a 'dogville' everywhere
Human beings entered into the social contract to come out of the 'state of nature', the state of 'continual fear and danger of violent death'- as Thomas Hobbes, the sixteenth century English philosopher tells us- in which life was 'solitary, brutish and short.'
Perhaps, not much has changed since the Hobbesian 'state of nature'. And the 'social contract' helped human beings to organize themselves along lines of clan, caste, community, race and class which perhaps Hobbes never imagined of. For the march of human civilization over the centuries has been the decimation of the weak by the more powerful.
Dogville (2003) by the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is a cry of rage against the entire human civilization and against the values on which it stands. To call it anti-American would be limiting its interpretation for it applies to all of us with our pretension of sympathy and charity.
Now to the story first for many of the readers in India may never get the opportunity to meet Grace (Nicole Kidman), the beautiful fugitive who arrives in the sleepy Rocky Mountain town of Dogville in Colorado which has an abandoned silver mine and which is the end of the road. There is a valley below, we are told by the warm but ironical voice of John Hurt narrating the story. It's Depression time of 1930's America. Grace- and exuding grace all over- is being pursued by a group of gangsters. Tom, alias Thomas Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), the would-be writer of the town takes sympathy on her and helps her hide in the mine. When her pursuers arrive, he pretends ignorance. However, he is promised a handsome reward in exchange for the fugitive. The townsfolk- all good and honest, says Tom- need a bit of convincing by him before she is given shelter. She is put through a test for two weeks to prove her trustworthiness- and why not, she being an outsider! There are many who have to do it in their own town, own country all over the world!
Grace ultimately passes the test and, after two weeks, she is accepted as a full fledged member of the community. The film had earlier opened with an aerial shot and as we swoop down to what looks like a map, accompanied by the narrator, we are introduced to the characters, the residents of Dogville- the shopkeepers Gloria (Harriet Anderson) and Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), the farmer Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard), his wife, Vera (Patricia Clarkson), a retired physician Tom Edison Sr. (Philip Baker Hall). Von Trier- going against the Dogme 95 strictures of location shooting which he had co-authored- shoots the film on what looks like a soundstage. Thus how he takes us into a voyage of three straight hours with a minimalist stage- bare except for a doorframe here or a bench there. The houses have no walls, the roads and the fences demarcated with a white chalk on a black surface. The actors mime opening the door accompanied by the sound. There is a sketch of a dog on the stage and we hear it barking whenever a stranger arrives in the town. There is a mammoth screen behind, and the light and shadow behind the screen indicates day and night, and one gets the impression as though Dogville stands on the edge of the world, and beyond the town, one would slip into the universe. The acting is stylized, like in a Greek tragedy, or a Shakespearean drama with the emotion underplayed and with a distinct Brechtian sensibility.
Like his earlier film Dancer in the Dark (2000), von Trier sets this film in America, a place he has never been to, and perhaps never will, given his phobia for flying. 'But, then, they made Casablanca without actually going to Casablanca' is his reply. Or 'I daresay I know more about America from various media than the Americans did about Morocco…' Or even 'Kafka wrote his novel 'America' without actually setting foot there'.
And he claims Dogville to be the beginning of a trilogy 'USA- Land of Opportunity', the second one 'Manderlay' being already in the pipeline.
So Grace assists the townsfolk in tending the wild gooseberry bush, patiently chats with Jack, the blind old man, looks after the crippled young girl of the negro mammy, babysits and does all sorts of chores. Things go fine until one day a 'Wanted' poster is put up by the police from another town. Could she be a criminal? Though the good and honest people of Dogville realize that it's probably a ploy used by the gangsters to get Grace back, their attitude has a tectonic shift as the narrator informs us that 'Dogville has begun to bare its teeth.' And why not? There is a risk in harbouring her and so she has to oblige them. So she is asked to do more work for less pay, she is raped, the hands of the blind man Jack which used to stroke her knees affectionately now dares to move towards her thighs, the men folks visit her in the night to assert their right to violate her body.
She tries to escape, with the help of Tom (who has been a mute witness) but the truck driver, another resident of the town rapes her too and betrays her by handing over to the town. She is accused of theft, a dog's collar is put around her neck with a chain attached to a freewheel a la Carl Dreyer's Joan of Arc. Then one evening, Tom, remembering the reward, calls up the gangsters and turns her up.
This is the story of how Grace falls into disgrace. But unlike Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark where the protagonists met with violent ends, Grace- in a quirky turn of events- takes revenge on the townsfolk. Does he mean to be prophetic that the wretched of the earth will soon be empowered? Knowing von Trier's cynicism, one doubts. This will be one of the many questions- like the sketch of the dog coming to life in the end- which film critics will ponder over in the years to come.
What do we read into the film? Anti-Americanism? Yes, for von Trier sets the film in America. For one must remember the credits at the end of the film: black and white stills of dispossessed and poverty stricken farmers by Dorothea Lange with David Bowie's 'Young America' in the background. For von Trier himself says in one of his interviews: 'I would like to start a "free America" campaign because we just had a "free Iraq" campaign…I don't think that Americans are more evil than others but then I don't see them as less evil than the bandit states Mr. Bush has been talking about. I think people are more or less the same everywhere. What can I say about America? Power corrupts.'
For it comes after the arrogant statement of Mr. George Bush: 'Those who are not with us are against us' or 'It's a clash of civilizations'. Those who drove the hijacked planes into the twin towers were jealous of American civilization!
So were the Red Indians who had to be decimated in the interest of the civilization! And the African blacks who were sold, bought and transported to work in the cotton plantations for free! To create the America we see today. And the hardworking Australians we know whose hard work is based upon massacring the aborigines. This is the proud human civilization! Forgive, O Lord, for being a little inhuman and uncivilized. For the end justifies the means.
But to call 'Dogville' as anti-American is to excuse our own misdeeds, our own crimes. Does the film give us a sense of déjà vu? 'Hindu maar nahin sakta' (Hindus can't kill). Who says that? Some good and honest people like us. Who killed Graham Staines and his two sons? The enraged tribals? Who committed the genocide in Gujarat? Or, perhaps, it didn't at all happen, as Narendra Modi says in his election speech recorded by Rakesh Sharma in his 'Final Solution'. Hinduise the Muslims. Let them prove their loyalty. Every day, every hour. Like Grace. Or let them go to Pakistan. Or book them under POTA. You are at our mercy, and in exchange, you have to oblige us by making a public show of praying when India plays Pakistan. Hindus are like your elder brothers- show them respect and you will get their love.
How dare we are such self-righteously benevolent? Nice and honest, my foot. We are all dogs, nice towards our masters and pounce upon a stranger. Reconvert the tribals into Hinduism. Who is a Hindu? Dogville is a question mark on our objectivity which is relative and ahistorical. For the good and honest people that we are, we are cowards and opportunists like Tom in the film. Grace reminds me of the attacks on Biharis in Mumbai and Assam. It presents with a classic example: one advanced and, the other, as backward as Bihar. While Mumbai would never have been what it is today without the labour force of the whole nation, whenever there is an upsurge of such jingoism, the labour class is at the receiving end. And like in Dogville in which the negro mammy castigates Grace, the Assamese have done the same to the Bihari labourers who are everywhere, pushing carts to lifting our bags at railway stations for a pittance. A typical case of a victim turning into a victimizer.
Lars von Trier's Grace is an allegory who stands for the labour class of the whole world which has helped in the human civilization to prosper. But this civilization is a huge Hobbesian 'state of nature'- as brutish as it was before human beings entered into the so-called 'social contract' which has only helped us to create a Dogville of our own.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org