The Null Device
Last night, I visited the local video library a rather good one in Stoke Newington Church St., which has a lot of art-house/foreign films) and rented a copy of C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America.
This is a mockumentary, presenting an alternate history in which the slave-holding South, rather than the abolitionist North, won the American Civil War, and formed what we know as America. It presents this history from the Civil War (in which the South managed to get British and French support for its cause, in the interest of "private property rights"), through the reconstruction (in which the values of the slave-holders are imposed on the North, successfully, and all non-whites become slaves), wars of conquest across South America (forming a "tropical empire", of the sort envisioned by Confederate leaders, governed under a policy of racial "apartness"), through to the present day CSA. The documentary is framed as an imported British documentary being presented on a CSA TV channel; it is preceded by a disclaimer as to its "controversial nature" and interspersed with ads, which shed some light on life in an early-21st-century Confederate America; these include advertisements for cable-TV slave-shopping programmes and electronic tracking bracelets, Cops-style TV programmes about federal agents hunting down runaway slaves, and public-service announcements urging citizens to beware of the disease of homosexuality and report suspected racially-impure people passing as white to the government.
What does the C.S.A. circa 2004 look like? Well, people with any non-white blood are, by law, slaves, Christianity is the state religion (generously, and narrowly, allowing Catholicism to be considered Christian), women are not allowed to vote, Jews are confined to Long Island, and there is a cold war with "Red Canada", which harbours abolitionist "terrorists" and is the home of rock'n'roll and "race music". (Canada is not alone; virtually everyone but South Africa has imposed sanctions on the C.S.A.) Those are the obvious and spectacular differences; on a more subtle level, the C.S.A. is a much more conformistic and authoritarian culture. The mindset which allows ordinary people, who see themselves as good and decent, to tolerate and participate in slavery is one in which society is organised along strong chains of authority and hierarchy, which are seen as part of the order of nature. (One example of this is in an ad early in the film, for an insurance company, which mentions that the father is "master of the house".) With acceptance of arbitrary authority comes the acceptance of beliefs on the basis of faith in authority, and unsurprisingly, the values of the religious right are dominant in the C.S.A. (in one scene, there is a shot of the front page of "CSA Today", which includes a story about scientists disproving evolution). Not surprisingly, this mindset and the focus on "purity" creates a stagnant, homogeneous culture, one seeming in some ways quaintly archaic (one example is music and entertainment programming on its television stations, where, of course, all black influences are banned). Quoting from a friend, it is Pleasantville meets Triumph Of The Will.
C.S.A. has its lighter moments as well; artistic licence is employed to ensure that the history doesn't diverge too wildly from the world we know, but instead parallels it, mirroring and counterpointing. For example, the C.S.A. enters World War 2 after launching a surprise attack on a Japanese naval base; John F. Kennedy is assassinated, right on cue, for having suspected abolitionist sympathies, and the Clinton sex scandal is echoed, quote for quote, in the investigation into a politician's racial make-up.
All in all, C.S.A. was quite an interesting and thought-provoking film, and is worth a look.