I’ve just come back from watching Avatar: The Way of the Water (2022), the follow-up to James Cameron’s masterpiece, Avatar (2009). I, as I think most people, have been waiting anxiously for this movie for years. I’ve been wanting to see it since it premiered but I only managed to see it today. The truth is that I had been putting it off, cause I knew it wouldn’t be an easy movie to watch, not for me anyway, and I think (I hope) maybe not for other people as well.
To get ready to watch it, my dad and I watched the first movie last night. I love that movie, it is a wonder. I remember when I watched it for the first time at the movies, my eyes basking in all the wonderful images Cameron’s genius gave us. And yet, even though I loved it, I rarely watch it. It is too painful to watch.
It physically hurts having to watch some images, like when the Tree of Souls and the Hometree of the Na’vi are destroyed. I feel pain, anguish and outrage every time I see that. And a huge wave of grief and helplessness surges within me along with repulsion for my own race, at least in its most primitive form: the human who dehumanizes in order to kill, the human that takes and breaks and cuts and plunders, the human who’s insatiable greed and foolish ignorance blind it to what really matters, to what really has value. I know humans in real life are not so one-dimensional, they’re not all good nor all bad. But I get the message of the story. It is a story as old as time, and all the more painful for that. You can find it in fiction, in mythology, and most painful of all, in history books, all over the world. In primary school in Mexico, the history books we read told us of the Conquest of the Spaniards. As we grew up, we learned about how the Spanish came and conquered and took and raped and stole and oppressed… We all know the story, we’ve all felt the pain, and we all still live under the consequences. It took us three centuries to decolonize our country… and we are still in the process of decolonizing our minds, just like most other countries that once were ruled by a foreign empire. And yet it’s no good to point fingers… cause we’ve all been there, we’ve all been the conquered and the conqueror, we’ve all been the native and the alien. We’ve all been there, done that. And the pain remains, I can feel it. Can you? When you watch this movie or movies like this… can you feel the pain? Or you just bask in the art of its special effects, and the beauty of its music score, and in the thrill of the action… in the entertainment? Do you see it as fiction? Or do you recognize it as truth… that has happened… is happening… and if we do not wake up, if we do not change… will happen again and again, here, there… everywhere. Even on other planets (which I really hope not).
Because of all this… I was afraid to watch this new Avatar movie.
Since I was very young I became a bookworm, an avid reader devouring one book after another. My parents were always in awe of my reactions to books. When I read I have such strong bodily and emotional reactions. I have cried, I have screamed, I have laughed, I have even vomited once… because of the books that have passed through my hands and imprinted their words in my heart. For me reading is witnessing life… all of it. And I do not know another way to read than with an open heart… so I feel… everything: the joy, the pain, the sorrow, the beauty, the love, the hope, the fear, the bliss… I feel it all. For me stories are not just stories, they are truth; they are life… They do not happen to someone else, to someone who does not exist… they happen to us, they are about us. I feel them with all my being and I listen with all my heart. This is why I am careful about what I read and watch… I cannot take in too much at once. That’s why I usually avoid violent movies/books or horror films. I don’t like to put myself through that.
Both Avatar movies are pretty violent and brutal. But it’s a kind of violence that has a purpose. I hate when violence is used for mere entertainment, but even though many will find the violence in the Avatar movies entertaining… the violence is there to cause an effect on the audience. It is not gratuitous. That’s the kind of violence I can bear cause it’s there to shake us, to wake us up, to remind us of what we’ve done, of what we are capable of, of what we can do to avoid repeating the same old stories that cause so much pain and kill our world.
I wasn’t wrong about this new Avatar movie. It shook me. Even more than the first one. It’s also more violent and definitely action-packed. A friend of mine wrote to me a few days ago to tell me that he loved the new Avatar movie, that it was so good! I didn’t doubt he was right. I trusted James Cameron to make yet another masterpiece and because this one was set in the ocean I knew that, at least for me, it would be even more breathtaking than the first one. I love the forest but my heart lies with the sea, with the water, with the ocean. It’s home for me. I couldn’t wait to watch and explore Pandora’s ocean in 3D. And yet, I was right to wait a little to prepare myself… cause despite its visual beauty… this movie definitely wasn’t easy to watch.
Here come the spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the movie, stop reading now and go watch it. It’s worth it.
As expected, the humans or Sky People as the Na’vi call them, return to Pandora intending to colonize it (big sigh of disappointment). Also, the big bad coronel of the first movie comes back in this sequel in an avatar body in search of Jake Sully.
Jake and Neytiri have four children by this time and Jake’s main goal is to protect his family rather than fight the humans. In this movie, Jake is way more vulnerable and scared. He’s got a lot to lose, after all. This time when war comes knocking at his door… he chooses flight rather than fight.
They leave the Omaticaya, the Forest People, and go to the Sea People, the Metkayina, seeking refuge. They are allowed to stay and the Sully family learn their ways. As they do, the audience gets magical and breathtaking views of Pandora’s ocean. I was simply enthralled. The ocean has always felt like heaven to me, so watching those images of that pure clear water full of Pandora’s wonders was such a gift.
I am in awe of what amazing things filmmakers can do nowadays and I am grateful. Those were the parts I enjoyed immensely in this movie. I’m sure many others did too.
And as I watch Kiri (Jake and Neytiri’s adopted daughter whose real mom is Grace and whose father is unknown) connect with nature and Pandora’s deity, Eywa, I realized something. Just like the violence in these movies is not gratuitous neither are all the scenes we get of the Na’vi connecting and communing with nature. It is meant to make us feel that connection, to remember it… I believe we all still feel it deep in our bones.
Watching the Na’vi physically bond with nature has the power to remind us of the same connection that lives in all of us as organic beings. It may be dormant, but it’s there, and I’m sure that as we watched this on the big screen, it wasn’t only me who was remembering how that feels like… to become one with the world around you, to merge with Nature.
I have felt that connection many times in my life: when my heartbeat slows down and my mind quiets… when I am hugging a tree, feeling its presence, its strength and solidity that feels so reassuring under my palms and next to my cheek. I have felt it as I am free diving in the ocean and I reach the sand floor, I turn and look up to the surface meters above me… the light of the sun playing through the water, reaching me and beckoning me to the surface. I have felt it as I slightly float to the surface carried by the water, propelled by the air in my lungs that stretches the closer I get to the surface. I have felt that oneness with life, with divinity, when I am floating on the surface of the ocean and I close my eyes and I let go and I trust that it’s there with me, protecting me (It being whatever you want to call it… Life, the Universe, God, Goddess, doesn’t matter). When I’m in the ocean I’m never afraid of what is beneath me in the water nor am I afraid that the ocean would hurt me… I know it can, I respect it but I also trust it. When I am there floating in its immensity I feel cradled, like a baby in the arms of a loving mother. And I sigh in relief cause I feel it there with me and within me that Oneness, that Divine Energy, it’s all around me. I cherish those moments and I always come back to them when I need strength and courage and peace. That’s the kind of moment the Avatar films remind me of when I see the Na’vi communing with Nature, with Eywa. I hope other people feel it too, I am sure they do… cause it’s in all of us, to be alive is to be One with All That Is. So we cannot miss it… those beautiful moments in the Avatar movies are just gentle nudges and reminders of what it is to be Connected and in Oneness. They are there to move us, to touch us… to make us remember that we are not separate from our world, that we are one with the world and that if we hurt it… we are only hurting ourselves. We need reminding of that more often than we should, cause we keep forgetting, hence all the pollution and wars and crimes against Nature. It’s madness. And it’s clear that it’s only hurting ourselves and yet… we still do it.
Just like in this movie, despite the beautiful images and treasured moments of connection… we cannot escape the pain and carnage that the humans wrecked throughout Pandora. Even in the first scene when they appear, when they arrive back to Pandora, they demolish everything around them, setting fire to the forest, killing animals… and that’s just their arrival. As the movie goes on, it gets worse. One of the most painful moments for me and I hope that for other people too was when they hunt down and kill a tulkun, a Cetacean-looking creature that is peaceful and intelligent. The hunting of the tulkun is so brutal that I couldn’t help to close my eyes for most of it while I cried. I cried because the tulkun on the screen might have been a figment of Cameron’s imagination but as it screamed and wailed and hurt and died… I heard all the whales, dolphins, and all sorts of marine creatures screaming and wailing with it. This is no fiction and it’s probably happening even now as I write this in some part of the ocean. I cried cause I felt the pain, the outrage, the helplessness, and the shame of being part of a race that can do such things and worse.
Again, I know that humans are not one-dimensional. We are complex creatures, neither all good nor bad. In both Avatar movies, and especially in this one, most humans are completely dehumanized, they are true villains with no redeeming qualities. They are truly “the bad guys” of the story. And the Na’vi, the aliens, the ones that should look foreign to us as a human audience… are the heroes and we sympathise with them. We are on their side, even though as humans ourselves, throughout the movie we are all rooting for the Na’vi to win. That’s what stories do: through perspective and story they can guide the reader or the viewer to side with one character or another, to choose sides, to empathize, to put ourselves in their shoes… that’s why stories are so powerful and that’s why we need stories like this: postcolonial rewritings that tell the other side of the victor’s story, that are not about epic conquest and mighty wars fought for long-dead kings, but stories that detail the horror, the wreckage, the grief and sorrow that wars leave behind. Stories that put a mirror in front of us and ask us: is this what we are? is this who we want to be still?
The Na’vi stand for all those colonized peoples, my ancestors included. The Sky People stand for the imperialist, colonizers, and conquerors… We all know the stories. And we’ve heard both sides of the argument. “Oh, but we brought good things too”, say my European friends, “we helped those civilizations advance quicker than they would have on their own. They were worse off before we came… fighting amongst each other, doing human sacrifices and whatnot… No, no… we helped more than we hurt.” I’ve heard this a hundred times from different mouths of friends and strangers alike. I do not respond. I do not know how to. If I could balance it all on a great huge scale… the pros and cons of imperialism and colonization for colonized countries… if I could see it all in one great tapestry and somehow weigh it and determine… was it more the good than the bad? Would we have been better off if the Spanish had never come? Where would we be? What would we look like? Would I have even been born? After all, I am a mestiza, a mixed race, of European and Mesoamerican descent. I am a mixture of both worlds, I am both. I wouldn’t be me or look like me if they hadn’t come. Should I be grateful for it then? Cause, after all, my existence is the product of it all. Who knows? I cannot say. I will not say. It doesn’t matter because it’s done. The past is the past, it happened, and we are living with its effects. There are so many consequences to those events that people still live today, beneficial consequences as well as detrimental. I try to focus on the good and not resent the bad so much because I feel I would only be resenting myself, after all, the blood of our conquerors races through my veins too.
Then why… why does it hurt so much to watch these movies? Why did I spend most of the movie crying silently next to my dad whose voice also broke a little when he said: “No, not the kids. You don’t mess with the kids.” But in wars, kids get killed as well.
I sat there hearing the gunshots and the cries and the wailing coming from different speakers, all around me. It was a bit too much for me. I closed my eyes, I could hear my heart pounding and my fists were clenched as I thought to myself “no, I cannot take this anymore, not again.” I opened my eyes at that last remark and I remembered a memory that I try to never bring to the surface of my mind, it’s too painful and too strange for me to hold it as my own. But still, it’s there and it gives me an explanation so as to why I have such strong emotional and bodily reactions to these images and kinds of movies, even though it’s a wild and probably crazy explanation. Yet after I left the cinema I was shaking, I had to stop in the middle of the mall to take some air so as to stop the anxiety raising within me. I wish I could be like other people, who see a movie and feel things and are entertained and then go on with their lives as if nothing had happened. I wish I didn’t feel so much sometimes. Because after I left the cinema, the pain stayed with me for hours, and it’s here even now as I write this… it is exactly why I am writing this. This is my way to let it out.
I am going to be honest: I believe in most things since I was a child. It’s hard for me not to. It’s easier for me to believe than not to believe. So, if you are not a believer, or if you are one of those people who only believe in what they see, well, think of this as fiction then and be entertained. I envy you a little. I think sometimes my life might be easier if I didn’t believe and felt so much… but alas, this is who I am, and who I’ve always been so… here it goes:
I believe in past lives since I was a little kid. I remember once when I was very little I saw a dog being pulled from the leash harshly by her owner. I remember taking my hand to my neck and saying out loud as I winced: “That feels awful!“, “What, sweetie?” my mom asked; I pointed to the dog who was still being pulled by its neck. My father chuckled: “How do you know how it feels?“, “Because I remember,” was all I said. My parents looked at each other quizzically, but then they smiled and shrugged. They always knew I was a strange kid, they never made any mean comments or asked me to be normal (those were my other relative’s jobs haha). My parents always loved me for my weirdness and for who I am. It was such a relief not to have to explain myself, and having their total acceptance and unconditional love has allowed me to be myself always, unapologetically and lovingly. Now, I don’t know for sure if I was a dog in a past life or not, I suspect so, but it doesn’t even matter. I just know how it feels to be pulled by the neck by that, I remember that painful sensation. How? Who knows? It doesn’t really matter to me. I don’t care much about the science or the logistics behind reincarnation. I don’t need explanations to believe… I just do. That’s how I’ve always been.
My sister knows it, too. When we were little I used to tell her that I had been burned as a witch once. She never paid my comments much mind and she never questioned me. Like my parents, she loves me for who I am and doesn’t need me to explain myself. She just lets me be. But she did get a little freaked out when a friend of hers who didn’t know me and stated was a psychic told her that her sister (that being me) had been a witch and burnt as one in a past life. I remember she came into my room that night and told me what her friend had said. I was sleepy and all I managed to say was: I told you so, and went back to sleep. Nevertheless, for me, saying I had been a dog or a witch was like a game, I had feelings and dreams that felt like memories but I didn’t like to dwell too much on them. The truth is that because I believe in a lot of things I am wary of many things too, I don’t like to go too deep into mysticism or things like that… it scares me cause it feels real… so I try to stay clear of that… my only constant doors to other dimensions and realms have been books. The covers of books are the only doorways I am willing to open into other worlds. No psychedelics for me thank you, no drugs of any kind, no mushrooms, no visits to the local chamanas… Only libraries and bookshops and movies for me thank you, that’s enough. And pen and paper. Writing is a doorway I was willing to use as well… until something happened to me a few years ago that thrust me into Wonderland without a warning. Suddenly, all the things that used to be part of books, made of ink and paper, became all too real… and because of that all too scary. That event is so scary that I still don’t dare write about it, maybe one day I will but not today. Suffice it to say that it scared the hell out of me… I ended up in the hospital for weeks, unable to do most things humans should. My recovery took years.
I learned the physical reasons for what happened to me, but there was another dimension to the event that scared me more and that I needed to understand. I decided to search for answers and when science and medicine couldn’t give me those answers… Then I did turn to the shamans and healers for the first time in my life. I had already listened to the doctors and the lab coats, now I needed the other type of healers, the ones that believed. That’s how I ended up befriending an African shaman who to this day remains a dear friend in my heart though he is no longer on this plane. Through our conversations, I learnt so much and he gave me the answers and peace I needed in order to move on with my life. He helped me in many regards and taught me many things… or rather, he helped me remember many things. Among those things was one very painful memory.
We were in his place where he did his readings and rituals, we were talking about healing and how there are some people who’ve come to this world to work as healers. I told him I had always been scared to be a healer, in whatever way. He nodded understandingly. And then he helped me remember a past life I always wished was just a figment of my imagination. But the details were all too real and clear. As I sat there with him, my eyes closed, my palms sweating, I saw a village being set on fire, I saw children and women and men getting killed on the spot, I heard their cries, I felt their pain and their anguish. Then I saw me, or the woman I had been, being tied up, called a “bruja” by the colonizers, though for the people in the village I had been a healer, a medicine woman. I saw that woman, old and wrinkled and proud being tied up and set on fire. I didn’t feel the flames though, my soul left the body before that. I saw all this, heard all this, and felt the pain in my stomach… knowing it had already happened and that I couldn’t change any of it (and no, I hadn’t taken any psychedelics or mushrooms or the like). My friend, the shaman, simply guided me through the memory and comforted me after it was done and I cried. It didn’t matter if it had been real or not, the pain I felt was. It was the same pain I felt as I watched the Avatar movies and it doesn’t matter if that was me in a past life or not… it doesn’t matter if I made it all up in my mind… that pain is a collective pain that has been carried down through generations, it lives in us and it’s in need of healing… even to this day, for the people living in the 21st century. We carry that pain within us, as a collective. We do not need to go to a past life to connect with that pain… it’s still too close. And yet, we repeat it. And if humans found another planet that could hold us… would they not repeat it again? Will this story be a never-ending one, always repeating itself in different settings with different characters in movies and books and real life? I hope not. We better not.
Because we’ve all been there. We’ve all been on all sides of it. In the past life my friend showed me I was the witch that burnt at the stake, I was the woman who couldn’t protect her people and couldn’t fulfil her mission so she had to go back to the same country centuries later to keep healing… that was one life. In another one, I might have been not the witch that burnt but the one who did the burning, not the native whose land is ravished but the conqueror whose greed guides him… I may have yielded the sword and shed the blood… We’ve been both, we’ve been all. We are all because ultimately we are all one, and to hurt each other is to hurt ourselves. There is only one of us in the room, playing different roles. Sometimes we are the villain, sometimes the victim, and sometimes the hero. It would be fun… if not for the pain; because unlike a play where the actors use props or a movie where scenes are shot against a green screen, life feels real and the pain cuts too deep, and the blood is too red, and the grief lasts too long. I don’t want to keep playing this game. I wonder how much longer we will keep it up, how much longer the Matrix will hold… I want us all to wake up together and ascend to a lighter dimension. Hasn’t there been enough pain? I think there has been. More than enough. We could stop it right now if we wanted to hard enough. I hope we do. Soon.
Thank you, James Cameron and everyone involved in making these movies for helping us to remember, for nudging us, for reminding us. I see you.