(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas’s iconic universe. In this edition: The Interpreters.)
If there is one thing certain about the escapism offered by Star Wars, it’s that it hasn’t exactly been escapism. It’s always been inherently political. George Lucas has often remarked about how the original trilogy cast the United States as the the aggressive, evil Empire and how it was all a metaphor for the Vietnam War. The Rebels were the freedom fighters staving off the colonialist meddling of American aggression.
The prequel trilogy doubled down on this. Characters were named to resemble men in the Senate: Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, and Chris Dodd all became Nute Gunray and Lott Dodd, the mouthpieces of the greedy Trade Federation. The prequel trilogy explored the decay of a Republic and the way the best of intentions can lead into tyranny. When the sequel trilogy came about, J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan took the themes even further, showing us how fascism can return with even more fervor and less rationality.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story fits in there, too. And we’ll talk about one film in particular that aligns with its politics: a PBS Independent Lens documentary called The Interpreters.
The Politics of Rogue One
Rogue One is a complicated film. In some ways, it’s about the ethics of losing yourself to violence in order to bring about peace. What is that violence worth? In some ways, Cassian Andor and Anakin Skywalker have a lot in common. Both have to straddle a line between good and evil to affect an outcome that they hope will make the galaxy a better place.
Caught in the middle of the conflict on both sides are many people who have to make compromises with themselves to survive.
This is where Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook comes in. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Ahmed said of his research into the character:
“It is tricky to find real-world equivalents to Star Wars characters, but having said that, sci-fi always reflects back to real-world events and situations, so the idea of collaborating with an occupying force that’s occupying your home country or planet or home city, to earn a living is one that, sadly, [there are] plentiful examples around us in this day and age.”
It’s a complicated place to exist and one that asks a very difficult question. How far can we judge good people who are forced to do questionable things because of the reality of their situation? This question is raised in A New Hope in small ways that aren’t terribly well-explored. But Luke initially sees service with the Empire as the only way to escape the boredom and poverty of his plight. This is very much the attitude of many good folks who had no other path through their lives as they sought to sign up for the Vietnam War. Military service for an Empire like the United States has long been a lifeline for those in poverty struggling to escape it.
But what about a character like Bodhi? That’s where a film like The Interpreters comes in.
The Interpreters is an hour-long documentary that follows the story of a number of English language interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan. These men needed work and were willing to throw their lot in with the American forces, making them targets in their home country.
What choice did they have?
As the film progresses, we learn that each of these men has sacrificed more than they thought in their service to the American military. Promises are made that they’ll be able to get visas to escape the war from their homeland and come to the promised land of America. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Navigating the bureaucracy and racism inherent in the system proves to be maddening as they have to work to keep their anonymity so their families can remain safe.
“A friend of mine is actually executive-producing a documentary called The Interpreters,” Ahmed said in that same Harper’s Bazaar interview, “[It’s] about Afghan and Iraqi translators working for the American Army and the tremendous contribution they make to the war effort, but also the tremendous risks they face for those choices. That was an interesting insight.”
This is very much a dilemma Bodhi Rook faces, both with Saw Gerera’s group and with the Senators of the Alliance to Restore the Republic. The racism that some of the interpreters in the film face in the United States mirrors the distrust Bodhi receives in the briefing scene. The senators voting to risk everything they’ve built don’t want to trust the word of “one of them” because of the choices he’s had to make in order to survive.
Ultimately, like so many of those interpreters, Bodhi is forced to sacrifice his life.
The Interpreters is tense, well-made drama of a documentary that does what all good documentaries should. It presents a dilemma that makes you feel informed, but it frustrates and angers you in a way that will hopefully spur action on your part. The United States failed each of the interpreters in some way and refuses to even count those who were murdered waiting for visas to escape the countries they called home. The personalities are all likable and engaging, and that makes their plights even more frustrating. You’ll laugh and be heartbroken through the course of watching the film.
It’s difficult to look at Star Wars and documentaries like the Interpreters and think that your country is the evil Empire – we always want to be the heroes of our own story. But Star Wars always reflects the ways in which we can rise up and resist in the best ways. Bodhi reminds us of this in Rogue One. “Your father,” Bodhi tells Jyn Erso, “he said I could get right by myself. He said I could make it right if I was brave enough to listen to what was in my heart. To do something about it.”
In these dark times we’re living through, the messages of both Star Wars and documentaries like The Interpreters are more important than ever. And, like Bodhi, if we’re brave enough and listen to what’s in our hearts, we’ll do something about the evil in the galaxy, too.
The Interpreters is currently streaming for free with an Amazon Prime account. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is available to stream on Disney+.
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