"We’ve been with James Cameron for a long time."

Conversation with a Na’vi

By Roy Daniels

On Christmas last year, within eight days of its release, I had seen ‘Avatar’ three times in 3D at the Ambience Mall in Guragon, India, once with good friends and my goddaughter, once alone, and the third time with my son. On Christmas day, I noticed the same kid was cutting tickets, so taking a chance I told my son, “Watch this.” When the kid looked up to give me directions, his eyes grew wide and he said, “Third time, sir!”

I was sure that James Cameron was going to beat the box office receipts of  ‘Titanic’, something he said he was not 100 per cent sure of. He expected it to do well in the longer run. I expected it to do well worldwide in the short, middle, long run, and rerun. So, instead of talking to Cameron about the immediate success of the film, I decided to talk to a Na’vi.


Me            How long have you been around?

The Na’vi            We’ve been with James Cameron for a long time. Since ‘The Abyss’. He says 1994, but we have been rattling around in his head for a long time. He’s been sketching Pandora, detailing the details, for as long as I can remember. Cameron was the kind of kid who looking at the stars one day met his first alien. The alien told him very gently, “Take me to your leader.” Cameron replied much more forcefully, “You’re talking to him.”

Me            Has your story been well told?

The Na’vi            Stories are heard many, many times before it is decided if they have been well told. But, yes, in the fourth telling we believe it has been adequately told.

Me            The fourth telling?

The Na’vi            Absolutely. It’s like the Ramayana’s many tellings. First, Jake Sully told the story to his log. Then, his log told it to the Na’vi. He and the Na’vi then told the story to James. James then told it to hundreds of people who worked on the story and the film, including Jackson, who did The Lord, and finally they shared it with you. In Pandora, like you narrated your great stories in the past, we do it around the campfire. James’ challenge was to light millions of small fires, in dark halls, behind millions of dark glasses. Homer was blind they say but he would have said, “Nice.”

Me            Some people believe that: Every age produces its own sort of fables, and our age seems to have produced The White Messiah Fable . . .

The Na’vi            ‘Avatar’ is part of the work which is James’ story telling, which is part of a larger body of work you call science fiction. SF is not really concerned with color, race, religion, and country. In these stories the aliens are usually of one color, countries have broken down, religions are either absent or are more spiritual—like the older ones India practices, corporations have become more powerful and essentials like air, food, water, trees, and fresh air are in short supply. ‘The Illustrated Man’ shows you his tattoos and tells you SF stories. ‘Soylent Green’ is people. The apes control the planet in ‘Planet of the Apes’. Space and time travel are passé. The machines have risen and are killing humans or Blade Runners are terminating androids. In a conflict, SF normally puts earth as a collective entity versus another world or versus a problem inherent in itself. The genre allows creators to get away from the stifling confines of stereotypes.

In ‘I Am Legend’, Will Smith actually gives his own blood in a vial to a survivor. He then sacrifices his life so that the carrier of the vial can escape to ensure the continuation of the species on earth. That’s as close to the Jesus story as you can get. Giving your blood to save the world. So what would you call it, The Black Messiah Fable or the New White Messiah Fable preformed by a token black? ‘Avatar’ is not about color, it’s just another SF ‘on the brink of total annihilation’ story. David Brooks, who wrote an article about ‘Avatar’, is probably not a big SF or mythology fan. In James’ SF stories you normally leave race, color, religion, and country behind. And thank Eywa, he is not a storyteller who believes in token blacks.

Race does come up in SF now and then. My favorite racial discrimination story is about the Wub. 

Me            What’s the Wub? 

The Na’vi            It first appears in a Philip Dick very short, short story, ‘Beyond Lies the Wub’.

Me            What’s it about?

The Na’vi            A spacecraft runs out of fresh meat and makes a stop to collect live stuff. A Wub is part of the collection. No one’s seen a Wub before. The captain, Franco, believes it’s a pig, a huge, dirty pig, maybe a filthy razorback (Australian). They decide to eat it. There is a small problem, however: the Wub speaks. He’s quite intelligent, actually. He tells them that he belongs to a very old race. He talks about philosophy and myths and asks them not to eat him. He believes Odysseus is a myth common to most self-conscious races. He finds it very interesting that the captain is obsessed with the idea of eating him. It also perplexes him. If he lived long enough surely he would have started discussing Dostoevsky. The crew is reluctant, but Captain Franco (a play on the French maybe and their ability to eat all sorts of things) kills it and eats it.

That’s the most racial story I’ve heard. It takes Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ to a whole new level. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus sometimes hate, rape, and kill one another, but here you are actually eating the other person.

Me            Have you ever run into a Wub?

The Na’vi            No one on Pandora has. If you run into one I would advise you not to eat it. An Avatar is a genetically engineered hybrid of human DNA mixed with the DNA of the natives of Pandora. In the Avatar Program, human ‘drivers’ have their consciousness linked to an Avatar. It’s pretty hi tech stuff, told as James always does, fast and SF. But in Philip Dick’s story the transformation is very scary. As soon as the lowbrow Captain Franco takes a bite of the Wub, and swallows, he continues where the Wub was interrupted and begins talking about Odysseus and mythology. He becomes the Wub. Basically, the Captain had a problem. The Wub could see him; he could not see the Wub. That’s why at Pandora we say, “I see you.”

Me            So you don’t believe, as David Brooks does, that the story, ‘Avatar’, “…rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades.”

The Na’vi            All this “White” talk is old fashioned. Actually China, or maybe India (if China splits into many countries, like the USSR did after the arrival of some sort of democracy), will be the dominant power in the 2100s and it will also be desperate for energy sources and the champion of predatorial strip mining. So what if the source sells for two million dollars a kilo. The company, RDA, and its ex-soldier mercenaries may very well be hired by the Chinese. Then it would be the White Slave Messiah story. If Cameron had wanted to be absolutely realistic he would have had a bunch of Chinese descending on Pandora. Blue versus yellow. Lots of work for the CG people. And then we would have, what? The 22nd century Yellow Messiah story? Unfortunately, it would have been a B grade film. B Grade, Grindhouse.

Of course, people would say it’s racial; China would ban the film. All the web sites that even mentioned the word ‘Avatar’ and all computer networked CG studios even vaguely related to ‘Avatar’ from the USA to New Zealand would contract viruses and crash.

Me            There is another possibility. Jake Sully mentions that he saw action with First Recon in Nigeria and Venezuela. Maybe China was defeated there.

The Na’vi            You wish.

Me            A lot of connections are being made to films like ‘Dances with Wolves’. This film is being referred to as a part of Cameron’s larger self-insertion strategy.

The Na’vi            The American people have a great amount of guilt about the way the early and not-so-early settlers dealt with the indigenous people of the continent. Some of the ways they appease that guilt is to make films like the one you mentioned and other bloodier ones like ‘Soldier Blue’. It’s creditable that Americans allow their worst stories to be told. Another even more effective way they have, to get rid of guilt, is to pay out large sums of money in damages.

Broadly, when Britain ruled the world, the concept was called ‘Going Native’. A Lawrence in his beloved Arabia, Gordon in the Sudan. When you wage war against a people or have imperialistic ambitions you go native to ensure victory. You begin to see things through the eyes of the native, walk in his shoes, experience his trials and tribulations, understand what he fears, reveres, likes, hates. You then use all this knowledge to destroy him. This is the typical ‘Going Native’ avatar. You become the Trojan horse. The problem arises when the person going native begins to believe in his adopted world more that his old one . . . and does not return.

In the old days one also had to make sure you were not in a  ‘I got F***ed White Messiah Fable’. Lord Jim deserting his ship. ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ losing his head. Gordon Pasha’s dying in Khartoum or even worse, from Joseph Conrad again, Marlon Brando finally reduced to muttering in the dense Cambodian jungles of ‘Apocalypse Now’: “The horror . . . the horror.”

On your planet the so-called aboriginal in America and Australia were destroyed and no avatars helped. More important, Mother Nature itself did not rise to help them. Making films like ‘Dances with Wolves’ and ‘Australia’ helps assuage the guilt. But in ‘Avatar’, fantasy rules supreme and the good guys win. That’s why you went to see it three times. James is telling you a story you were longing to hear.

Pandora’s story is about indigenous people. The head of RDA on Pandora says that shareholders don’t like it when the indigenous are killed but they like it even less when they make losses in any given quarter. In India you have many tribal societies and groups of indigenous peoples. Just show them Pandora’s story in a language they can understand and they will say, “This is my story.” They will tell you that no one respects their beliefs and practices, their sacred forests, trees, rivers, streams, mountains, animals, and, most important, their memory experience.

Way back in 1854, Chief Seattle replied to President Franklin Pierce’s offer of a reservation in exchange for Indian land with words the Na’vi can certainly use: “Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.”

And later: “We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horses, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crest, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man, all belong to the same family.

Now, he may have said this or he may not have. But chiefs like presidents have their speechwriters. And, in any case, it sounds like something an American Indian chief should say.

If we had given Hometree and its unobtainium to RDA, we would have finally been reduced to cigar store Indians and finally owners of Pandora treetop casinos. Sure, the indigenous people may one day be vanquished, but don’t expect them to leave with a wave, a smile, and a whimper.

Me            The American Indians should have had someone who could have united the tribes.

The Na’vi            Absolutely, the Avatar Driver, Jake Sully united the tribes in Pandora. David Lean’s Lawrence tried to do it in Arabia but failed. In Peter Jackson’s ‘Tolkien’ films, the beacons are lit, the elves come to the aid of Rohan, even the Dead fulfill their oaths. When the tribes unite, it’s always stirring stuff and true heroes are required to make it happen. The king has to return. While all the people of Pandora can access their world’s neural network, the clans were not united at the time of this story. There are hundreds of clans in Pandora.

Me            What clan are you from?

The Na’vi            I am from the Omaticaya clan. And what clan are you from? I know you are form India. It has a sweet sound to it, like the very linguistic essence of the word indigenous. What clan are you from?

Me            I am from an area called Kerala, a Syrian Christian from the Adapanamkandathil clan.

Talking about indigenous people, Nageshwar Patnaik reports in the Economic Times that the Dongria Kondh tribals, numbering just 6,000, living in the Kalahandi district of Orissa in India are opposing mining in the Niyamgiri hills because they believe it “…will lead to massive deforestation, destruction of local ecosystems, and undermine water sources in the two rivers Vansadahara and the Nagavali—and 36 springs. The hills are considered sacred by the indigenous community.”

Interestingly, reports indicate that someone there has asked Cameron to send them an Avatar.

The Na’vi            The Pandora story has echoes in many hills, forests, and waters, in the past and in the future. But the air in India is thick with avatars. You don’t really need one from Pandora.

Me            You make indigenous people appear to be the most peaceful people, but bloodshed is not alien to them. The American Indians for instance had murderous conflicts between tribes . . .

The Na’vi            That’s the imperialistic excuse for conquest. The colonial reason for colonization: “Look at these thieving, ungodly, murderous, flee bitten, dirty, uneducated people. They need help, they need governance.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It gets easier to say these things to people like the Na’vi, an intelligent race, but humanoid and with a neolithic society.

Me            The filmmaker who gave Cameron the Best Director award at the film journalists awards ceremony directed a very subtle dose of the same argument. The indigenous population in ‘Apocalypto’ are so barbarous with their own people that when you see the Europeans arriving in the final sequence, you’re thinking, “What could these good men do to the indigenous that they haven’t already done to themselves, far more brutally than even I can do?” Cortes and Pizzaro even with their ‘rivers of blood’ almost appear to be a welcome relief. 

The Na’vi            Mel Gibson is an interesting person.

Me            What about this unobtainium stuff? People are saying it’s childish, ‘hilarious’.

The Na’vi            Unobtainium, derived from “unobtainable” +  “ium” (the suffix for a number of metal elements) closely resembles the systematic element name for undiscovered elements that have an atomic number of 100-199. Engineers, at least from the 1950s have used it while referring to unusual or costly materials. In the SF film ‘The Core’, a scientist uses it to power a craft that drills to the earth’s core. He says the real name has 36 syllables. It’s also there in Larry Niven’s SF novel ‘Ringworld’.

The Na’vi too didn’t know what it was but we were being killed for it, so we checked Wikipedia. It’s there.

Me            Recently, the ‘memory experience’ of one Joel Stein created a stir among people of Indian origin in the United States. He moaned in Time magazine about how the character of his hometown, Edison, New Jersey, had changed after a lot of ‘dot heads’ arrived there. He also made a joke whether ‘dot heads’ was “the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.”

The Navi            I read that. I don’t know if you know about the Lenape, which means ‘the people’. The Na’vi also means ‘the people’. The Lenape were also known as the Lenni Lenape, the ‘true people’. They were arbitrarily renamed the ‘Delaware Indians’. Before the Europeans arrived the Lenape lived in what is now New Jersey. Stein says, “I never knew how a bunch of people half a world away chose a random town in New Jersey to populate.” Stein has stolen the thoughts of the Lenape and all the other indigenous people of America; he wonders, “Did we accidently keep numbering our parkway exits all the way to Mumbai?” The American tribes also used to wonder in long meetings:  “Did we accidentally build wigwams in England, France, and the Netherlands? Did our forefathers hunt for buffalo in Europe and by mistake invite one of these idiots to visit us?”

Don’t worry about Joel Stein making fun of your gods. They did the same with the original people of New Jersey. And they are still doing it in the year . . . . on Pandora. It’s the new Abrahaminical religions. They spent more than 2000 years killing each other and when they tire of the killing and are washing away the blood, they make fun of other religions especially the ones they branded pagan.

Me            George Lucas was influenced by Joseph Campbell. He says that the Star Wars story was shaped in part by ideas described in ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. He says: “It was very eerie because in reading ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’  I began to realize that my first draft of ‘Star Wars’ was following classic motifs . . . so I modified my next draft. . . .” Was Cameron also influenced by Campbell?

The Na’vi            Campbell’s book is like a map, a treasure map. It tells you how the hero of folklore and mythology gets from the beginning of the story to the end. Like any good map of a well-travelled area, you could be following it on your journey, absolutely or loosely, without ever having seen it.

Campbell appears to be describing Jake Sully’s journey when he says: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won.”

Me            Campbell tells us that although the hero has exceptional gifts, he also suffers from a symbolic deficiency. He has lost something he has to regain.

The Na’vi            That’s right. In our story the hero has lost the use of his legs, the ability to walk. He recovers this as the story unfolds.

Me            It’s stimulating comparing Campbell’s journey of the Hero with Jake Sully’s, like ticking off the landmarks as they go by on a treasure map.

The Na’vi            Absolutely. For instance, in the first stage we have: 1) The Call to Adventure; 2) Refusal of the Call; 3) Supernatural Aid; 4) The Crossing of the First Threshold; and 5) The Belly of the Whale.

We know that Sully gets The Call because his brother, who was supposed to be the Avatar Driver, dies. He does not refuse The Call. We now have Supernatural Aid and the Crossing of the First Threshold. In Cameron’s story we can say they are fused. When the Na’vi Neytiri first sees Jake, she draws her bow to kill him but a Woodspirit gently settles on the arrow. “I was going to kill him but there was a sign from Eywa,”she tells her father. So, because of supernatural intervention, she saves Jake instead of killing him.

Me            And the defeat and the subduing of the Viperwolfs is The Crossing of the First Threshold?

The Na.vi            It appears so.

Me            In one example of Threshold Guardians, Campbell describes the Hottentots’ legendary monster as “a hunter of men, whom it tears to shreds with cruel teeth as long as fingers. The creature is said to hunt in packs.”  The Viperwolfs could definitely be the First Threshold.

The Na’vi            For storytellers, story retellers, and story listeners it would be stimulating to do the ‘Avatar’ and ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ together.

Me            Cameron will definitely have to return to the story because in the third and final stage Campbell tells us we have: 1) Refusal to Return; 2) The Magic Flight; 3) Rescue from Without; 4) The Crossing of the Return Threshold; 5) Master of Two Worlds; and 6) Freedom to Live.

Jake Sully refuses to return at the end of ‘Avatar’, so we have to see more of him soon. The story yet has to be told.

The Na’vi            Of course. You can’t have stories without an end of some sort.

Me            So, will Jake be The Master of Two Worlds?

The Na’vi            Why don’t we let the story decide?

Me            We’ll talk again.

The Na’vi            We surely will.


The End

© Roy Daniels September 2010

The views expressed in the above article are those of the author

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