Charlie Chaplin, Dictators, and Life in the Ghetto

10 Dec

The first time I encountered The Tramp in Asia he was on display in the small comic book section of a Kathmandu corner shop. At first I passed him by. Then, a double take: A Charlie Chaplin comic book? A Nepali Charlie Chaplin Comic book? A Nepali Chaplin Comic book in the 21st Century!? Strange…

The grocery store here in Mae Sot, Thailand, has a nice little DVD selection. You can get yourself copies of Love Actually, Transformers, and any number of contemporary Korean and Thai favorites, but little else. So I was again surprised to see Charlie, looking as desperately lovable as ever, the only black and white face for miles, in the bottom of the DVD rack.

When I first noticed the Chaplin section (a selection of a few of his films, some of them well known, some obscure) in the Supermarket there were a handful of copies available (for the reasonable price of 49Baht  = a little under $2). This was a few weeks ago. When I returned last night I was lucky to grab the last copy of The Great Dictator, leaving only two copies of A Woman of Paris (1923) behind. People are watching Chaplin. Maybe not in the U.S., where the last crumbling Blockbusters carry only the latest Josh Duhamel and Ketherine Heigl picture, but certainly here in Mae Sot, a city of migrants and refugees, and in Kathmandu, a poor city stuck between two megadeveloping behemoths (India and China).

Today I brought Chaplin to class, figuring that The Great Dictator would be a good followup to our last film, Grave of the Fireflies (a devastating Japanese animated film about two orphaned children during WWII). I said the title of the film. Together we worked to define “dictator,” an  easy assignment for children who have lived under a brutal dictatorship.  Then we began discussing the lead up to the war in Germany and the concept of a Jewish Ghetto. Again easy to explain to people living in a Ghetto of their own. Finally, I said “the film was made by one of my favorite filmmakers, a comedian known as Charlie-” “Chaplin!” they shouted, and even clapped. Not only did they know Chaplin, they love Chaplin.

During the first half of the film, which I would hardly expect an American high-schooler to sit through for 5 minutes, they were on the floor laughing. Thrilled by every gag, and more importantly, completely in sync with the story despite not understanding the dialogue (Dictator (1940) has some very difficult, and fast narration, as well as large chunks of German gibberish).

I’m curious if its just a happy coincidence that Chaplin has made it here and to other under-developed parts of Asia. But I like to think that he resonates especially well in a places of poverty and illiberal government. The Tramp is the embodiment of the down trodden, and through his antics he escapes the chains of poverty and captivity, if only for an hour or two. Still maybe I over reach. Maybe its simply his broad slapstick humor. After all you don’t need to understand English, Thai, or Burmese (none of which my students understand well if at all) to find Dancing Dinner Rolls funny. Whatever the reasons, I’m thrilled for class tomorrow.

Appendix: A Brief Selection From The Works Of Charlie Chaplin

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One Response to “Charlie Chaplin, Dictators, and Life in the Ghetto”

  1. Chelsea December 10, 2010 at 1:17 am #

    I really like this post!

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