Joker jumps from screen to streets of global revolutions

Joker masks — just like V for Vendetta masks 10 years ago — have become common in demonstrations from Lebanon to Iraq, as protesters search for symbols with which they can strike a blow against those in power.

al-monitor A protester with her face painted like the character Joker from the recent film "Joker," Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 19, 2019.  Photo by Nicholas Frakes.

Nov 26, 2019

BEIRUT — Bang! Bang! Bang! The man continued to hit the drum and shouted insults at major Lebanese political figures as a massive, tightly packed crowd of hundreds of people surrounded him with one man lighting a flare that created an eerie red glow in the darkness of the night and highlighted the man’s face that was painted white with a large red smile.

He was not the only one leading the crowd, though. He was joined by a couple of other men who, like him, all had their faces painted like the Joker.

Since Todd Phillip’s billion-dollar film "Joker" was released earlier this year, it has gained a massive following with Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the titular character becoming a symbol for revolution around the world.

In Chile, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon, the Joker’s face has appeared not only on street walls but also on the faces of protesters, as many people have started to paint their faces in the style of the comic book villain.

For Moe Fatrouni, one of the protesters, the Joker embodies the struggles that the Lebanese people face daily, with the situation finally reaching a breaking point as citizens are calling for change.

“In the movie, what the Joker wants is to live and work,” Fatrouni told Al-Monitor. “Nothing more. You also see the darkness through his eyes to the point that you might feel scared. But you understand why he decides to choose the path of punishing people who betrayed him — life hasn’t given him any other option. We notice that [in the film] people who took to the streets also wanted to take sides with him, cheering for him to stand up and let go of the anger. We get to this level of riot and neglect when we reach a point where we have nothing to lose.”

"Joker" is not the first film to become popular with protesters. According to Greg Burris, assistant professor of media studies at the American University of Beirut, it is nearly impossible to predict what films will gain such popularity.

“I think that some people can make films with the intention of them being sort of activist tools,” Burris told Al-Monitor. “And then, they’re dead on arrival. While others that people would never expect to be taken up in a revolutionary way suddenly do. Not even just the 'Joker.' I mean look at 'Game of Thrones.' Protests from one side of the globe to the other in the last few years have had signs referencing 'Game of Thrones.' You know, ‘Winter Is Coming’ and whatnot. It was certainly not the intention of HBO or George R.R. Martin, and yet protesters did use 'Game of Thrones' in ways to condemn their own governments.”

“I mean you can go back to the early days of silent film,” he added. “And you can see examples of films that really struck a chord; the most famous being 'The Birth of a Nation' — the Ku Klux Klan film. It even inspired the birth of a new KKK.”

For protesters in Lebanon, they view Arthur Fleck/Joker as embodying their situation both economically and socially, as they, like Joker, feel as if they have been forgotten. Burris argues that the film and character’s popularity stems from the fact the film was made for mass appeal as well as just having good timing.

“It’s something that is made for mass popularity,” Burris said. “So I think it is just serendipitous that the film came out and it showed mass upheaval, and the film doesn’t show a positive image of collective protest. It does condemn a very Trump-like character in terms of Batman’s father and it condemns global capitalism — the white men in suits that we all associate with power. It kind of channeled that anger and energy that we all are seeing everywhere from Chile to Baghdad.”

Fatrouni argued that because of the declining economic situation in Lebanon, it created a window for people to come out and express their frustrations and demand massive reforms in a decentralized movement.

“The Lebanese economic situation that kept going backward made people go out onto the streets demanding their simple rights, which escalated fast to cover the whole country — demanding one simple thing: 'All means all,'” he noted. “It means they want all political parties to step aside for new fresh people to take over the parliament for a new country. We have witnessed a lot of protests during 2015 but this one today is totally different at all levels. It has no central point to gather; it covered the rich and poor, the students and the jobless. It covered the people who wanted to live a life of dignity away from any political support or help.”

This economic disparity taking place globally is something that Burris firmly believes is a major instigator for global demonstrations. He specifically referenced the thesis by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama who argued that we have reached the end of history since there is no more real conflict after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. In an article titled, "End of History" — and 1992 book — he claimed that Western-style, democratic capitalism had won and the only remaining issue was how the rest of the world would catch up.

This, however, is an idea that Burris disputes, arguing that the past decade has shown this theory is not reality.

“We’ve really started to see this unravel in many ways,” he explained. “It’s significant that some of the places where we have seen massive protests — both in 2011 and now — have been places that were seen as beacons of economic modernization. Places like Tunisia, places like Chile, which in many ways was the birth of modern-day neoliberalism. Places where the economic situation has been very carefully crafted and manufactured by global jet-setting elites have been in places precisely where these policies are failing. It’s not that they are failing, but they are failing the people. The policies are doing what they are supposed to do, which is make the rich richer and make the poor poorer. And people have had enough. So we’re living in a time where people are really questioning the models that we’ve been given.” 

People have been protesting for over a month with many of the demonstrators not going to work and businesses closing temporarily as the protests continue. Because of this and Lebanon’s struggling economy, Fatrouni believes that more Jokers could be spawned unless the government meets their demands.

“There is always a Joker inside of us,” he said. “If the government does not exceed our expectations, maybe a slightly [higher] percentage of Jokers might be born because our private and public sector are not doing well in business. People are losing jobs; people are getting paid half salaries or forced to take unpaid leaves.”

Fatrouni also views the Joker as an international symbol so that everyone watching abroad can understand why people are taking to the streets.

“If I were a foreigner in Lebanon and noticed the Joker symbol on the wall in a protest, I would immediately link that to the people having reached the maximum level of unfairness that makes them go out to demand their rights and punish the people who are behind that.”

While the Joker continues to gain popularity both in culture and in global movements, Burris said that it will not be the last, as all movements try to find symbols. He noted that what symbols are used will continue to evolve over time.

“In 2011 you had these huge waves of protests from Egypt to Occupy Wall Street and we’ve had a few more on the way,” Burris explained. “We are currently in another one, like Santiago and Hong Kong. There are differences between the Chinese, Chilean and Beiruti situations, but nevertheless, there’s this overwhelming global frustration and as part of that people look for symbols. In the past, they used folk songs and now they are using comic book films and there’ll be more. There’ll be more Jokers, there’ll be more V for Vendettas because people search for images and icons and avatars as they strike a blow against the people in power.”

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