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MOVIE MUSLIMS -- FILMS THAT
REFLECT THEIR HUMANITY
by Thomas M. Sipos, managing
editor. [April 21, 2008]
Individualism is a libertarian core principle; this idea that every person
be judged by their own deeds. Another person may share your race,
religion, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation -- even so, that person's
actions says nothing about you.
Unfortunately, since 9/11,
many Americans have succumbed to collectivist thinking. I've heard
libertarians justify unconstitutional wars and civil rights violations
on the theory that "everything changed" after "they" attacked "us."
"They" are not just Al Qaeda
(which would make sense), or the broader yet harder to define term, "the
terrorists," nor even Afghanistan, Iraq, or Iran.
When America's post-9/11
collectivists say "they," they often mean all Muslims. Over
a billion individuals condemned to automatic suspicion. Guilty until
Thankfully, the "liberal"
film industry provides some correctives to this distorted worldview.
Push Cart (2005) is a traditional American immigrant story. It
could easily have been set in 1905 with an Italian or Jewish protagonist. Instead, the film is about Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a Pakistani Muslim who
operates a food cart on Manhattan's busy streets, selling coffee and bagels
Ahmad's societal position
is below that of convenience store clerk. His taxi driver friend
envies a mutual friend who's lucky enough to work at Dunkin Donuts.
It was not always so. Ahmad was a rock star in Pakistan, but after coming to the U.S. his wife
died and he lost custody of his son to hostile in-laws. Ill fate
still plagues him. Yet despite his troubles, he toils on, doing gruntwork
with the clockwork diligence for which immigrants are known. He bears
pain, and casual slights from his "betters," with silent stoicism. His simple pride in cleaning a cart, pining to own one some day,
is especially poignant.
Push Cart hints at the collectivist bigotry American Muslims suffer
post-9/11. Failing to save an abandoned kitten he'd found, Ahmad
respectfully buries it rather than toss it into the garbage, as the law
requires. A disapproving Muslim neighbor warns him, "We must be careful. Things are getting harder for us." And in a bar (yes, Ahmad drinks
beer), another Muslim displays his friend's scars, sustained from a knife
attack by thugs calling him "a terrorist."
Like many indie films, Man
Push Cart is minimalist, authentic, almost existential, emphasizing
character over plot, and eschewing Hollywood happy endings. It was
an Official Selection at the Sundance and Venice film festivals, part of
New York's Museum of Modern Art film series, and a Winner at the Seattle
and London film festivals.
More overtly political is Road
to Guantanamo (2006), a British docudrama about the "Tipton Three." Shortly before the U.S. war on Afghanistan, four Muslim Brits from Tipton,
England, flew to Pakistan for a wedding. In Pakistan, they heard
mullahs urging Muslims to help the Afghans. So they went to Afghanistan
to (they later said) offer humanitarian help and check out the war.
The term "young and stupid"
comes to mind. (Women may not get it, but many guys go through a Beavis
and Butthead stage in their youth.)
In Afghanistan they suffered
aerial bombings, hunger, and illness, and soon wished they hadn't come. They were separated and the four became three. Captured by the Northern
Alliance, they were given to the U.S. as part of a haul of "Al Qaeda terrorists
and Taliban fighters."
U.S. intelligence regarded
the presence of three Brits in war-torn Afghanistan to be curious and unexpected,
and doubted their tale of wayward tourism. Thus began these Brits'
of imprisonment, interrogation, and (depending on your definition) torture,
including a stint in Guantanamo Bay, before being repatriated to Britain
to Guantanamo is a remarkable film, using both real participants and
actors to recreate the Tipton Three's version of events. Especially
striking is its dramatization of what it's like for Third World peasants
to be on the receiving end of a Great Power's bombs. The film reminds
us that "collateral damage" is another term for innocent human beings.
Filming from the Muslims'
point of view will discomfort some viewers, unsettled at being made to
identify with Guantanamo Bay's inmates. Yet lest anyone think that
co-director Michael Winterbottom "hates America" -- grow up. Winterbottom
also directed A
Mighty Heart, about Islamic terrorists' murder of Jewish-American journalist
Daniel Pearl. Winterbottom sympathizes with all victims.
The Tipton Three were cleared
partially because British police offered alibis. One of the three
was doing community service in England at a time the CIA insisted he was
in Central Asia listening to Bin Ladin.
Even so, some still suspect
that the Tipton Three were up to no good in Afghanistan. Yet libertarians
should appreciate that these Muslims advanced civil liberties in the U.S.
Shafiq Rasul (one of the three) sued the federal government and won in Rasul
v. Bush, wherein the Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo Bay inmates canchallenge
the Constitutionality of their detention in U.S. courts.
Haters (2006) provides another take on the "guilty until proven innocent"
theme. Many indie films claim to be brave and innovative. Sorry,
In this suspense drama,
Ashade (Abdellatif Kechiche) is a Muslim taxi driver in New York.
His brother was arrested by Homeland Security on a tenuous coincidence,
and deported to Syria, where the CIA can legally torture him. Ashade's
fellow cabbies at the mosque chip in for a lawyer. "He was our brother
too," says one Muslim cabbie.
Phoebe (Robin Wright Penn
-- yes, Sean's wife) is an angry white woman. Without giving everything
away, she misses 9/11. Not because she hates America, but because that
tragedy allowed her to shine. People turned to her for support. As this deeply disturbed woman explains, "For the first time in my life
I didn't feel powerless -- because everyone felt powerless." Or
more bluntly, "I just wanted that day back."
One night Phoebe enters Ashade's
cab. She sees the Muslim driver and sees only a stereotype. And so
she worms her way into his life, hoping to find a terrorist who can give
"that day back."
Haters depicts the nightmare of profiling for those who have a "guilty
until proven innocent" face. Phoebe's anonymous tip to Homeland Security
-- an anonymous lie -- is enough to destroy one Muslim family. How do you prove you didn't intend to do something?
Libertarians who are cavalier
about Muslim profiling should recall that, post-Oklahoma City, NRA and
bumper stickers were part of the FBI's terrorist profile. Likewise,
the state's increasing use of anonymous tips (in child abuse as well as
terrorism cases) provides a safe and easy way for neighbors and co-workers
to destroy hated but innocent people. This film warns against giving
the state too much power to "protect us." The Soviets loved anonymous
Haters also examines the sick and lonely among us who thrive on tragedy. Wars and disasters ruin many, yet for some it brings purpose and glory. Most German troops detested the trenches of the Great War, yet one friendless
failure, Adolf Hitler, found meaning and acceptance in that war.
The DVD's special features
include a roundtable discussion led by actor Tim Robbins (who's not in
the film). Robbins asks, "Are we lusting after tragedy in this world? Do we find self-importance in it?" British film professor Paul Thompson
compares "nostalgia for 9/11" with "nostalgia for the Blitz" -- a nostalgia
for that communal equality created by shared suffering.
Haters warns us that those who need enemies will find them -- or create
them. Some people create enemies for political or financial gain. Others
create enemies to fill an emotional void.
Haters was an Official Selection at the American Film Institute and
Toronto film festivals. The film's title is that of the reality TV
show for which Phoebe works, but it's also a message to bigots: "Sorry,
haters, you won't like this film."
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