Staff, Students 'Duke' It Out Over Film Festival

A year after President Bush labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "axis of evil," films from these countries have made their way into classrooms at Duke University.

"We just decided that we would put the full axis on screen and do an 'axis of evil' film festival — hence the title 'Reel Evil,'" said Negar Mottahedeh, co-organizer of the film series and a professor of literature and film at the university, located in North Carolina.

Organizers insist the film series is intended to provide students with an alternative view of the countries that have lately been playing starring roles in American nightly news coverage.

"What we are trying to do is educate the students," said Miriam Cooke, the festival’s other organizer, "to give them an opportunity to see the kind of work, cultural work, that people are doing in the countries that our government has labeled evil."

Bill English, president of the Duke Conservative Union, said the timing of the film festival basically makes it an anti-war protest.

"We have something called propaganda and that's obviously what some of these films are," English said. "They don't get to the truth of the matter. They try to gloss (over) what is going on, and horrendously going on, in these countries with a veneer of innocence. And they are, at their base, lies."

One of the films in the festival, Pulgasari, is a Godzilla-like monster film produced by North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il in 1985, using an actress and a director he kidnapped from South Korea and forced to make the movie.

The festival also includes comedies and dramas from countries that Washington has labeled "rogue nations" — Libya, Syria and Cuba.

Erin Harper, a junior at Duke, opposes war with Iraq and said the films help humanize the people who live in these nations.

"So often we demonize the countries that they’re showing the films from," she said. "But when you see the films they’re very real people, very normal representations of culture that aren’t all demonic."

Earlier this month, Duke University also hosted a lecture by Laura Whitehorn, who served 14 years in jail after being convicted in 1983 of placing a bomb in the U.S. Capitol to protest military actions in Grenada.

English said the lecture and film series reflect a pattern of politics on Duke's campus.

"You do see an enormous amount of activism from the institutions at Duke University," he said. "A lot of the same professors that 20 to 30 years ago were out picketing are now using their privileged positions as administrators and teachers to try and reinvigorate an anti-war sentiment."

When asked if the film festival is an anti-war or political statement, Cooke replied, "Well, it is political, of course it is ... Everything that anybody does in [an] educational institution is political."

Whatever people feel about the looming potential for war, the Duke community, and Americans outside, will likely continue a public debate over the issue that would not be possible in many of the countries where the films originated.