Thursday, April 28, 2005

Interpreting the UN

The current movie the Interpreter has drawn some harsh criticism from the right as a propaganda piece for the UN. Some of this is justified, some is not.

I'll cover the parts that are not justified first because it is shorter. The movie originally centered on a fictional Arab country and was changed to a fictional African country to avoid politics. This is a minor quibble since Africa is less stable than the Arabian peninsula.

The other complaint is about an act of terrorism. Again, the complaint is that currently Islamists are the leading exporter of terror in the world but this act is performed by Africans. Again, it is really a minor quibble since this is actually an assassination attempt, not an act or random terrorism.

In order to cover what the movie got wrong, I have to go over the basic plot. A UN translator, Silvia Broome happens to overhead a bit of an assassination plot. In a major coincidence, the plot is directed at the ruler of her native country, Matobo, and she is the only interpreter at the UN who speaks its native Kos dialect.

Matobo is ruled by Dr. Zuwanie, originally a liberator but now as corrupt as the people he overthrew decades earlier. Zuwanie is about to be brought before the ICC (International Criminal Court) over something. He is hoping to avoid this by announcing open elections during an address to the UN.

This is where the movie shows the UN as we would like it to be, not as it is. We never quit hear what the ICC is going to charge Zuwanie with. He is brutal and has arranged for the assassination of political rivals but it is hard to believe that this would be acceptable as long as he holds open elections.

Matobo is modeled after Zimbabwe which also has former colonial roots (lily white Silvia is descended from English planters) and a brutal dictator. How does the UN treat Zimbabwe? They make it part of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

This is an example of the disconnect between UN supporters and detractors. The supporters see the UN as a fledgling world government, acting as a check on nationalistic power of nations including brutal dictatorships and the United States. Detractors see a dictator who has killed 20,000 political opponents being given a seat on the Human Rights Commission and suggest that the UN has no moral authority to judge the US.

Is it a fatal flaw in The Interpreter? It depends on how much you are willing to suspend disbelief. There are so many amazing coincidences in the movie that a minor thing like this passes under most people's radar. On the other hand, without the threat of the ICC, Zuwanie would have no need to come to New York nor woud the rest of the plot be needed.

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