A Lamp That Sheds No Light
Commentary by Willy E. Gutman
Fourth in a series.
"O, time, suspend your flight, reality be gone; step right up to the dreamscape, the magic lamp is on…"
It’s an ancient incantation, but the spell works like a charm. Take the animated movie, "Aladdin," which I watched recently on DVD. Based loosely on "The Arabian Nights," a collection of tales, love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems and Muslim religious legends, the film traces the rags-to-riches antics of an impoverished young ne’er-do-well in a mythical, exotic realm.
Aided by hindsight and sensitized by experience, I had quickly realized on my first screening in 1992 that no sooner out of the ink bottle than into the bank, with millions of dollars yet to be conjured from video rights, T-shirts and toys, mugs, coloring books and cereals, and who knows what else that will make people part with their money. In an age of impoverished imagination and waning originality, there is nothing like a great old story warmed-over to conceal a dearth of ideas.
Such artifice would be easily shrugged off, were it not for the fact that in reinventing Aladdin, the street child, Hollywood missed the golden opportunity to speak out on life in the street, to explore with realism and empathy the consequences of an unenviable destiny shared today by more than 100 million children around the globe. It settled instead on a cartoon version of a fairy tale, complete with heroes who invariably triumph over mean but strangely lovable villains.
When fact clashes with set perceptions or deep-rooted sensibilities, Hollywood will not hesitate to bury the truth. The celluloid Aladdin is the street child we can all safely love. Half-imp, half-angel, resourceful, generous, articulate, spirited and awfully cute, he is the freshly scrubbed, born-again, two-dimensional idealization of childhood denied and innocence undone, the colorized, glamorized, sanitized alter-ego of real boys and girls who live in fear and often die a brutal death, every one of them an unknown soldier in an army of young castaways.
If Aladdin’s re-creators cannot be accused of deliberate deception, they are guilty of inspiring sham sympathy and coy apathy, and of granting private hypocrisy a public forum. Offered an escape from reality, the child in us all easily surrenders to fantasy. Willing participants, we are lulled back to that wondrous, carefree time when the world was new and safe, when life was forever.
Myth obviates memory. It anesthetizes reason. Mercifully, it silences the truth.
Fiction also trivializes fact. There is no romance in the life of street children, only pain and hopelessness, hunger and fear, disease and death. Real street children do not sport beguiling smiles. They are prone to misbehave. They often stink. All could use a bath.
But under the grime, the air of defiance or the crushing indifference their feverish eyes convey, there is a child, scared, vulnerable, far too young to taste life’s bitter medicine, yet incurably old before his time.
In the ghostly twilight world of street children, there are no magic lamps to rub, no benevolent, turbaned genies, no flying carpets, no protective amulets, no healing philters; only evil spirits lurking, stalking easy prey. Unlike Aladdin, street children do not amass fame and fortune, and no fairy prince or princess will marry them in the end. Most never leave the streets. Many don’t reach adulthood. Disease, hunger, drugs and bullets often cut their lives short.
As I watched the cartoon, I remembered a particularly bloody year in Guatemala when at least 50 homeless children were "eliminated" in an unrelenting government-inspired, police-led campaign of extermination. A year later, uniformed men in a Jeep with tinted windows kidnapped eight street children from a downtown neighborhood.
The bodies of three of the boys were soon found. All bore the messages carved in the unmistakable idiom of vigilante justice. Their ears had been sliced off; their eyes burned out. And in a traditional warning against "snitching," their tongues had been carved out. The other five boys were never found. Their tormentors are still at large.
Hopefully, they died quickly. But that’s not always the way things happen in Central America – not for street kids, the vulnerable, the voiceless, the pariahs, the nonconformists, the meddlesome journalists or the dissidents. For them is reserved a special kind of inhumanity that draws its power – and immunity – from the top echelons of government and from widespread popular unconcern.
Aladdin is a charming cartoon, a real cinematographic tour de force. Its fundamental weakness is that it teaches no real lesson. Worse, it allows a compliant public easily charmed by the antics of a two-dimensional character to turn a blind eye to the flesh-and-blood orphans of a human family in disarray. In so doing, Aladdin fails his own kind and, ultimately, himself. Where important values are at stake, entertainment is simply not enough.
A lamp must focus on the truth, or it sheds no light at all.
Willy E. Gutman of Tehachapi is a veteran journalist on assignment in Central America since 1991. His column reflects his own views, and not necessarily those of The Signal.