On April 4, 1984, Winston Smith (John Hurt) pulled a hidden journal from between the bricks of his government-sanctioned room and committed a “thought crime:” He wrote an entry that spoke of independent thought. On April 4, 2017, almost 200 theatres globally screened “1984” — Michael Radford’s film adaptation of the George Orwell novel — in communal resistance to present-day authoritarianism that threatens free thought and expression. In particular, these theaters want to vehemently denounce the possible defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts, including our very own Rialto Cinemas in Elmwood.
Radford’s “1984” was shot between April and June of 1984 — the precise period in which Orwell’s novel was meant to take place. The film begins with a familiar image: hundreds of heads turned en masse toward a colossal screen emblazoned with an outdated but ubiquitous image of O’Brien (Richard Burton) — Oceania’s tyrannical leader and the film’s antagonist. They stand attentive as he tells them, “This is our land,” a frighteningly familiar message, along with, “These are our people.”
O’Brien has mastered the weaponization of ideology and exclusionary nationalism. He seems no less manipulative, but much more intelligent than a very familiar leader — who, for many, appears authoritarian. If you need more convincing that there’s a parallel between President Donald Trump and this film’s antagonist, they both vilify and eliminate their critics. (Remember when the White House blocked CNN, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times from a press briefing?) In fact, O’Brien’s regime takes the condemnation of independent journalism one step further: There is none. All of Oceania’s news comes from the government or is censored by the government.
This is precisely the role of Winston Smith, the protagonist: He is charged with rewriting headlines that demonstrate the government’s ineffectiveness and constructing new ones that cast a more favorable light. Anyone who reads the headlines and questions how the government can say it is working properly while citizens is emaciated, surveilled constantly, unable to express a single critical thought and either eliminated or brainwashed. It’s them who must be crazy, right? It’s gas lighting, and the Trump administration is guilty of it, too.
Kellyanne Conway, as counselor to the president, invented a terrorist attack that never occurred to push a political agenda that has incited further racism against the Middle East. Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s exaggeration of attendance at the inauguration catalyzed the term “alternative facts,” which Conway introduced to defend Spicer’s blatant lies during a press briefing. When journalists and news organizations are discredited, the people are forced to turn to the government for information — but what happens when the government is spewing falsities? Distraction. By casting doubt on the validity of news organizations and repeatedly lying about current affairs, the Trump administration — similar to the government in the film — seemingly distracts from the inadequacy, disrespect, racism, xenophobia, misogyny and scapegoating it has been accused of, as well as from serious international affairs. Alongside history, “1984” teaches us that self-aggrandizing heads of state lead toward dystopian destruction.
Winston’s role as a pseudo-journalist is complicated by the constant reduction of words available to him: The government is chipping away at the dictionary. While constructing false realities, brainwashing the masses and attempting to erase history, O’Brien’s regime is also depleting the language available to its citizenry.
In Winston’s reality, as well as our own, the policing of bodies — particularly those of women and immigrants — abounds. The authoritarian regime of Oceania aims to “eradicate the orgasm” so that people might become less attached to one another as individuals and more dedicated to the collective. In Oceania, people hardly refer to one another by name (that would acknowledge their independent identities) and instead ubiquitously refer to one another as “brother” or “sister.” Women’s bodies are particularly crucial to sexual policing, as they are the “vessels” for reproduction, and therefore, women must take vows of celibacy.
Sound familiar? That’s because it parallels conversations around reproductive health and justice, such as the threats to defund Planned Parenthood, despite the fact that it provides paramount resources such as access to birth control, cancer screenings, HIV testing and abortions. Thankfully, there are activists (some of whom are students at UC Berkeley) defending such access. In the film, as well as throughout history, oppressive governments have policed the minds and bodies of their citizens to maintain and accumulate power.
Another tactic for acquiring authoritarian power in “1984” is the erasure of history — both after it has happened and as it is taking place. It’s the idea that a leader can make a claim and then go back and say, “I did not — I did not — I do not say that.” Both O’Brien and Trump use immigrants as scapegoats for their country’s woes and mobilize a fear of “invasion.” Both O’Brien and Trump displace blame and cultivate hysteria around other political figures — O’Brien to Emmanuel Goldstein and Trump to former president Barack Obama. Trump has blamed Obama for the crisis in Syria, as well as protests against the new administration’s policies, and has made baseless claims that Obama wiretapped him.
Needless to say, there are more than a few unsettling similarities between the two. Orwell’s novel and Radford’s film suggest that memory provides a path toward resistance. If our personal memories can keep us human and help us empathize, then historical memory prevents the erasure of institutional wrongdoing and injustice.
“1984” centers on a desolate dystopia, where ideologies are alarmingly familiar to the state of our federal government. If Trump is going to eradicate creative resources while he weaponizes nationalism and vilifies journalists — when the pillars of this country are free expression and it identifies as a land of immigrants — we may find ourselves asking: Was there ever a time when this seemed abnormal or impossible?
Contact Sophie-Marie Prime at [email protected].