“Alexander: The Making of a God”. Controversial documentary by Netflix
A few days ago, I saw a headline online proudly proclaiming that internet users – as always, of unknown identity – are protesting because Netflix made a documentary about such an icon as Alexander the Great and turned him into a “GAY”. This headline fit into a broader context that could be called “I DON’T WATCH NETFLIX”. Some people boast about it, almost using it as a verbal banner on the Internet, to emphasize that this platform spoils the so-called good cinema, and they belong to some more mentally formalized group guarding the quality of world cinema. However, every generalization contains a logical error in reasoning – it stems from individual judgment justifying a general rule. So, having a classical education, out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at this “hated” Netflix and see as a lover of ancient history what actually happened with Alexander the Great. I felt that it wasn’t so bad, and the great Macedonian isn’t likely turning over in his lost grave, and although I’m not a fan of dramatized historical documentaries, I got hooked on this story again since my school days. And, surprisingly, it’s not about gays at all, but about a great, psychologically complex leader whose vision of the state left a mark on the whole world. If only the creators had paid more attention to historical details, it would have been a wonderful material for school viewing, but it still requires commentary from someone specializing in the reception of contemporary times.
Teaching history is not easy – you need immense talent to devise a way to convey information about past events so that the recipient feels moved by them, understands that those ancient events also influence them today. So, I started the first episode of the series How Alexander the Great Became a God and then reached for that shelf in my library where books are rarely taken out – old, seemingly unnecessary ones kept only out of sentiment. I found a textbook on ancient history by Julia Tazbir and Ewa Wipszycka, from which I learned in high school. It cost a whopping 40,000 zlotys. I flipped through it to find the chapter on Alexander the Great – it wasn’t easy because the pages were falling out. And I was surprised that it was only pages 129 to 134. I remembered from school that there were more, but that’s probably a misleading impression, now I know what it’s caused by. So I read those few pages – terribly boring. Now, after watching, I know that the boredom roughly agrees with the facts, and even Netflix’s documentary is much more detailed, though not perfect (lack of the siege of Thebes). Much was omitted, some facts were sensationalized, changing Alexander’s motivation for attacking Persia to a more personal one, and those divisions, battalions, and generals grate unpleasantly because those weren’t the times. However, the production does not have the ambition to discover any new facts about Alexander the Great – anyone who didn’t sleep during history lessons must know this. However, there is a significant difference between these narratives, which has enormous pedagogical significance. Netflix rather encourages getting to know this figure. This fascination should naturally lead to Peter Green’s biography of Alexander and several other interesting works. However, these are further steps. First, there must be that initial desire, although in the terminology of pseudoscience, I prefer to call it intellectual lust.
I was lucky to have two excellent history teachers in high school who, unlike the textbook I found, could weave a story. The same was true for physics and chemistry teachers. However, I know that not all students had this luck then and have it today. That’s why educational films are so important, including historical ones that tell the past in a visual way, substituting visualizations for verbal descriptions, not made like Polish tacky semi-documentaries, but watched like a good movie. That’s exactly how Netflix’s documentary about Alexander the Great is made. Thanks to it, this figure lives, and the viewer learns not only detailed historical facts and the process of their interpenetration, creating what we call history, but also about the people behind the facts, with their personalities, emotions, doubts, because they undoubtedly had them, as they co-created such events. This model of learning history gives a chance for someone to truly fall in love with it, not just memorize a few dates, cram bland descriptions of facts, pass a test, and forget everything after a week. Knowledge of history is the foundation of our identity. For centuries, tyrants have destroyed human freedom by denying members of the community they want to conquer the chance to get to know and understand the past, both local and global history. The initiative of Netflix, as well as other film productions, to give a narrative form to the most important facts from our past, especially those that occurred in times when there were no media recording images and sound, is always very necessary.
Regarding the alleged homosexual orientation of Alexander, or perhaps it’s better to say, his non-binary nature. The documentary doesn’t focus on this at all. A brief mention of the relationship with Hephaestion is in the 1st and 6th episode. We can learn more about the ruler’s sexuality from the writings of Quintus Curtius Rufus and Plutarch. Alexander had many facets, including sexual ones, and reducing his character to being gay and using it as a basis to give a negative assessment to the entire documentary, indirectly proving one’s aversion to Netflix, is a very short, limited judgment. And even if we had some truly indisputable evidence of a specific non-heteronormative sexual orientation of Alexander, could there be a different kind of question? How could it happen that such a type could be considered a God at all? Did his orientation help in this? Is it related, not only in ancient times? Maybe someday I’ll have the chance to address this topic in the context of film storytelling.