Ridley Scott cast the commercially “safe” Christian Bale in a leader role in Exodus.
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Why Ridley Scott is wrong to say films with non-white stars won’t get financed

This is Ridley Scott we are talking about. He’s a superstar director. If anyone is a position to challenge Hollywood’s prejudices, it’s him.

Ridley Scott has snapped back. Following months of criticism about his casting of white actors in the main roles for Exodus: Gods and Kings, his upcoming film about Moses and Egypt, he gave a somewhat testy response in an interview with Variety. “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such”, he insisted. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

At first glance, Scott seems to be correct that a film with a relatively unknown lead is an impossible sell – even if “Mohammad so-and-so” seems jarringly dismissive – yet he should more closely interrogate his motives and capacity for making such a film. First, there is his capacity. This is Ridley Scott we are talking about, one of the few superstar directors whose name on a billboard creates the same anticipation as any leading actor or actress. Scott’s Prometheus was exciting not primarily because of the casting of Guy Pearce, Noomi Rapace or Michael Fassbender, but because the brilliant mind behind Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator was at the helm. It is entirely possible that, given his status, he could create a platform for young, outstanding yet undiscovered actors. Scott may feel entitled to hold up his hands and say that the system is bigger than him, that he is merely subject to his whims.

It is then, however, that we move to his motives. Scott’s primary intention appears not to be the realistic ethnic representation of his new venture: it is to boost the bottom line. Looking at the last few blockbusters he has made, it is clear why he is very mindful of money. Since Gladiator, whose outlay of about $100m produced takings of just over $450m at the box office, his films have generally produced returns that are more solid than spectacular. To take the last three prior to Prometheus, there is 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven (investment $130m for a return of $211m), 2007’s American Gangster ($100m for $266m) and 2010’s Robin Hood ($155m for $322m). Prometheus itself returned $403m on an investment of between $120-130m, which again was a good result – particularly in an era when piracy is rife – but which pales in comparison with the takings of Christopher Nolan’s biggest films.

From this perspective, there may be some sympathy with Scott’s desire to make conservative casting choices, giving Christian Bale, the star of the Dark Knight trilogy, the leading role as Moses. But Scott’s argument that “big names mean big takings” doesn’t hold weight when we view the example of James Cameron’s Avatar. Here, Cameron chose to build a $237m-budget film around Sam Worthington, who up to that point had almost no experience at this level, and was certainly not a name whom most people would have recognised. Cameron, too, made a worldwide search for someone to play the part he eventually gave Worthington. For Scott, in his own words, such a search was out of the question. It’s not that he couldn’t have made a financial success out of casting a Egyptian actor in the lead role, or even one of Middle Eastern appearance. It’s not that he didn’t unsuccessfully use his leverage to produce a cast that viewers in Egypt would recognise as representing themselves. It’s that he simply couldn’t be bothered to try.

Why does this matter? Well, it matters if you are remotely concerned with diversity, in an industry where “only 11 per cent of films cast an ethnic minority actor in a lead role while ethnic minority actors made up just 10 per cent of the cast in the majority of movies”. It matters if you’re willing to provide access for future stars like Chiwetel Ejiofor or Denzel Washington, both of whom Scott cast once they were safely commercially viable. What’s sad here is that an opportunity – potentially a lucrative one – has been missed to give a young actor from an under-served part of the entertainment community the breakthrough role that they need. Once an outsider to the industry himself, having grown up in Newcastle before going south to London and then eventually onto Hollywood, Scott should know the need for that breakthrough more than anyone else. Sadly, with Exodus, he has failed to heed it.

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The “Yolocaust” project conflates hate with foolish but innocent acts of joy

A montage of selfies taken at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial layered above images of concentration camps risks shutting visitors out of respectful commemoration.

Ten years ago I visited Berlin for the first time. It was a cold and overcast day – the kind of grey that encourages melancholy. When my friends and I came across the city’s Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of over 2,000 concrete slabs, we refrained from taking photos of each other exploring the site. “Might it be disrespectful?” asked one of my non-Jewish (and usually outrageously extroverted) friends. Yes, probably, a bit, we concluded, and moved softly and slowly on through the Memorial’s narrow alleys.

But not all days are gloomy, even in Berlin. And not all visitors to the Memorial had the same reaction as us.

A photo project called “Yolocaust” has collected together images of the Memorial and selfies taken there that young people from around the world have posted to Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and Grindr. In the 12 photos featured on the website, one man juggles pink balls, a girl does yoga atop a pillar, another practises a handstand against a slab’s base. The last of these is tagged “#flexiblegirl #circus #summer”.

Most of the images seem more brainless than abusive. But the implication seems to be that such behaviour risks sliding into insult – a fear all too painfully embodied in the first image of the series: a shot of two guys leaping between pillars with the tag-line: “Jumping on dead Jews @ Holocaust Memorial.”

Grim doesn’t begin to cover it, but the artist who collated the photos has thought up a clever device for retribution. As your cursor scrolls or hovers over each photo, a second image is then revealed beneath. These hidden black-and-white photographs of the Holocaust show countless emaciated bodies laid out in mass graves, or piled up against walls.

Even though they are familiar for those who learned about the Nazi concentration camps at school, these historic scenes are still too terrible and I cannot look at them for more than a few seconds before something in my chest seizes up. In fact, it’s only on second glance that I see the artist has also super-imposed the jumping men into the dead bodies – so that their sickening metaphor “jumping on dead Jews” is now made to appear actual.

The result is a powerful montage, and its message is an important one: that goofy, ill-considered behaviour at such sites is disrespectful, if not worse. Just take the woman who urinated on a British war memorial, or the attack on a Holocaust memorial in Hungary.

But while desecration and hate should not be tolerated anywhere, especially not at memorials, does juggling fall into the same category?

I can’t help but feel that the Yolocaust project is unfair to many of the contemporary subjects featured. After all, this is not Auschwitz but the centre of a modern city. If public-space memorials are intended to be inhabited, then surely they invite use not just as places for contemplation, grieving and reflection but also for being thankful for your life and your city on a sunny day?

The Memorial in Berlin is clearly designed to be walked in and around.  Even the architect, Peter Eisenman, has been reported saying he wants visitors to behave freely at the site – with children playing between the pillars and families picnicking on its fringes.

So how do we determine what is offensive behaviour and what is not?

A section at the bottom of the Yolocaust website also suggests (in rather sarcastic tones) that there are no prescriptions on how visitors should behave, “at a site that marks the death of 6 million people”. Though in fact a code of conduct on the memorial’s website lists the following as not permitted: loud noise, jumping from slab to slab, dogs or pets, bicycles, smoking and alcohol.

Only one of Yolocaust’s 12 photos breaks this code: the first and only explicitly insulting image of the jumping men. Another six show people climbing or sitting atop the pillars but most of these are a world away in tone from the jumpers.

The blurb at the bottom of the webpage says that the project intends to explore “our commemorative culture”. But by treating the image of the yoga performer – with an accompanying montage of her balancing amid dead bodies – in the same way as the jumping men, the artist seems to conflate the two.

In fact, the girl practising a yoga balance could be seen as a hopeful – if overtly cutesy and hipster – act of reverence. “Yoga is connection with everything around us,” says her tag beneath. And even if climbing the slabs is frowned upon by some, it could also be read as an act of joy, something to cherish when faced with such a dark history.

In an era when populist German politicians are using the past – and sentiment towards Holocaust memorials themselves – to rev up anti-immigrant, nationalist feeling, the need for careful and inclusive readings of the role of memorials in our society has never been greater.

Yolocaust may have intended to provide a space for reflection on our commemorative behaviour but the result feels worryingly sensationalist, if not censorious. Instead of inviting others in to the act of respectful commemoration, has it risked shutting people out?

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.