August 04, 2012

Whitewashing in Quantum of Solace

When Quantum of Solace, the latest James Bond film, came out in 2008, I commented on its plot and production. Recently I finally watched it, so I can talk about it in more detail.

The plot revolves around the overthrow of the Bolivian government. Bolivia's Indians make a few minor appearances, but the plot is implicitly about them. That makes it fair game for my blog.

[* spoiler alert *]

The plot

To be specific, the plot revolves around Dominic Greene, a phony eco-philanthropist who's secretly head of Quantum, a global crime syndicate. His latest scheme is to overthrow the Bolivian government and restore a brutal general to power. All he wants in return is a supposedly worthless parcel of desert land.

In reality, he's amassed 60% of Bolivia's water supply under the land. When the general is in charge, Greene plans to charge him an exorbitant rate to continue supplying Bolivia's water. Because that's apparently easier than earning money the old-fashioned way.

Okay, this is kind of the standard comic-book plot seen in old Bond movies. In those days, it was Goldfinger trying to corner the gold market. Now it's Greene trying to corner the water market.

But these days we expect more sophisticated plots--or at least I do. Quantum of Solace has several major problems that make it a mediocre Bond movie.

First, Bolivia is headed by Evo Morales, a popular and democratically elected Aymara Indian. With his pro-indigenous, anti-capitalist agenda, he's a player in regional and even world politics.

The idea of overthrowing his government without massive international repercussions is flatly ridiculous. A Bolivian coup would play out roughly as the recently turmoil in Egypt or Syria has. There would be massive riots, troops trying to keep the peace, diplomats trying to broker a solution, constant media coverage, etc.

Bolivia isn't some sleepy backwater Latin "republic" in the mid-20th century. Morales has made it a showcase for government based on indigenous rights. Which means it's in the world's spotlight.

Cornering the water supply

Greene's plan to corner Bolivia's water supply is equally ridiculous. Bond falls into a sinkhole and discovers an underground dam that's created a huge reservoir of water. He surmises that there's a whole network of dams corralling the water.

Never mind that Bolivia is a country of high plains and mountains. That much of its water comes from glacier melt. Let's assume that there are indeed underground aquifers within easy reach.

So Greene's plan is to dam this underground water? Building a dam is a colossal effort requiring millions of man-hours, mega-tons of equipment, a transportation network, international financing, etc. Between spy satellites and local observers, there's no way Greene could build even a single oil derrick without everyone's knowing it. Building a series of dams would be a hundred or a thousand times more difficult.

And underground dams? Even harder. I'm not aware that manmade underground dams even exist, yet Greene has secretly built several of them.

Tying the two points together, Greene meets with the general to sign agreements. First, to put the general in power; second, to charge him for the water under the land he just acquired. Hello? As far as the movie is concerned, the Evo Morales government is still in power. There's been no hint of an actual coup. The general has no authority to 1) give away Bolivian land or 2) sign utility agreements for water. He's a disgruntled nobody, not the head of state.

The water-privatization plot supposedly was based on the 2000 Cochabamba protests in Bolivia. But the reality of these protests shows how superficial the movie is:The Cochabamba protests of 2000, also known as the Cochabamba Water War, were a series of protests that took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia's third largest city, between December 1999 and April 2000 in response to the privatisation of the city's municipal water supply company Semapa. The new firm, Aguas del Tunari–a joint venture involving Bechtel and Suez Lyonaise–was required to invest in construction of long-envisioned dam (a priority of Mayor Manfred Reyes Villa), so they dramatically raised water rates. Protests, largely organized through the Coordinadora in Defense of Water and Life, a community coalition, erupted in January, February, and April, culminating in tens of thousands marching downtown and battling police. One civilian, Victor Hugo Daza was killed. On April 10, the national government reached an agreement with the Coordinadora to reverse the privatization. A complaint filed by foreign investors was resolved by agreement in January 2006.The key points are the people's awareness of what was going on and the large-scale protests against it. No way does something like this happen in secret anymore. If they ever did, indigenous people no longer bow down to their colonial "masters."

The missing Indians

The Aymara Indians are most notable by their absence. Bolivia is something like 60% Aymara, but there are no obvious Indians in the initial Bolivian scenes. Quantum's version of the Bolivian capital La Paz is white and bland enough to be any European city.

Eventually we get three scenes featuring the Aymara. First, Bond walks to an Aymara village where the well is conspicuously running dry. Second, back in La Paz, a saloon is suddenly full of Indian types, and a couple are shown in the streets. This is a notable change from the previous Aymara-free scenes.

Finally, Bond leaves Camille, the latest Bond girl, in what looks like an Aymara town. The only residents appear to be Aymara, anyway.

Note: Quantum of Solace was filmed in Panama and Mexico. I presume these Indians are Panamanian. But they wear Aymara-style clothing and look reasonably authentic.

And about that Bond girl: Camille is a member of the Bolivian secret service. Her father worked for the corrupt general, and the general killed her family. She could be an immigrant, but all this plus her brown skin and her return to the Aymara town implies she's a Bolivian native.

But, she's played by Olga Kurylenko, who looks like an exotic Caucasian, not an Indian. In fact, she's Ukrainian:Olga Kurylenko was born in Berdyansk, Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union). Her father, Konstantin, is Ukrainian, and her mother, Marina Alyabusheva, is an art teacher of Russian and Belarusian descent, who was born in Irkutsk Oblast, Russia.Okay, let's forget about using a Native actress. That would be too much to ask for. But what about the thousands of talented Latinas who could've played a Bolivian agent?

Quantum's producers supposedly conducted "extensive casting searches for a Latina actress from South America." Great, but what about Latina actresses from North or Central America? Not to mention Native actresses?

Kurylenko supposedly got the job because she was the only one who seemed "comfortable" doing action scenes with Daniel Craig. Uh-huh, sure. In other words, the producers were more comfortable with a hot Euro-model type than someone who could look and act Bolivian.

So Quantum of Solace whitewashes the complexity of Bolivian politics. It whitewashes the indigenous Bolivian populace. It whitewashes the female character who should, by all rights, be an Indian or at least a Latina.

Not the best Bond

As for the rest of the movie, Roger Moore summed it up well, saying Craig was a "damn good Bond but the film as a whole, there was a bit too much flash cutting [and] it was just like a commercial of the action. There didn't seem to be any geography and you were wondering what the hell was going on."

I agree. I could follow perhaps 80% of the plot and 80% of the action. Like a trailer, it was chopped into pieces so you couldn't follow it more closely. I guess this is a trend in action films: to cover up your lack of special-effects money or skill with a collage of confusing shots. Whatever the reason, it's inferior filmmaking.

Quantum of Solace isn't as good as Casino Royale or other Bond films. Because of all the action sequences, though, it's moderately entertaining. Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.


dmarks said...

How did you like 007 walking through CGI flames without being burned or bothered by smoke or heat?

dmarks said...

"Bolivia isn't some sleepy backwater Latin "republic" in the mid-20th century. Morales has made it a showcase for government based on indigenous rights. Which means it's in the world's spotlight."

He also has a tendency toward ham-handed fascism. See the Coke ban.

Rob said...

I could've written a posting several times longer if I wanted to go through all the minor flaws.

I was bothered more by Bond's approach to the hideaway. It's in the middle of an empty desert...but they've built it next to a hill so someone can sneak up to, then duck around, the full-length windows? Ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

The Native population (including both full and mixed folks) of Bolivia is closer to 85%. Of that 55% are solely either Quechua (30%) or Aymara (25%) another 30% or so are Mestizos or mixed. Leaving 15% or so of european descent.. of european descent also happens to be the make up of nearly all of the upper class in Bolivia. In such, the Ukrainian actress could very well represent what type of person who would be given the specialized training to be a "Bolivian secret agent"... After all it takes money to provide. Anyways I wish they actually filmed in Bolivia (i.e. Blackthorn (2011)), which would allow them to include more of the Indigenous soul that the country has.

As for the Coke ban, that was taken out of context. Bolivia isn't banning Coke. They were just pumping up Mocochinchi, a local soda company they're trying to promote.