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Profiting from genocide, Disney’s ‘Mulan’ ignores lessons from the Holocaust

In 1944, the Theresienstadt concentration camp underwent a beautification.

Living quarters improved. Gardens appeared. A school was established. When representatives of the Danish and International Red Cross came to inspect the camp — a step the Nazis believed essential to securing Denmark and Sweden’s continued compliance — they were pleased. Maurice Rossel, the ICRC’s representative, called the camp’s occupants “privileged Jews.” The Nazis, also pleased, amped up their propaganda campaign, producing a film depicting Theresienstadt as an idyll. In it, “residents” of the camp milked cows, played soccer and sculpted to a soundtrack of boisterous classical music, including the can-can. After the film was completed, most of the cast was deported to Auschwitz. They followed the footsteps of Theresienstadt’s elderly, infirm and disabled prisoners, who had been deemed unfit to appear in the propaganda efforts, and sent to the death camp before Rossel and his companions visited.

The Red Cross visit to Theresienstadt is one of the most telling moments in the history of global efforts to address genocide. Rather than assist the Nazis’ victims, the mission sanitized the Nazis’ crimes: It let the countries that professed concern over the treatment of Europe’s Jews turn away from the facts of the Holocaust, all while convincing themselves they had done what was necessary and proper. The Nazis’ canny ploy — make the international community feel effective, and they’ll let you get away with whatever you want — has been mimicked time and again: By the Bosnian Serbs who convinced the U.N. in 1995 that if they could just have Srebrenica, where they proceeded to massacre 8,000 Muslim men and boys, there would be peace; by Rwanda’s Hutu government, which welcomed a U.N. peacekeeping force under the pretense of seeking peace with Tutsi rebels in 1993, less than a year before it nearly eliminated the entire Tutsi population.

And now, it’s been revived, in a new way, by Disney’s much-hyped live-action adaptation of “Mulan.”

The film, released on September 4 on Disney Plus for those willing to shell out an extra $29.99 — it becomes free on the platform in December — was controversial long before it premiered, largely due to lead actress Liu Yifei’s professed opposition to the pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong. But once it became available, audiences discovered something much more alarming than Yifei’s stance: The film was partially shot in Xinjiang — the province where the Chinese government has imprisoned close to two million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps — in 2018, when the campaign against the Uighurs was well-established international knowledge. The film’s credits explicitly thank several Xinjiang political agencies for their cooperation, including the police security bureau, which Vox reported is understood to operate some of the camps.

It’s a new variation on Theresienstadt. And in some ways, it’s worse.

Disney, and the Chinese government bodies with which it collaborated, is not offering the world a political fig leaf to cover the genocide against the Uighurs. Instead, the entertainment powerhouse has delivered an item that is explicitly a distraction from that genocide, one that functions simultaneously as nativist propaganda — in the face of an invasion by brown-skinned, turban-wearing outsiders, the heroes are celebrated for their unquestioning devotion to the imperial state — and an amusing narcotic. Unlike its predecessors, it’s not intended to make the international community feel satisfied with its own weak efforts to aid the Uighurs. It’s intended, instead, to make them feel awed by and invested in a version of Chinese culture — however inaccurate — that eclipses the story of the Uighurs altogether.

But mostly, it’s intended to make money.

That’s what’s truly novel about the movie, and truly shocking. While the Theresienstadt ploy has often served genocidal governments, it’s never before functioned as an engine for financial profit — especially for a foreign company based in the country that’s theoretically supposed to serve as the world’s foremost check on said genocidal government. (So far, Disney’s only response to the controversy has been Disney CFO Christine McCarthy’s cryptic comment, late this week, that the credits’ nod to Xinjiang had “generated a lot of issues for us.”)

It’s no surprise that China might see “Mulan” as a useful tool in its fight to avoid intervention over the Uighurs. The film is not good, but it’s shiny, thrilling and savvy, combining a nod to progressive values — look, they’re going to give one single woman opportunities outside the home! — with a paradoxical, universal insistence on respecting the place society assigns you. It’s not quite a justification for genocide, but the characters’ absolute adherence to the idea that the state knows best comes implicitly close.

Disney’s previous live-action adaptations of their animated classics have been blockbusters: Last year, “The Lion King” grossed $1.657 billion worldwide, while “Aladdin” pulled in $1.051 billion. The COVID-19 pandemic interfered with plans for a similarly lucrative release for “Mulan;” whether the Disney Plus release will turn a serious profit remains to be seen. But beyond short-term moneymaking, Disney treated the film, from initial concept to release, as a way to court the Chinese market, long seen as the next frontier for American entertainment companies whose home audience growth has stagnated.

For popular audiences, the gamble appears not to have worked. Advance ticket sales for “Mulan,” which opens in Chinese theaters this weekend, have pulled in a meager 8.2 million yuan, or approximately $1.2 million; Fortune reported that number was just a sixth of the Chinese opening-day take of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.” But Disney knows that the benefits of cozying up to China’s autocratic government won’t be restricted to the potential profits of a single film. The company has proven itself ready and willing to calculate that helping China gloss over its widespread human rights abuses is a wealth-making proposition. China has what’s currently considered the world’s fastest-growing major economy; it’s fair to imagine that collaboration now might yield dividends for decades into the future.

Some might call it foresight, however brutal. But looking to the future makes it too easy to elide the lessons of the past. The United Nations’ concessions facilitated the Srebrenica massacre; in 2011, one of their judicial bodies put that massacre’s architect, Ratko Mladić, on trial for war crimes, a trial that ended with Mladić sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1994, Bill Clinton’s administration fought to decrease the peacekeeping presence in Rwanda despite clear warnings of the atrocity on the horizon; in 1998, as the international refusal to intercede in the genocide of the Tutsis received increasing condemnation, Clinton delivered a carefully-worded admission of fault. Maurice Rossel faced damning questions over his rosy assessment of Theresienstadt up until his death; it is his single most lasting legacy.

That’s the legacy the makers of “Mulan,” should have considered. The result of taking the bait and looking away is always the same: Grief, and guilt, and the silent recriminations of the dead.


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