I seem to be very conscious, these days, of the way that perfectly reasonable critiques of western orientalism have played into the hands of those who want either not to represent the Other at all, or to represent the Other as having nothing to teach us, as a mere dystopia, as a sort of indifferent backdrop to our own domestic dramas. I sense this in the Oscars shortlist, which -- if we discount the high seas adventurism of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Other Side of the World -- represents Otherness to the American Film Academy in the form of City of God (a film from which it would be hard to conclude that Brazil could be a positive role model) and Lost in Translation (a film which isn't even trying to propose Japan as that). It seems to me that America and the world have an equally screaming need, at this point, for positive role models which are not American ones, which are not America-as-world. But where do we find these models?
Browsing through BBC Radio 4's Listen Again page for something interesting, I found a documentary about The Singing Ringing Tree, an East German TV series I remember watching as a child. This was indeed a strange and magical series, a saga filled with malevolent dwarves, sea monsters, hump-backed bridges, unicorns, princesses and the singing tree of the title. I believe Broadcast have cited it as an influence on their otherworldly records. This combination of the strange with the seductive, of the disturbing with the charming, is something I want to see in my positive role model. It has to be more than 'We killed the baddies -- but in an exotic setting, and the baddies had green prosthetic masks on'. It has to be more than 'We fell in love -- but in quite an unusual location.' There must be a sense that life itself might be totally different. And that's what The Singing, Ringing Tree presented.
The documentary reveals that even the people making and broadcasting the series didn't quite know how it fitted in or what it was about. There was some unease in East Germany with the fact that The Singing, Ringing Tree -- with its princes and princesses, unicorns and dwarves -- wasn't simple propaganda for the socialist lifestyle. And the BBC say they bought it mostly because it was cheap, with high production values. Without socialist subsidy, such a strange series could never have been made.
Is The Singing, Ringing Tree really stranger than, for instance, the swords-and-sorcery Tolkein romance Return of the King? Isn't fantasy pretty universal? Is it really important that Singing, Ringing Tree originated in a different time, a different political and financial structure and was made in a different language (the original German could still be heard when it was transmitted in Britain, with a man's voice narrating events and dialogue, which added to the already-strong verfremdungseffekt)? I think these things are important, and it worries me that the world contains fewer different systems now. We seem less interested in listening to those reservoirs of difference that do still exist. In fact, we seem as quick to condemn true difference, to consign it to an 'empire of evil', as we are to proclaim our own narratives 'universal', capable of touching everyone everywhere.
We are not the world. We are not the role model. Our stories are not universal. If we listen carefully, we might learn something from that heartbreakingly beautiful sound, the swansong of the world's last truly different ways of thinking, dreaming and being.