“Beyond Borders relies on gendered and racialised tropes of passivity vs. activity, particularly in the field of politics and international aid.”
By Anna Younes
“I often wonder, do we all know where we belong?
And if we do, in our hearts,
why do we so often know nothing about it.
There must be more to this life. A purpose for us all.
A place to belong. You were my home.
I knew from the moment I met you that night,
so many years ago …”
– Jolie’s entry scene in front of a piano at home
In many ways, this entry monologue reveals the majority of the upcoming plot to the reader. A Western, white woman, enjoying all privileges a life can offer – the piano as the stereotypical signifier for a white, bourgeois life style – living in a mansion-like house in England. Yet, she is still searching for that fulfilling “extra thing” in life that is missing. The spark of…. love.
The tagline of the movie was “In a place she didn’t belong, among people she never knew, she found a way to make a difference” (IMBD, 2003).
The following critique will detail what is wrong with the movie and how it almost unconsciously mirrors the myriad things wrong with today’s development aid and humanitarian world. It will be subdivided into different thematic aspects for better overview, although they should all be read as being intimately linked.
Background to the movie
In 2003, a movie called ‘Beyond Borders’ was released by Paramount Pictures. The move details a love story between two rather different characters. Sarah is a married, white, American upper-class woman working at an art gallery and living in England. Nick is a white, American renegade humanitarian doctor who travels the world’s most disastrous regions to save lives in the most impossible situations. Sarah and Nick’s love story plays out against the backdrop of what we commonly call the world of the “humanitarian aid” sector: war, hunger, violence and too little money to “save them all”.
Some people meet organising at picket-lines, some at university or at school. Others meet at the assembly line, and others in the zones of crisis; between life and death, where life and love become bound up in extra-high intensity. The latter is played out in “Beyond Borders”.
The film cost around $35 million in production, with filming shot in Thailand, Namibia and Canada. The box office income was around $12 million. Jolie’s “damsel-in-distress-look” — which accompanies the viewer throughout the entire movie — and Clive Owen’s choleric rage against the “West not doing enough” possibly explain why the movie itself was meagre in revenues and cinematically unsuccessful. One often wonders why Jolie’s character isn’t aware of the state of the world. One also wonders why Owen’s character curses the West for not “doing enough” when that same West are responsible for under-developing and exploiting the same often resource-rich countries.
The movie came out the same year of Angelina Jolie’s book release “Notes from My Travels – Visits with Refugees in Africa, Cambodia, Pakistan and Ecuador” (2003, Pocket Books). In this book, she writes about her experience as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Ecuador. She adopted one of her children — Cambodian-born Maddox — on her “trip” to Cambodia. The book cover shows Jolie surrounded by young, black children. It doesn’t seem to be a wild stretch to assume that Jolie — a formerly emotionally abandoned toddler and child — identifies with all those left by “humanity” to fend for themselves.
Nevertheless, according to Wikipedia, Jolie received the “Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress” nomination for her performances in this and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life”. The revenues from the book – however meagre they must have been – were donated to the UNHCR. In many ways, casting Jolie as one of the main leads in “Beyond Borders” seemed like the perfect match.
Race and white innocence
Philosopher Charles Mills defined white supremacy in his book “The Racial Contract” (1997) as being ruled by an epistemology of white ignorance. He wrote: “Thus in effect, on matters related to race, the Racial Contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localised and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.”
It is precisely in that manner that Jolie’s character moves through the world that she slowly but surely begins to understand. In fact, the entire backdrop against which the whole movie unfolds is based on a version of what Toni Morrison described as “Africanism” — a background story of Africanist persons and landscapes that merely reflect foils of white projection to tell the real story of white heroism and white struggle — next to a whole set of other geopolitical sites of white ignorance and innocence. The front story and red-thread of this misery-roller-coaster outside of the white and/or Westernised world, however, is the romantic love affair between Jolie and her lover Owens.
The characters meet for the first time when he quite literally shoves her to the ground while forcing himself — along with a half-starved, barely-clothed African boy — into a white gala ball fundraising for charity in Africa. The ball’s main poster showcases the “black-and-white” narrative as an advertisement on its charity-banner. While Jolie is shocked (and maybe a little hurt) by Owen’s entrance, Jolie has her “awakening”.
The young black boy is paraded like a commodity to prove African poverty. He wears a torn shirt and short pants in the English winter. Owen forces him to make ape-like sounds. Soon after, Owen flies into a rage at the racism of the white world — a world that refuses to grant him more money because Ethiopia is not pursuing Western political interests. While the critique of Western aid is implicit in the narrative, the staggering performance of racism through narratives of “doing good” is mind-blowing and shocking.
Eventually, both Owen and the boy are escorted out and separated. While we follow Owen in his trajectory, we eventually learn of the death of the boy as a side-note from a TV screen. We learn that he died outside in the winter cold. Seemingly, the police left him out on the street and Owen didn’t try to find him. Again, the performance of critiquing white Western racism is eclipsed in the narrative the story doesn’t tell: the boy’s death is a side-note in a larger white narrative (Owen’s and Jolie’s). We never learn how and why he died like that, why he arrived at the charity ball in only a t-shirt, and why Owen never bothered dressing him properly. Owen also doesn’t talk about it anymore. So that’s it: the death of the boy exists to illustrate a story that was seemingly never his. His story of death is also used to arouse feeling of guilt and sadness, yet without giving context to a larger structure at work (humanitarianism), which is built on said story-of-death.
Gender, death, and the mansplaining of politics and history
The story of the little black boy left to freeze to death in the British winter is not the only moment white violence is used to further humanitarian narratives. Another horrendous pictures of humanitarian violence is depicted via “black death and non-pain”. This time, a black mother of the almost-starved-to-death Ethiopian boy Angelina “saves” from a vulture, gets operated on without anaesthesia. Instead of screaming in pain or simply passing out, she is thankful to the doctors and endures — while awake — the operation. Speaking to Jolie, she justifies the behaviour of the doctors: at least they are trying to save her, given there are no other options available. Usually, in this scenario, human beings would simply pass out. Not in this movie though. It’s also interesting how the old, racist idea of black people feeling less pain than non-blacks is repeated through the trope of white humanitarianism where there are seemingly “no other options”. Black pain, again, operates as a storytelling narrative, a commodity to produce feelings and maybe produce more cash-flow for the humanitarian world.
The movie relies on gendered and racialised tropes of passivity vs. activity, particularly in the field of politics and international aid. Jolie’s character is often depicted as unknowledgeable, waiting, and as trying to understand (what is going on) through listening. In short, Jolie’s character is depicted as passive. This is especially obvious in comparison to her male opposite, played by Clive Owens. Owens’ character actively seeks out news ways to help. He circumvents corrupt aid systems, screams, and makes deals with “bad people” to provide help in time. While Owens is willing to “dance with the devil” to fulfil his mission, Jolie’s character is cautious, peaceful and often inactive.
Jolie’s passivity is highlighted when she represents the UN, which is also depicted as passive, detached from reality, and compromised by outdated romantic ethics of non-violence. Each time she lands in a new humanitarian situation, renegade Dr Owens angrily mansplains the crisis while Jolie listens. The male characters in the move die while fighting or, in the case of Owen’s best friend play by Noah Emmerich, while sparking the revolution agains the Khmer Rouge. Sure, why not — yet another narrative where a white, foreign man incites a revolution the locals seemingly aren’t capable of handling or thinking to do themselves (This is a slightly earlier version of Avatar’s white saviourism).
While the men of humanitarianism try to emancipate the Cambodian masses from their own submission with, at times, shady methods, Jolie backs off from an illegal weapon’s transport that the love of her life (Owens) organised to save lives. Jolie eventually dies following the defiant white-man rambo-humanitarian in the out-dated narrative of women dying a masochist death to make room for a new narrative to unfold. Her innocence, peacefulness (she is recurrently shocked at the violence she encounters outside of Europe) and non-knowing of politics in the countries at stake finally cost her life. Her death paradigmatically also marks the UN’s own retreat from the conflict zone (Czechnia), where only few spaces are left for UN personnel to “safely” engage the population. Jolie going rogue and not sticking to protocol thus cost her life.
Violence and the zones-of-being
At least there is a piano in the desert! The image of a piano being played in the middle of a conflict zone, and a refugee camp, where people die of starvation, is meant to show the little island of respite and refuge Europeans have whilst caring for the rest of the world. Whoever came up with that idea during the production must have either not known the world of conflict zones, or else, the producers knew it so well that the piano in the desert refugee camp was there to dramatise reality on screen. In reality, these pianos do exist in provisionary refugee camp tents, but in well-secured compounds of “security islands”. These are the “zones-of-being” Fanon described, where humanitarians and policy workers hide behind walls and barbed wire, with local security personal – usually, one of the best jobs around in the area. Next to images of poverty, death and inhumanity, the child abstractly representing “African starvation” also becomes the poster-boy for today’s charity campaigns.
The violence Jolie and Owen expose themselves to is, on one hand, a “confrontation” with the real world outside of Europe’s zones of human safety. On the other hand, it reiterates — in a performative manner — their position as masters of this world, where they are trying to “improve” a situation they seemingly have nothing to do with, at least not personally. Initial violent images of starvation, premature death or starvation “wakes them up” from a bubble where these images do not exist. But instead of trying to tear down the system and start a global anti-capitalist revolution, they aim for reform. This equates to creating little pouches of humanitarian zones-of-potential-being in the zone of non-being. Radical acts of changing the system are not expressed along political lines (i.e. anti-capitalism, new political systems, etc.), but through gendered narratives: Jolie’s constant damsel-in-distress gaze is cynically commented on as “Little Miss Bleeding Heart” by another male protagonist. It is used to infer that Jolie seemingly hasn’t come to terms with the violence that is already accepted as normal in the system and, in fact, seen as needed when the “right people” do it (corruption, weapons, smuggling of humans, letting people die to rescue others, etc.).
Additionally, while Jolie can’t stop but feel pity for the starving Ethiopian boy in the desert at the beginning of the movie, the black relief worker who picked her up finds her rescue mission “stupid.” Here, whiteness is seen as weak; an inverted role to actual real-existing global politics. Blackness, on the other hand, is portrayed as tough, realistic, and unforgiving. Blackness, as opposed to Whiteness, is portrayed for its ability to accept death and continue against all odds. Instead, Angela finds a baby in each location (except Chechnya, where she dies) mirroring her own personal life . And while Blackness can accept death in its midst as an anthropological constant, the final message Jolie’s romantic heroism conveys is that there is still time for sex and making white babies against the backdrop of starvation, death, and war – after all, what would the world be without hope for a better future via reproduction (pun intended!).
Jolie’s white female UN character ventures from political naiveté to innocent knowledge of believing in non-violence. Meanwhile, the men in the movie eventually blur the borders between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and opt for a ‘mixed-method approach’ blurring the militarism with humanitarianism.
In all this “fighting for the destitute and poor” the men don’t lose any weight – but rather the opposite – while everyone’s body-fat around them literally moves into the opposite direction. Also, here, it is questionable if the producers did that on purpose to stay close to reality, or if the actors just coincidentally gained some weight on the set.
In the end, however, even Jolie isn’t really “pure” by believing and sticking to her lover Owen, even though he strikes deals with what is ‘evil’. While Jolie’s character loses her European naiveté, the movie is shot in an almost documentary-like style and is at the end dedicated to relief workers, giving their lives for others, for things to seem as authentic as possible. How the actual relief workers – white, brown, or black – actually received this movie is still up for debate. According to the box-office of this movie, however, the movie was a flop.