Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Der Derian: 'Now We Are All Avatars'

August 24, 2010

The films Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and Human Terrain are presented in a recent article by Institute Professor James Der Derian as critical intertexts for understanding how the cinematic aestheticisation of violence can glorify as well as vilify war, depending on how the spectator identifies with the protagonist and the filmmaker with the subject. Estrangement from and entanglement with the other become key variables for assessing the anti-war impact of a film.

Der Derian is co-director of Human Terrain, and in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, he writes that his film, like Avatar and The Hurt Locker, also gets up close to the war machine and features a tragic hero who tries to do good in a war zone. Its story of the US military's Human Terrain System, which hires social scientists to better understand the cultures and capture the hearts and minds of the local populace, takes a turn when a former visiting fellow at the Watson Institute dies as a member of a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan.

Is the system "weaponising culture" or lowering casualty rates on both sides of the conflict? As the film records the debate on such questions, and given Michael Bhatia's death, "in the burning desire to know why, we dropped our academic guard and opened up to new possibilities, new mysteries, new identities. We were no longer investigators but participants in our own film. We too were forced to become avatars of the other."