FFPC17 - Syriana

Intro by Ben Harrison

In 2005 when today's film came out I was in college at NYU. I have suffered from depression since my adolescence and my first attempt at starting college was in 2002. The 9/11 attacks still felt super-present in lower Manhattan when I arrived for freshman year.

I wondered if I had gotten in off the waitlist because some kids had decided against moving to a city that had just been the target of such an unimaginable act of violence. My depression got really bad that first semester, and I immediately fell behind in all of my classes because I was sleeping all day and playing Warcraft III all night in my dorm room while my roommate tried to sleep.

I realized I was spiraling and started seeing a counselor at the student health center, got my meds adjusted and negotiated with some of my professors on a plan to get my studies back on track, but when I broached the topic of depression to the TA in my essay writing class, she reported me to the dean who immediately put me on a medical leave of absence. There were half a dozen student suicides at NYU that year and in the next two years and the administration was trying really hard to make sure that if people were going to commit suicide, it wasn't while they were matriculated at NYU.

I was sent back home to California and had to try again the following year. The university never refunded me for that semester, even though I was only there for a little more than a month. I came back and the trauma of 9/11 was still everywhere and it remained present in life the entire time I was in school. Classes always started in early September, and our professors, most of whom lived in Lower Manhattan, all had intense personal stories to share each anniversary.

During my leave of absence, the Bush White House had used 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, and by 2005 the folly of that was basically impossible to ignore. It had been a nakedly imperialist effort to secure access to oil reserves for the United States, dressed in the sheerest of war on terror clothing.

Today's film made a big impression on me when I came out because it felt like it engaged with the geopolitics of what was happening in the world without collapsing the forces at play into simplistic Good Guys and Bad Guys. I also totally didn't understand 90% of what I was seeing, which felt like nice verisimilitude to a world in which politics had stopped making sense to me, a college kid in a blue bubble who had grown up in an indigo bubble.

I am not even going to try and summarize the story of today's film. I would get things wrong and this intro would be longer than the episode I am trying to set up. But needless to say, the 4 story-threads are about various people prosecuting and experiencing the global geopolitics of oil, wealth and power.

Director Stephen Gaghan's prior film Traffic polemicized the drug trade and the way our culture deals with addiction, and in this film he attempts to do something similar as he engages with who is rich and powerful in the world of fossil fuels and what made them that way.

What the film does better than any film I have seen is draw lines between the pain felt by people like my professors and older classmates who had lived through 9/11 happening while school was in session, and the foreign policies that had engendered it, and the foreign policies that we decided to pursue as a reaction to it.

We were still asking ourselves why the terrorists hate us in 2005 and there were a lot of people in my life for whom that felt like a very personal question. The film doesn't insult your intelligence about what makes the world the way it is, and I think it really holds up as an important accounting of where we were at in 2005 when it came out. It couldn't have possibly predicted where things would proceed from there, but in looking back, I think it helps me to understand why things proceeded the way they did.

"Americans love to drill holes in other people's countries!" Today on Friendly Fire: Syriana.

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