Ultraviolence on Video: M.I.A.'s 'Born Free'

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>"Any resemblance to real events or people, living or dead, is not accidental. It is deliberate."

This anti-disclaimer opens Greek-French filmmaker Costa Gavras' Z (1969), a great and deeply polemical thriller that borrows liberally from the episodes of political corruption that defined late-1960s Greece. It's Gavras' keen commitment to those political truths that makes Z--which, owing to how "crazy" the Internet is, you can watch on YouTube--occasionally tedious. It is engrossing, but it doesn't have the svelte pacing that we've come to expect from these types of thrillers; it feels uncomfortable about its own fictions. It's there in that anti-disclaimer: a refusal of allegory and a reminder that audiences should chase the trail of dead right off screen, down the street, to the state house.

And now we have his son Romain Gavras, a gifted director of music videos, and his defiantly NSFW clip for M.I.A.'s "Born Free." The song itself (which I like) is further confirmation that M.I.A. isn't the radical Third World organic intellectual many admirers hoped she was/would become, regardless of how intrepid her recording studio globe-trotting or interview rhetoric might be. Such expectations were somewhat ridiculous to begin with, and "Born Free" is little more than a tantrum made sinister-sounding by the distorted heft she borrows from Suicide's "Ghost Rider." The song itself is pliable enough to be either a defense of her own life/career choices ("I don't wanna talk about money, 'cause I got it," presumably a reference to her "Born Wealthy" husband) or a moment of UDHR-set-to-music moralizing, or both. That slippery, contradictory quality is one of the reasons her music seems so thrilling, plastic-but-deep and ever timely.

Then came the video, which essentially has nothing to do with any of that.


At a recent "public conversation" I had with Arthur Jafa at the awesome Exit Art gallery about art, identity and globalization, we wondered aloud about the last truly transgressive turn in American art history. Quite a few people offered "music videos" (the correct answer: graffiti...), and it's an intriguing claim. Generally speaking, the music video is unique in the way it scrambles any notion of "intention" or artistic authenticity. Music videos--at least in the past ten or so years--exist at the intersection of two discrete, sometimes collaborative artistic visions. A video can interpret a song's descriptors faithfully but never perfectly; it can tell its own story and ignore the song altogether.

Romain Gavras' videos tend to split the difference. His video for DJ Mehdi's instrumental "Signatune" is astonishing, the track's steely propulsion championing the video's anonymous young hero, who has funneled all of his energy and faith into this one unlikely euphoric release. A loose, anarchic anger powers the gang of banlieue kids in Gavras' controversial but gripping video for Justice's "Stress." It's interesting that these videos refer to working class anxieties, from the former's theater of dreams to the latter's messy revenge fantasy, that the songs themselves never name. But Gavras' videos aren't gestures of sympathy or condescension: at the end of the "Stress" video, there's a collapsing of that safe, non-judgmental distance across which we watch. Whoever has been holding the camera and following these kids around for their ultraviolence gets stomped out, as if to suggest that Gavras himself doesn't know what to make of them. All of this makes the video for "Born Free," Gavras' first American video, so absorbing. It's not for the faint of heart.

As with Gavras the elder, this video's resemblance to real events is not accidental--and given the current immigration debates in Arizona, maybe it was not only intentional but visionary, too. It is a mesmerizing and stunningly opaque nine minutes. It is shocking and didactic, but in a vague, self-canceling way. While the "Born Free" video is clearly intending to comment on Right Now, there is a penetrating, mysterious ambivalence. I'd like to believe there is something more than just a weakly rendered allegory here, and Gavras' other videos suggest that he's much smarter than that. As the redheads--a baffling, unnecessary substitution--were rounded up and forced to sprint through a minefield, my thoughts turned toward the infamous, consciousness-shaping "General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon" photo, an image from Vietnam that often circulates divorced from its very complicated back-story. I'm not trying to advance a more sympathetic view of the gruesome "Born Free" images. Even if--in the reality of the clip, a mere fragment of a larger narrative--the redheads turned out to be far worse than we can imagine, their treatment is objectively horrific.

But what we infer as preceding or following this clip will only flatter our own, preexisting political sensibilities, just as M.I.A., whose "Born Free" hysterics now sound like manifesto, changes very few minds, she only confirms or denies what you already suspected about injustice or branding or whatever. In the end, Gavras' "Born Free," adrift from M.I.A.'s song, is merely a music video, a suggestion of a possible story, an allegory for something that did not need to allegorized, and as appropriate a use of war imagery as the evening news. In a way--and if you want to be generous--"Born Free" might be more of a comment on the visual medium itself--how we represent terror and violence, what certain images "tell" us, how our reactions dull over time, the ideas we project upon images, the prejudices that shape our viewing, etc.

How you assign the values of the allegorical cops and redheads is on you. But what we are left with is some of the most self-evidently stylized, carefully staged-shot-edited, occasionally breathtaking scenes of violence around. That sensation of perceiving these scenes as something other than violence shook me. Perhaps that's the only thing about Gavras' video that was truly "deliberate."

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.
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