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Oscars 2024: Jonathan Glazer and the need to divest from US film over Gaza

'The Zone of Interest' director was the only Oscar-winner to speak out about Israel's war on Gaza. Film has long been part of America's imperial arsenal - it is time to break free of it
Jonathan Glazer onstage receiving his Academy Award for 'The Zone of Interest', 10 March 2024 (Kevin Winter/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

Jonathan Glazer was trembling as he denounced the instrumentalisation of Jewishness in the name of killing. 

Some or all of these factors may have been playing on his mind: the Oscars are watched by millions around the world; every artist who has spoken out about the ongoing war on Gaza has attracted vicious opprobrium or suffered professional consequences; the ceremony takes place in the United States, an active participant in the slaughter and a hostile environment for anyone who seeks to speak out about what Israel is doing.

Also: he was alone. Alone among the prizewinners at the Academy Awards on Sunday to express even the meekest form of solidarity with Gaza, as the deaths continue to pile up. He was alone in speaking out, and yet next to him were James Wilson and Len Blavatnik, producers of Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, which evokes with a sickly, eerie dread the idyllic life of Rudolf Hoss, commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and his family.

Blavatnik, a Jewish British-American billionaire who was raised in Russia and made his fortune there after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is reportedly close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is a longtime contributor to Israeli causes. A major donor to both Oxford and Harvard universities, he was not consulted by Glazer about the speech.

To anybody with the merest grip on current events, the sight of the Oscars grabbing headlines amidst the continuing crisis caused a kind of whiplash. How could the red carpet parade, this celebration of stardom and glamour, be happening? 

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This all contributed to the pervading sense that the awards felt especially incongruous this year because of the way they promote American cultural imperialism. The US empire has started to crumble in front of our very eyes - in so many videos of its warmongers being heckled during talks at universities and festivals; in repeated debunkings of the double standards and propaganda advanced by its leaders - but here, blithely, in full last days of Rome style, was a further expression of US hegemony of old.  

US soft power

The Oscars and Hollywood are closely connected to American imperialism. They are not just a facet of it, they further it, both actively and passively. As a form of soft power, the US entertainment industry helps to convince the western world that we are all, in a way, American.

We are encouraged to believe that their dream is our dream, their wars our wars, and their president is the world’s president. Year after year, the Oscars giddily promote the lie, which everybody knows to be a lie, that the year’s best films are all, somehow, American - and that the greatest honour for a “foreign language” filmmaker (Bong Joon-ho, Justine Triet) might be to win a big gold American prize, no matter that both of them have already won a Palme d’Or, a far greater distinction in terms of cinema. 

The dominance of American cinema is now seemingly accepted by all. To many critics and film industry workers, film means essentially American film.

It’s this blurring that allowed American critics and filmmakers last year to pick a “new canon” of Black cinema that only featured a tiny handful of non-US films.

When the New Yorker film critic Richard Brody picked the “best performances of the century so far” in 2021, by a wild coincidence 25 out of 30 performances were by an American or in an American film. Time magazine’s “performances of the year” list usually picks somewhere between 70 and 90 percent American actors. 

Bong Joon-ho mocked this tendency in 2021 when he said, at the Golden Globes: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Of course - and I’m sure director Bong knows this - the problem isn’t so much kids who can’t read good, as it is kids who are uninterested in different cultures, and programmers, distributors, and festivals that are reliant on the financial traction of US film. 

Beyond the soft power they represent, the Oscars function as a feather in the cap of American film, which not-so-subtly vehicles propaganda for American militarism. As journalist and screenwriter David Sirota noted back in 2011, the US military works closely with Hollywood, going right back to the very first Oscar-winning film, 1927’s Wings, which it helped produce.

The fall of America, and of the myth of the West as a uniquely democratic force for good in the world, will necessarily entail a concomitant shift in the arts industries

Since that article was written, the Pentagon’s involvement in cinema has only increased, with an amped-up presence in the billion-dollar Marvel franchise, which promotes a broadly positive, historically inaccurate image of the US military in return for the use of military assets.

Each branch of the military has its own entertainment liaison office in Los Angeles. The Navy cooperated with the makers of the box office hit Top Gun 2, in return for the right to “weave in key talking points” - about as naked an admission of propaganda as possible. 

American film culture, then, is deeply enmeshed in US imperialism, and this is without even getting into the much wider question of the way American cinema promulgates white supremacy. The attacks on Gaza attest to this, in the way they render non-white victims of US-backed bombing faceless and nameless. 

All of this made the Oscars an especially queasy sight this year, on top of the more routine distaste of celebrity imperviousness. Some actors wore a red pin in support of the group Artists4Ceasefire; Swann Arlaud and Milo Machado-Graner, of Anatomy of a Fall, took the rather less ambiguous route of wearing a Palestinian flag pin. 

Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Youssef, of Poor Things, shouted out Gaza on the red carpet. Beyond this, silence - apart from Glazer, bravely confronting the problem head-on, to a predictable chorus of hawkish disapproval from elders who associate their Jewishness with Zionism. No wonder he was shaking. 

Boycott Hollywood

How, then, do we divest from the Oscars? The war on Gaza has brought the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement renewed attention as a way of fighting back against Israel, the US, and other complicit entities: what would it look like to withdraw our custom from this billion-dollar American industry? 

A boycott of Eurovision is already gaining traction in the wake of its platforming of an Israeli act referencing the Hamas-led 7 October attacks. A similar boycott of the Oscars might have been a good start in protesting US cultural supremacism. 

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Divesting from American film would be an enormous undertaking, so thoroughly is it implanted in our collective psyche and so huge is its financial reach. As a freelance film journalist, I know all too well that the easy money lies in reviewing and discussing American cinema and in interviewing American stars. 

At Cannes Film Festival last year, I didn’t get to review a number of my favourite films, including the Vietnamese Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell and the Georgian Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry: the number of clicks for those pieces won’t pay my rent.

I am also, as a cinephile and a zombie of the western world, deeply invested in American culture, both the good and the bad. I understand the difficulty of withdrawing from American film. 

The fall of America, and the myth of the West as a uniquely democratic force for good in the world, will necessarily entail a concomitant shift in the arts industries, enabling radically different stories to be told across diverse cultures, rather than grafting skin-deep "diversity" onto blockbuster movies.

But until then, those of us whose eyes have been opened in recent months to the desperate, wicked machinations of the US and its allies, may start looking to map out another culture for ourselves. 

Caspar Salmon is a culture journalist, author and broadcaster who has contributed to The Guardian, the BBC, Prospect, The New Statesman, GQ and Sight & Sound, among others.
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