Slumdog & Oscar: The Danger of “Awareness”

When Slumdog Millionaire came out in theaters, at first I was very excited to see it.  Some of the students I took to Cairo to live among the poor organized a reunion around the film so they could see it together – I couldn’t make it, so I told them to enjoy it themselves without me.

Then things with my late-Grandma Lois became the priority in my life, and seeing a movie was pretty low on the list.  Finally, I just up and saw it a couple weeks back.  I was preparing myself for it, mainly because I thought the shock value would be something that would remind me of my experience living in the slums of Cairo and continue to remind me of my commitments I’ve made to live as an agent of God’s justice, his shalom, in a broken world.

And it did. The shots in India and the subtle exposing of the caste system is something that is important.  The scene where you see the children collecting garbage and the ones who are stolen by the villain – that location could easily have been shot in Mokattam with no one knowing the difference.  

I was brought back to Mokattam once again for glimpses. The way my memory works is that emotions and imagery tap thought trails that cause me to relive experiences again.  Slumdog did that for me – it was a rush of sensations back to living among the poor, seeing their smiles and saddness, laughter and tears, sights and smells, recalling stories and statistics.

Yet at the same time, I was incredibly bothered by the overriding premise of the film that interwove itself into the gameshow, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”  While it is an incredibly effective device to create a sense of anticipation and excitement with the question, “Will he win?” I was more concerned that it created a false hope that people get out of this through such fanciful ideas.

Hollywood does a good job of exposing people to just enough of the problems of the world to make us feel a little more informed s0 we care a little more about what happens. But then the lights go up and we leave the half-eaten jumbo popcorn and box of raisinettes on the ground for the kid paid minimum wage to pick up, who makes more than some families combined and would be glad to enjoy the popcorn and raisinettes we leave behind.

Here is what is interesting to me: Slumdog Millionaire had a production budget of $14 million.  It has a current worldwide box office gross at $153 million.  Now, I don’t know about you, but a profit of $139 million is pretty incredible in a down worldwide economy.  I know that Slumdog has likely brought to the attention to people around the world more about child slavery, forced prostitution, human trafficking, slum communities, and other problems of the world.

But awareness is not our issue anymore. We are aware. We need more than awareness these days – we need real, tangible efforts and dollars to make real change. People need to be aware that awareness isn’t enough, and awareness without action is worse than ignorance.

I don’t know if Slumdog Millionaire is giving of their profits to end the problems they filmed and made a bunch of money on.  I hope they have. But if they haven’t, then I think it would be exploitative to get rich off of filming poverty and making a whole bunch of people feel better about themselves for becoming “more aware.”  Again, I hope this isn’t the case and would be happy to be shown otherwise.

It’s hard for me to imagine my friends in Mokattam among a group of people dressed in the best clothes they’ll ever wear, walking on red carpet with the paparatzzi, enjoying fine dining and waiting for their names to be called, walking to the podium giving an acceptance speech about how thankful they are, and then getting cut off by the orchestra in mid-sentence. The talking heads celebrate and say, “Wow, what a great movie. Such an important work.”

Important work? But what about those whom you portrayed? They don’t get picked up for red carpets and game shows, and they need our help. Do we choose to or not?  

If not, then we should really consider that our Oscars belong with the grouch in the trash. At least the real “slumdogs” could have their just reward.

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