The Sixth Form Journal, 9th October 2014
In light of the recent developments in the Middle East, editor Tony Diver re-reviews ‘The Dictator’ for its political accuracy (and humour).
There are many benefits to living in a society that prides itself on the individual’s right to freedom of speech. We are gifted with the incredible diversity and honesty of cinema, showing the unadulterated message of the director directly to the people. It’s something that the citizens of a Western liberal democracy respect, and have enshrined tacitly in the American constitution under the First Amendment.
But there are also drawbacks to unlimited freedom of cinematic expression, and one of the largest is the existence and success of Sacha Baron Cohen. With a seemingly insatiable thirst for on-the-line comedy, his latest film ‘The Dictator’ explores the thorny issue of oppressive autocracy in the Middle East with all of the sensitivity and diplomacy of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Modelled largely on the regimes of General Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, Cohen’s character ‘Admiral General Aladeen’ is a crude combination of the most volatile political leaders of our time – the Frankenstein’s Monster of the Arab Spring.
The plot, like the comedy, is pretty simple. Aladeen is an oppressive dictator of the nation of Wadiya, in the process of developing nuclear weapons, and has attracted the attention of the UN. His uncle, the rightful successor of Aladeen’s father, ousts him on a trip to America and conspires to placate the UN by revising the Wadiyan constitution and implementing democracy, allowing him to sell off national oil reserves to international conglomerates Gazprom, BP and Exxon. The status quo of Wadiyan oil is unclear, as is the motive for sale and the model for what we assume is a privatisation deal. But cynicism aside, the premise of the film is relatively plausible and precedented – it’s a basis for satire anyway, not a political treatise.
The political basis for Cohen’s film is largely solid. Wadiya is filled with not-so-subtle nods to events in the Middle East over the last ten years. The dynastic power structure is typical of dictatorships in that region, as well as in (perhaps most famously) North Korea. The obsession with oil that dominates its politics is also reasonably well-founded, modelled assumedly on the governance of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The nuclear weapons programme is borrowed in full from the scare in Iran, as is Aladeen’s speech allocating weapons-grade uranium to ‘medical research’. The pervasive sense of corruption and oligarchy stinks most of the traditional presidency of Yeltsin’s Russia, and the them-and-us relationship with the UN over nuclear weapons is again reminiscent of Iran and North Korea. The shot of Aladeen’s statue falling is perhaps the most obvious reference (to Saddam).
Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t expect total accuracy in a film which mostly focusses (Crocodile Dundee-style) on Aladeen’s experiences in New York. Whilst Cohen clearly takes inspiration from the Arab Spring, it’s worth noting that there is virtually no precedent for the voluntary abdication of a leader and the rise of democracy, especially via a coup. If anything, coups tend to lead to a war for power or oppressive bureaucracy, as demonstrated by the rise of factions in the Muslim Brotherhood and national military in Egypt.
Perhaps the best-fitting example of an organic top-down democratic revolution is that of Soviet Russia. That example, though, is sadly scarred by the years of corruption and oligarchy and still remains. The idea of a dictator standing down is rare enough, but the following peaceful transition to a democracy is unheard of.
In fact, the whole nature of Middle-Eastern instability is predicted on the intransigence of leaders to bend to the will of the people. The chance of a leader with almost god-like power standing down after being encouraged by the symbol of Western power (the UN) is almost laughable. And The Dictator entirely ignores the nuances of religious and ethnic strife which permeates the political landscape. The entrenched Islamic militarism and subsequent rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria prove, if anything, that arbitrary political borders in the Middle East mean little to those who are willing to give their lives for their section of Islamic faith.
The issues of Middle Eastern dictatorships have always been religious or ethnic, as well as ideological. The leadership of Saddam was condemned partially for his massacre of the Kurds, the oligarchy of Rwanda was ethnically led, and the factions of the Syrian conflict are divided on lines of the Islamic faith: Sunni vs. Shia.
The Dictator is not a film of profound political intent. But the nature of satire allows us to analyse the nature of the public’s attitude towards foreign powers. If, as I suspect, when we laugh at this film we are laughing at our own misconceptions, then they are severe. The American bodyguard who greets Aladeen with stereotypical xenophobia represents the view of Middle-Eastern politics we think we hold. “I hate a-rabs” he tell us, “anyone from outside America is technically an a-rab.”