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Saturday, March 17, 2007


300 Spells "War" For Iranian Culture

300 Spells "War" For Iranian Culture

Iran denounced Hollywood's latest blockbuster film 300, depicting the 480 BC battle between the Persian army and a band of Greeks, as "hostile behaviour which is the result of cultural and psychological warfare," according to a Reuters report.

Last week's North American opening of 300, while Tehran is embroiled in a standoff with Western nations over its nuclear program, led Iran and its film fans to see the movie as a Western effort to vilify their nation through history.

The film sold an estimated US$70 million worth of tickets in its first three days, setting a new record for a March release, the film's distributor Warner Bros. Pictures said on Sunday.

But Iranians were clearly offended at the way their ancestors were portrayed in the film, inspired by the tale of 300 Spartans under King Leonidas who held out at Thermopylae against a Persian invasion led by Xerxes in 480 BC.

The government, lawmakers, and Iranian Web logs (blogs) denounced the movie, which depicts the huge Persian army as ruthless but repeatedly outsmarted by the Greeks who are only defeated in the end by treachery.

Even though the film by US director Zack Snyder has only just hit theaters in the US, poor-quality pirated copies are already available in the Iranian capital.

Government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham branded it an insult against Iran, where the first Persian empire emerged to become the world's most powerful in the sixth century BC before it was conquered by Alexander the Great two centuries later.

"Not only would no nation or government accept this, but it would also consider it as hostile behavior which is the result of cultural and psychological warfare," he told a regular press briefing on Tuesday.

"Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Hollywood and cultural authorities in the US initiated studies to figure out how to attack Iranian culture," said Javad Shamqadri, a cultural advisor to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, according to a BBC report. "Certainly, the recent movie is a product of such studies," Shamqadri said.

Daily newspaper Ayandeh-No carried the headline "Hollywood Declares War on Iranians," BBC noted.

The paper said, "It [300 ] seeks to tell people that Iran, which is in the Axis of Evil now, has for long been the source of evil, and modern Iranians' ancestors are the ugly murderous dumb savages you see in 300."

Four MPs urged Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi to ask other Muslim countries not to show "this anti-Iranian Hollywood movie," ISNA news agency said.

Iranians take great pride in their history and the empire they founded, and any perceived slight against that heritage often sparks criticism across the political and social spectrums.

An Iranian circulated a petition against the film on the Internet, saying the film was both "fraudulent and distorted," according to a Reuters report.

"It is a proven scholarly fact that the Persian Empire in 480 BC was the most magnificent and civilised empire," the protest letter to the filmmakers said.

Western historians have often said the battle was the first major conflict between the East and the ancient Greek city states, seen as the cradle for Western values.

This is not the first time Iran has protested over its portrayal in films made in the West.

There was outrage over the 2004 epic Alexander which showed the Macedonian general easily conquering the Persian Empire.

Positive Reviews in the West

In contrast to the angry reaction in Iran, 300 has earned largely positive reviews in North America, despite or because of its decapitations and battlefield carnage.

Scottish actor Gerard Butler stars as Leonidas, the hunky king of the Spartans, who leads 300 of his warriors to glorious death at the Battle of Thermopylae against a massive Persian army commanded by the fey king Xerxes (Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro). Zack Snyder (director of Dawn of the Dead ) directed the adaptation of comic book writer Frank Miller's graphic novel.

Audiences were "hungry to go to something that looks this unique," said Mark Canton, one of the film's producers.

Even though 300 is tailor-made for male moviegoers, it also rated highly with women, because the filmmakers enlarged the role of Leonidas' queen (played by Lena Headey) to make her a "true partner" of the king, Canton said.

The opening for 300 ranks as the third-highest for an R-rated movie, behind The Matrix Reloaded (US$91 million) and The Passion of the Christ (US$83 million).

300 also opened in a few small Asian markets and it would reach Britain in two weeks, said Canton. Action-packed period epics, such as 2004's Troy, often do much better overseas.

The moment I read the synopsis on the net, about the war between Sparta and Persia, I knew that this is another Hollywood propaganda against the so-called axis of evil - Iran. I've been meaning to look up for such article about the movie and finally I found one today. Still haven't watch the movie yet tho. Here's another Saturday column from Dato' Johan Jaafar on the same subject.

"AS he advanced (with his army)… the forests were converted into open plains; the earth shook, and the hills moved; the lofty grounds became levelled and the road rocks flew off in shivers, and the large rivers were dried up to the mud."

The army of King Darius of Persia facing Alexander the Great at the battle of Gaugamela? Or King Xerxes swarming King Leonidas and his Spartan warriors at the narrow pass of Thermopylae? No, it was an excerpt from our Sejarah Melayu or The Malay Annals, the most celebrated of historiographies ever written in the history of the Malay court. It was the story of Raja Suran, whose army was rampaging city states with its might.

The chronicler of Sejarah Melayu was Tun Sri Lanang, believed to be the one of the Bendahara of the Johor Sultanate. He wrote with a mission: To provide legitimacy to his kings and their ancestors.

Little wonder they traced the lineage of Malay kings to as far as Iskandar Zulkarnian (as Alexander is known among the Malays).

Raja Suran, a descendant of Alexander, was an Indian king, but as recounted by Sejarah Melayu, he was very much part of the Malay court history.

Sejarah Melayu is mostly history but partly fiction. One has to discern which is history and which are myths, legends or court gossip.

The stories in Sejarah Melayu are episodic, so they are potentially "cinematic". Many anecdotes from the book have been made into local films — the strong man Badang, the story of Singapura dilanggar todak (Singapura attacked by swordfish) and, of course, the clever boy (Hang Nadim) killed by the king, not to mention the evergreen lore of Puteri Gunung Ledang.

For the record, there are various versions of Sejarah Melayu, the above text is from Dr John Leyden’s translation of 1821. When it was published, it had an introduction by no less than Sir Stamford Raffles.

But it is the description of Raja Suran’s army, among other things, that had baffled me since I first came across the book decades ago. How could one film such a sequence?

Filmmaking back then was about actors and action and little else. Yes, movie is magic for it creates a make-believe world one would never imagine possible. We feast on illusions of reality when, in fact, we are merely watching recreations.

But filmmaking has improved by leaps and bounds. One would never imagine making The Lord of the Rings the way Peter Jackson did.

All those thousands (perhaps millions) of warriors and fighters of all shapes and sizes would not have been possible without the advancement in computer-generated images (CGI). Jackson’s own Weta Digital was responsible for the CGI effects you see in the trilogy. The Two Towers alone contains 600 effects shots.

The Matrix Reloaded was another landmark in film technology. In the second segment of the Matrix trilogy produced and directed by the Wachowski Brothers, the incredible "Burly Brawl" scenes were done with the latest state-of-the art technology.

Actor Keanu Reeves (Neo) is seen fighting not one but hundreds of Hugo Weavings. And of course, The Matrix, the first film, made famous the "bullet-time" sequence.

Watching 300 reminded me of what the future of filmmaking holds. I am sure 300 is rewriting filmmaking. It has the look, the beauty and the style that is redefining future filming. 300 is not about the incredible story of human bravery but how the story is told. It is not about what one can achieve from technology but how technology is changing the film world — for better or worse.

I have a lot of complaints about 300 — particularly the glamorous violence and the stereotyping of Leonidas’ nemesis, the Persians. But let’s concentrate on how the story of the Spartan king and his 300 warriors comes alive on screen.

It would not have been possible had special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen not come out with Jason and the Argonauts in 1963. Star Wars (directed by George Lucas), The Abyss (James Cameron) and The Matrix and Sin City (co-directed by Frank Miller from his graphic comic and Robert Rodriquez) all have perfected the art of special effects.

Poor Ralph Bakshi. He attempted to film The Lord of the Rings in 1978. He didn’t do justice in adapting the novel nor enlivened the screen with the kind of effects Jackson had at his disposal three decades later.

But he did something that started many people thinking about a new possibility — combining animation and live action in cinema. His experiment was, to say the least, awkward. But it was precisely that awkwardness that inspired the director of 300, Zack Snyder, to render live action with virtually nothing but digital technology.

Why spend so much money to send expensive actors to remote locations? Snyder locked himself and his actors in a warehouse in Montreal and later spent a full year choreographing 10 special effects companies to assemble the digital puzzle. Nothing is real except the main characters in 300.

Everything else was created digitally — landscapes, even people, horses and elephants. It is a film devoid of sets. Everything is computer- generated.

Editing, too, was more painting than traditional "cutting" of film sequences shot.

The film maintains its graphic comic look while pursuing a new and visually stunning cinematic style. And it cost a lot less.

Who cares who was Leonidas or Xerxes or if the bulging bodies of Spartan warriors are attracting more buzz than the only significant lady character in the movie (that of the Queen of Sparta played by Lena Heady).

Or whether the real King Xerxes was actually androgynous as depicted by scene-stealer Rodrigo Santoro. The way I see it, 300 is the future of filmmaking.

The next time anyone wants to film the story of the invading army of Raja Suran,
just think digital. It could be shot with a "digital backlot" approach the way 300 was. In the case of 300, it turned out to be a visual feast, yet remained faithful to the original text. Any takers among our filmmakers? (Source: NST)

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