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Dystopia Now: the present reality of Children of Men

Thursday, 14 December 2017  | Karly Michelle Edgar




This year’s beautiful but disturbing Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale (based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name), inspired a lot discussion about women’s rights and the possibility of developing infertility. It made me consider other dystopian works, of which there are many, but one of my favourites is the movie Children of Men, based on a book of the same name by P.D. James. It came out in 2006 and was a huge box office flop, despite critical acclaim. It has since found its feet and its audience. I don’t think the studio knew what to do with it initially, as the dystopian genre hadn’t quite hit its stride in film the way it has now.

Children of Men immediately resonated with my dystopian fascination – a genre that explores the tension between what is now and what might be. I hadn’t read the book until this year and, while it was recognisable, it was quite a different story and so I won’t be referencing it here. And, unusually, I find I prefer the film to the book. It’s a well-made film, with a uniquely non-technological feel for a sci-fi, dystopian story. And it has some great performances by Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Clare-Hope Ashitey and, hilariously, Michael Caine.

Briefly, though, I do need to vent about the most annoying aspect of this movie - I believe it is a forerunner for worse movie title ever. It is wrong on many levels but let’s just mention the most obvious - it’s actually about the child of a woman. The father is never identified and has nothing to do with the storyline, and the mother isn’t even sure who the father is. I assume it was named using the historically common term ‘men’ in place of ‘humanity’, giving hope that humanity would survive through this child. However, I don’t feel that we should be perpetuating such non-inclusive language. There surely was another, more appropriate, alternative.

To provide a very brief plot overview, there has been worldwide infertility and a child hasn’t been born for 18 years anywhere. It is set in London, life is difficult, the class divide has widened and there is a huge refugee problem. We follow the experience of Theo who is contacted by his rebel ex-wife to help secure safe passage for a young woman to another rebel group, The Human Project. Theo isn’t entirely convinced they exist but, as he is in a unique position to secure paperwork, he agrees to help. He ends up protecting the young woman who he later discovers is pregnant. The mother (Kee), Theo’s ex-wife and the group they are with want to hide the pregnancy because they believe the government would try to use her and her baby for political gains. And huge spoilers for a movie that is over 10 years old – nearly everyone we meet in this movie dies.

Other than the title, this is a remarkably on-point film for today. You could explore a number of topics through this film – poverty, wealth and the government; technology, art and culture; hope and despair; as well as cinematic themes of colour and style, the use of documentary style and long shots, the use of symbolism and more. But what brings it to my mind at the moment is its engagement with the value of life and the treatment of refugees.

This film also has one of the most moving scenes I think I’ve ever seen. It’s near the end, and the newborn child is being carried through a raging war in a refugee slum. There are gunfire and explosions all around and people are trying to find shelter. Except when they begin to hear the cries of a disturbed newborn, the first in 18 years. Scared, unarmed refugees come out of hiding, suddenly uncaring of the danger because they simply want to see the baby. The hallway is littered with bodies, but any who are even half alive stretch out their arms towards the child. The soldiers lower their weapons, momentarily, to allow mother and child to walk by, stunned by what they are seeing. It is as though all of humanity has stopped to allow this one child to pass by. No one is quite sure how this has happened or where the baby came from, but they certainly don’t want to be responsible for killing it - even if it is a refugee baby. This baby is the living embodiment of their hope for the future. Until a bomb goes off nearby and then, once again, the war is back on and Theo and Kee rush the baby away.

This scene is a reminder that all of humanity, each one of us individually, is a miracle. This child is the first born in the world in 18 years, providing even greater amazement and surprise for everyone (especially Kee who doesn’t remember ever having seen a pregnant woman before) over her conception and birth. However, the war that temporarily ceases to allow for safe passage for the child is a war to keep the ‘fugees’ (slang for refugees) out of the United Kingdom. The battle, and the escape to safety for mother and child, is taking place within a refugee slum. Ironically, they have broken into the refugee prison to make it to safety (heard of this recent true story?). The refugee camp is out of the way of the regular folk and cities. It is a place where refugees are dumped, searched, tortured and left with nothing, forced to create their own slum society – a situation that sounds all too similar to how Australia is currently treating refugees. The ‘fugee’ camp was established because Britain didn’t want to give the impression that they will let just anyone in, no matter what situation they are fleeing. Despite being live human beings in a world where infertility has meant that no new children have been born in 18 years, their human status is of no concern because they come from somewhere else.

It may feel like an extreme example, one where a corrupt government is actively keeping its citizens, especially the rich, safe and the refugees out. A government concurrently holding contrasting beliefs regarding the worth of human beings - children good, refugees bad. But if this year has shown us anything it’s that this isn’t some dystopian, futuristic movie plot. This is the present.

Each time I watch this movie I wonder why, in a world where a child hasn’t been born in 18 years, each and every human already alive isn’t viewed as precious. Instead, what is precious to the government is maintaining control, not human dignity or even the preservation of humanity. In the world of this film, babies represent hope and the future, but adults and even older children represent possible dissenters.

What I hope this movie does is remind us of the preciousness of life. We are precious simply because we are human, because we are made in the image of God - all of us, no matter our faith, country of origin or any other number of factors. I believe this movie can help us think about the experience of others, and about what people will do to protect and help each other. Hopefully it gives us faith that there are those who will always try to do the right thing, even if it means doing difficult things or risking their own life. Hopefully it will remind us to look for God’s reflection in each and every person’s face. Hopefully it will inspire us to have the strength to be someone who can stand up for others, who can help others, in whatever way we are able.

It’s a somewhat open-ended movie because Theo doesn’t make it and it has been his story. We don’t know for sure if mother and baby make it to the boat, but we see the boat coming and there is hope that they do. There is hope that this baby turns the tide.

Karly Michelle Edgar is an artist whose work explores repetition, the desire for rest and spirituality. She loves to use and re-use old and discarded materials and believes everyone is creative. You can find more information about her work and workshops at www.karlymichelle.com.


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