Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Cinema that Instructs

Today, Andrew Sullivan asks,
Here's a question for Hollywood: why do we rarely see movies about the brutalization of women in Islamic countries? Isn't this virtual slavery a vital human rights issue? Shouldn't this appeal to liberal film-makers?
I can't disagree with Sullivan, though I know he's playing these thoughts against the sentiment among some liberals that, hey, maybe the Mohammed cartoons weren't such a great idea*, as well as the general conservative meme that liberals lack appropriate outrage for militant Islamic violence.

I can however recommend two recent movies which concentrate on this theme, though neither of them came out of Hollywood.

Osama - A deeply sad movie about a young Afghan girl who passes as a boy in order to help her mother, since she's not supposed to leave her home without a male companion. The Taliban discovers her deceit and she's about to be executed for it, when an old man "saves her" - by offering to take the 12-year-old as his wife. An utterly depressing ending and a clear critique of the customs, which do amount to human rights abuses. It was the first movie made in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

Kandahar - This movie from Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf traces the story of a Canadian woman who immigrated from Afghanistan as a child who returns to Afghanistan to track down her sister. As she journeys through her homeland, she encounters the harsh conditions created by the Taliban.

You'll also find pointed criticism of Islamic society in the extraordinarily thoughtful films by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. (See Ten for example, which consists solely of 10 conversations taking place in a car driven by an Iranian woman.)

So, interestingly enough, I'd make the point that the movies most critical of militant Islam and its human rights abuses are coming from places where it's been (or still is) most difficult to be critical. It's movies like these that made me realize there's a vibrant and humanistic arts culture in these countries, that both resists oppression and gets very little play in the West. Why otherwise would so many of us reduce the average Islamic person to a woman ululating wildly in the street or a young man burning the American flag? There's so much more to Muslim culture.

I'd also recommend Turtles Can Fly, the first movie made in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. Another extraordinarily humanistic and compassionate Iranian movie.
*I have mixed feelings: I think the newspapers have the right to print whatever they jolly well like. I also think we all self-censor every day and for good reasons. And I think there are right and wrong motivations to shove potentially offensive material in people's faces.

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