A video essay by Evan Puschak (aka The Nerdwriter) on Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 adaptation of the 1992 dystopian novel by PD James, has been doing the rounds on social media recently. It’s part of a web series called ‘Understanding Art’ that aims, in a conversational though informed manner, to draw attention to the political, philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings of notable films.
Puschak’s take on Children of Men is that much of the film’s interest lies in its background: in the many moments the camera tracks away from the hero – Theo Faron, played by Clive Owen – to linger on some seemingly incidental narrative or interesting feature of the rich mise en scène.
Puschak’s thesis, or his neat articulation of it at least, has struck a chord with film nerds, but it isn’t wholly original. Slavoj Žižek, in comments included on the film’s Blu-ray release, noted that ‘there is a wonderful tension between foreground and background’ and that ‘the fate of the hero is a prism through which you see the background more sharply.’ This background, as Puschak rightly observes, is established in the film’s opening shot –even before it, in fact, as a TV newsreader’s voice draws an aural picture of the world we are about to enter, while the opening credits roll over a black screen. ‘Day one thousand of the Siege of Seattle,’ the voice intones. ‘The Muslim community demands an end to the army’s occupation of mosques; the Homeland Security bill is ratified. After eight years, British borders will remain closed. The deportation of illegal immigrants will continue.’
None of these items, however, is the news bulletin’s lead story. That honour belongs to the death of Baby Diego, the youngest-known human being in a world in which women have universally and mysteriously become infertile. And yet, Cuarón wants us to know right from the beginning that the real story is the background: those sound bites that are not about the fate of a single celebrity but that of millions of ‘fugees’ – refugees in the world of 2027. In the words of Michael Caine’s ageing hippie Jasper Palmer: ‘after escaping the worst atrocities and finally making it to England, our government hunts them down like cockroaches.’
Children of Men is rife with distinctively post-September 11 allusions: refugees kitted out in orange Guantanamo Bay-style jumpsuits, or cloaked in black in nightmarish homage to the notorious image of detainee Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, standing on a box, outstretched arms trailing wires primed to deliver electric shocks. And then there are the references to the passing of security bills à la the PATRIOT Act, and the visible Americanisation of the British state (‘Homeland Security’). But as potent and as damning as these signals are, it’s possible to see them now as largely reflexive; newspaper headlines jammed angrily into the frame. By contrast, the film’s depiction of the British Government’s horrific treatment of refugees looks to have been remarkably prescient.
While the Obama administration has, however risibly, laid claim to curbing the worst national security excesses of the Bush era (‘we tortured some folks’), the situation for refugees worldwide has deteriorated markedly in the nearly ten years since Children of Men was made. According to the UNHCR, global forced displacement at the end of 2013 topped fifty million, the first time such numbers have been recorded since the Second World War. While the war in Syria has been the major driving factor, failure to prevent or halt conflicts that are uprooting millions – as many people as make up the entire populations of medium-to-large-sized countries – is a global issue.
Around the time I first watched Puschak’s video, Hungary announced the closure of its border with Serbia. The footage on the TV news that night, in a reversal of Children of Men’s appropriation of the imagery of the post-September 11 security state, might have been ripped from the film itself: a ready-made wall covered in barbed wire being pushed by a bulldozer into position; refugees, having fled the Hadean chaos of the war in Syria, under assault by tear gas and water cannon; the police detainment of dozens of migrants, one of which the Prime Minister’s chief of security labeled a ‘terrorist’.
Everywhere you look – from Donald Trump railing against Mexican immigrants as ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals’, to Australia’s own bipartisan and uniquely draconian system of offshore detention – Cuarón’s bleak, cinéma-vérité vision of a perpetually grey-skied Britain that denies entry to refugees and dehumanises, through language and violence, those already there seems to have been – as with George Orwell’s 1984 and the surveillance state – mistaken for a how-to guide rather than a cautionary tale.
In James’ book, the most inhumane conditions are reserved for criminals who are sent to a barbarous penal colony on the Isle of Man. Refugees – not fugees, but the less derogatory-sounding ‘sojourners’ – are ‘imported’ and made, like the Helots of ancient Laconia, to perform slave labour. In the film, they are caged, tortured, and in some cases killed outright. In Chapter 12, Martin Woolvington, a minister in the despotic wardenship of Xan Lyppiatt, answers Theo’s objections to the treatment of sojourners in this way:
You’re not suggesting we should have unrestricted immigration? Remember what happened in Europe in the 1990s? People became tired of invading hordes, from countries with just as many natural advantages as this, who had allowed themselves to be misgoverned for decades through their own cowardice, indolence and stupidity and who expected to take over and exploit the benefits which had been won over centuries by intelligence, industry and courage, while incidentally perverting and destroying the civilisation of which they were so anxious to become part.
The rhetoric is depressingly familiar, but it was Cuarón rather than James who more fully showed us its real-world consequences. Despite moments of abject horror, the book retains a patina of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ genre that John Wyndham, Christopher Priest and other British speculative fiction writers pioneered in the years after the Second World War. The book’s grimness is also undoubtedly leavened by James’ Anglicanism; the note of hope on which it ends arising from Theo christening the first baby to be born in decades. Cuarón’s world, on the other hand, is unfailingly bleak and explicitly godless; tellingly, its one source of hope is an organisation called the Human Project.
James’ book is a superbly rendered vision of a near-future dystopia in which refugees, the elderly, and those who have broken the law are treated with little to no humanity. But the world we are inching towards – a wholly neoliberal one in which the free flow of capital is as much an incontestable shibboleth as the undesirability of the free flow of persecuted human beings – is Cuarón’s. Public opinion, initially favorable to Germany’s open-armed reception of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, is turning; Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity is waning sharply as logistical problems and a harsh winter begin to set in. Here, New South Wales’ coordinator of Syrian refugees, Dr Peter Shergold, recently warned of the fragility of Australians’ sympathy towards migrants fleeing conflict in the Middle East. ‘There will always be people,’ he told the Guardian, ‘who make these links between terrorism and accepting refugees.’
One of the key shifts between the book and the film of Children of Men is the identity of the woman who carries the first baby to have been born in nearly two decades. In the book it is Julian, a British national who is a member of the rebel group known as the Five Fishes. In the film, the baby’s mother, played by Clare-Hope Ashitey, is Kee – a young, black fugee. At the end of the film, as she waits in a rowboat for the ship Tomorrow that will take her and her baby girl to the Human Project, the body of Theo – a collateral victim of a brutal military campaign against a refugee slum on England’s south coast – slumps lifelessly forwards. Humanity’s future lies in the hands of a tyrannised and stateless female from the Global South. It’s an image that’s hard to put out of the mind as the compassion of the world’s most powerful people towards its most dispossessed hangs in the balance.