reason this is no longer the case is simply that the Saudi monarchy has proven to be such an obsequious client state that leaving the company in its hands was seen to pose no threat to American interests.

Aramco has been the single most significant prop of the despotic Saudi regime from the moment of that government's founding to the present. Today, in addition to providing nearly all the revenue of the state, it also functions as a safety valve for economic discontent. As Hugh Eakin has argued, opportunities in the oil industry in Saudi Arabia widen the doors to the tiny elite just enough so as to co-opt potential trouble makers. Presumably, the boy in the story, who might get a chance to go to the Petroleum Institute if he studies hard enough, is one of them. Left to that iPhone, he might have planned an Arab Spring. But if he sticks to his science books, he can one day help fund the tanks that will silence any such thing, or the Saudi warplanes that, with American support, killed over 800 civilians in Yemen over the past months of fighting.

As for Don Bluth, I assume his role in this project was simply that of a hired felt pen, and that he does not particularly care one way or the other about the origins of the money that lands on his desk. And one cannot really fault him for taking, as a general rule, whatever work comes along. Yet, there seems to me something especially sinister about this project, and I feel that Aramco is bad even by the low standards of mighty energy concerns. One could argue that without this company, there would have been no American oil dominance in the region, with its disastrous and still-unfolding consequences. There would have been no Saudi monarchy, with its beheadings and lashings and political prisoners, with its horrific punishments leveled against such heinous crimes as blogging and driving while female ("A President assassinated for a drop of petroleum,[…] / a swift execution on a morning mortal with light, petrified, […]" as Neruda wrote of the actions of Aramco's parent company (Schmitt trans.). The Middle East as a whole might today be a place considerably less dependent on a single resource controlled by a handful of Western-backed autocrats. Even for someone like Bluth who never had any pretensions not to be a sell-out, therefore, this seems like a rather corrupt and blood-soaked bargain to make. (Indeed, I'm not so confident that I am not now guilty by association, simply for having drawn attention to the existence of this thing. I enjoyed writing this post far too much for it to have been good for me.)

And all of this greed, all of this cynicism has been placed into the service of preaching to kids that they ought to be kind to the less fortunate and take care for the future consequences of their actions. Someone other than the children needs a lesson from the Hoopoe.

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