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Origin spotlights the 'banality of evil' - and we're seeing it today in Gaza

As Israel's war on the Palestinian people produces a litany of daily horrors, Ava DuVernay's latest movie examines the universal principle that underpins genocidal violence
Director Ava DuVernay attends the photo call for the film 'Origin' in competition at the 80th Venice Film Festival, 6 September 2023 (Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane)

Ava DuVernay’s latest film, Origin, opens with a question: if you were alive in 1939 in Germany, amid the rise of Hitler and fascism, would you be a conscientious objector who refused to make a Nazi salute? Or would you be like the majority, a complicit bystander to dehumanisation, exploitation and even genocide?

This immediately reminded me of the message US airman Aaron Bushnell posted on Facebook, just hours before self-immolating outside the Israeli embassy in Washington to protest Israel’s genocidal campaign against the Palestinian people.

He wrote: “Many of us like to ask ourselves, ‘What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?’ The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.”  

Bushnell’s extreme disavowal of American complicity in Israel’s onslaught on Gaza was a reminder to us all that silence and inaction in the face of violence enables the very systems upon which it is built.

In the context of rising authoritarianism and far-right politics around the globe - from the likely re-election of former US President Donald Trump, a man who has consistently stoked racial tensions, to the gains made by far-right parties in Europe in recent decades - DuVernay’s call to check our moral compass feels urgent and necessary. But she doesn’t stop there.

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In her unique, genre-shattering style that blends documentary and narrative, she urges viewers to delve deeper. Is what we think of as “racism” actually about “race”, which is itself a construct? Or is it about a more universal form of social stratification and exclusion?

The film is based on the bestselling book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, who argues that when it comes to race and caste, they “can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste.” 

Confronting complicity

From Nazi Germany to India via the US, DuVernay takes us on a world tour of social stratification. Through striking dramatised reconstructions of real events, viewers are pushed to confront their own complicity in different forms of social hierarchy and the policing of “caste” boundaries. 

In one scene, a young African American child is prohibited from swimming with his white classmates at a public pool. He watches them play from behind a fence, in a profoundly disturbing sequence where the symbolic violence of exclusion and indifference is condoned by parents, teachers and pool attendants, who dare not “rock the boat”. 

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DuVernay draws parallels between those ascribed as lower-caste at various points in history - including Jews, African Americans and India’s Dalits - to remind us that these “castes” can be found throughout the world, including in present-day Israel, where Palestinians live under an apartheid system. 

As the world watches Palestinian children starve behind a fence while not wanting to “rock the boat”, the parallels are striking.

The “banality of evil”, to quote Hannah Arendt, is alive and well in most people’s unwillingness to directly challenge the boundaries of caste, even when they intuitively sense injustice. In Origin, the tortured memories of a white classmate who stayed silent, despite sensing wrongdoing, are a reminder that our conscience carries its own penance. 

At a time when the future feels particularly bleak, DuVernay provides the visual challenge we need to start confronting the hierarchies within

By framing race as a form of caste that operates universally, DuVernay is able to explore the ways in which caste was applied to Jewish people in World War II to denigrate their humanity and justify the genocide against them, while refuting any sense of exceptionalism.

Caste allows us to view the Holocaust in relation to other forms of caste-based violence and grasp the universal principle such horrors render bare: the acceptance of unequal, often violent and exploitative treatment of “others”, in contrast to how we treat “our own”, and the socially accepted narratives that uphold this system. 

The universality of the caste system provides grounds for both despair and hope. Can such a universally identified phenomenon ever be truly banished? But that same universality also suggests that somewhere, beyond these harmful social constructs, lies a common humanity - a rallying point and a call for rehumanising the “other”, wherever we are. This has rarely felt more urgent.

Origin is a bold, cinematic, educational and provocative film. Its bravery and transparency are among its most endearing qualities. The only question left unanswered for me is the “why”: Castes are universally created to justify hierarchies of haves and have-nots, but why do we require such hierarchies, and is there an alternative model? 

At a time when the future feels particularly bleak, DuVernay provides the visual challenge we need to start confronting the hierarchies within. Perhaps it’s up to us now to figure out the alternative. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Myriam François is a Franco-British journalist, broadcaster and writer with a focus on current affairs, France and the Middle East. She is also a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London and tweets @MyriamFrancoisC
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