Category Archives: reviews

man from plains

just saw “man from plains” by jonathan demme – excellent film about a most excellent man. i look at carter – his life and his work – and hope that the measure of twenty first century cool will be: striving to become better-informed, more honest, more socially engaged and compassionate, hardworking, humble, and culturally literate world citizens.

two book reviews

“train to pakistan” by khushwant singh

one of the seminal books about the partition of india, “train to pakistan” is a relatively short book, at about 190 pages. yet it encapsulates the madness and ambiguity of partition with masterly precision. the plot is brilliantly structured – an impressive architectural feat of realistically-drawn characters milling about an impending vortex and banging into one another with increasing frequency. khushwant singh captures the habits and culture of simple punjabi villagers with acute observation, in flawless english. the language is a feat in and of itself – it remains clean and uncluttered while representing people, places and situations packed with cruel contradictions and appalling extremes. the story proceeds surely, like a cable that is constantly coiled and stretched beyond endurance. we reach the end of the book with escalating tension and breathless suspense. and like it should, the cable finally snaps and we are left thinking about what happened for many days to come.

“three lives” by gertrude stein

stein’s incantational writing style is charming in the first story “the good anna” but becomes difficult to bear in “melanctha”. we are so close to the characters and their hour by hour psychosis that it becomes hard to breath. this is unique, unflinching writing. it reminded me of the urdu writer ismat chughtai, especially her masterpiece “the crooked line” which is a brave, intensely intimate, rich examination of women’s lives.

the color of paradise – a film by majid majidi

this film, by the amazing iranian director majid majidi, is tender and lyrical. it is more like a poem than a film and watching it is much like a profound, religious experience.

the film starts with 8-year old mohammed learning to read and write braille at a school for the blind. we can immediately tell that mohammed is an exceptional boy. his hands are an extension of his soul. he feels everything with them – the physical world around him but also much more intangible things, like beauty and love. yet to mohammed’s father he is just a liability.

when mohammed goes back to his village for summer vacation he revels in the rich tactile and aural environment around him. he also revels in the warmth of family – his two sisters and most of all his doting grandmother. through stunning cinematography and crisp sound we are treated to scenes of immense beauty. mohammed’s grandmother takes the children on a trip. silently they light a candle and pray at a shrine. on the way back, they pick wild flowers. as they toss handfuls of brightly colored petals in vats of boiling water, we see the miraculous creation of color. this is how wool yarn is dyed, not with chemicals but with water and flowers. the simplicity of people’s lives in the village is shown with such honesty and grace that i could not help thinking of how lightly they tread upon the earth and how vastly different our lives are – bloated, selfish, acquisitive but spiritually poor.

throughout the film, we cannot help but fall more and more in love with mohammed. when he is abandoned once again by his father, he gives voice to his inner most feelings – in the most lucid, sincere and unbearably painful words of a child. mohammed expresses his doubts about being loved and wanted, by his family, or even by god. if god loves him, like his teacher says, then why did he choose to make him blind? he cannot see god. his teacher told him that he could feel god with his hands. and so he has been looking – touching, absorbing everything with rapt attention, trying to read god in grains of sand, ears of wheat and rocks at the bottom of a river.

the film is a quiet meditation with no overwhelming musical score or hollywood chicanery. by being honest and unflinching it unleashes a torrent of emotion. how many exceptional children do we sacrifice daily to all the sadness and hardship in the world…

the color of paradise

the dark knight

“the dark night” is really dark – and hectic and relentless. after 2 ½ hours of psycho violence and head-spinning action, i was ready for some kind of conclusion, even if evil was going to win the day.

yes, the cinematography and action scenes are top notch and choreographed with impossible precision. yes, heath ledger is truly terrifying as the joker – a great talent whose loss we still mourn. yes, nolan elevates the batman franchise from two-dimensional, comic book caricature to michael mann-like, meticulously crafted thriller. and of course, christian bale, michael caine, gary oldman, morgan freeman and aaron eckhart aren’t too shabby a cast. but there was something missing in the film. it doesn’t have a heart, a center – not even an evil, dark one.

since chaos is what we’re exploring through the twisted mind of the joker, that’s what the film ends up becoming: an endless, torturous, masochistic descent into bedlam, replete with visual disorientation and brusque, jarring sound. i can appreciate the metaphor and its artistic realization but i can’t pretend i enjoyed it.

ledger as the joker

persepolis

recently saw “persepolis”, the animated film by marjane satrapi. the film is inspired by satrapi’s comic books persepolis 1 and 2 about her life in iran and europe, but the drawings have not been simply transferred to another medium. instead there is cinematic transformation. persepolis is strongly influenced by german expressionist films – the artwork is spare, elegant and luminous and the results are stunning. satrapi drew all of the hundred or so original characters herself. her involvement in every aspect of the film gives it coherence and intimacy – she lends it her personality. there is sharp analysis, easy humor and consistent heartbreak. there is also much nostalgia – most of the film takes the shape of a black and white flashback. we are drawn in, seduced by satrapi and her world.

but the most ground-breaking aspect of the film is how it refuses to locate the story of a young woman struggling with social upheaval and the private pains of growing up. by being animated it purges the plot line of cultural exoticism and makes the story universal. the fact that the entire film is in french is also crucial (although its import in terms of filmmaking was probably more practical than aesthetic). all iranians in the film (even those based in iran) speak flawless french. austrian or british characters are the ones with heavy accents. by taking culture out of the equation (no funny accents or weird clothes except for the pivotal issue of the scarf, no strange locations or foreign faces) satrapi is able to do away with all the historical baggage and instinctive judgements associated with “others”.

one thing is certain – marjane satrapi is immensely talented and she has a lot to say. check out this interview by michelle goldberg:

“sexual revolutionaries”“persepolis” author marjane satrapi talks about why iranians don’t think sex is sinful, the hypocrisy of american saber-rattling over iran, and why george bush and the mullahs are the same.

a day at the 2008 toronto film festival

my first time at the toronto film festival. movies are sold out. rush lines don’t sound too promising. tickets are $20 per film so i wanna watch something i’m at least curious about. it’s a day trip so 6 hours of driving. but i’ve postponed 3 appointments to be able to make it. my husband rescheduled his squash game (sacrilege) to pick up the kids. i have to go. and i can go with my friend liz. she owns a prius and goes to toronto all the time. she’s a pro. i make up my mind and do it. and i’m so glad i did. saw the 2 films i wanted to see, both in french. the first was shot in quebec and the second one in france – as different as night and day, but both quite wonderful…

maman est chez le coiffeur (mom is at the hairdresser’s) by lea pool

a beautifully shot film based in a small village in quebec. it’s 1966. summer vacations have just begun and three siblings alight from their school bus, ready to savor the sweet, lazy freedom of long summer days. their charming mother is obviously at the center of this carefree, easy world. elise is a precocious young teenager. coco, her younger brother, is obsessed with converting their lawnmower into a go-cart. benoit is the baby of the family – a child who lives on a slightly different plane and who worships his mother, his safety net, his life line to reality.

their father is a successful doctor who plays too much golf. we realize at once that his golf buddy is more than just a friend. and so does elise. the secret is soon revealed to their mother. she is crushed. she needs some breathing space. she leaves for london on a job assignment without so much as a proper goodbye. the last the children see of her, she is driving away maniacally with their father pinned to the hood of the car, hanging on by the windshield wipers, begging her to stay. it’s quick, brutal, unarticulated.

the children internalize the pain that comes from abandonment and express it in different ways. elise refuses to show her grief and reacts with anger towards her mother. yet we see small, intimate moments when she lets her guard down – she dons her mother’s gloves, smells her silk scarf. coco doesn’t say much and stays focused on his summer project. but we see him cry at night and that quiet heartbreak is unbearable to watch. benoit is the most affected. he is lost. he withdraws into his own world and as his father begins to think retardation and special schooling far away, benoit becomes increasingly unsettled and aggressive. only elise can be a mother-like, calming presence in his life.

elise is catapulted into adulthood. she begins to perceive another layer of truth – the less than perfect lives of people around her, their sadness, cruelty and desperation but also their strength and kindness. she experiences adolescence with all its inherent thrill and tenderness. there are kids’ pranks and smart-ass jokes, quirky characters and moments of unrestrained joy. yet a dull, nudging ache permeates the entire film – we know what the children have lost and we mourn with them.

lea pool, who is a well-known canadian filmmaker, explained in her intro to the film how she can connect to that sense of loss, having been sent to an orphanage by her mother at the age of three and kept there for many years before she was brought back home. a well-crafted film…

parc by arnaud des pallières

based on john cheever’s novel “bullet park”, the director chose to set this commentary on american life in france. the effect is quite interesting, more contrasty i thought, sharper than if he had shot the film in america.

the film begins with an ominous scene – an apparently disaffected youth walking slowly toward a house, armed with a golf club. inside the house – the glow of a television screen and a grating voice recounting the news about the riots in france. but the young man does not commit any violence. he enters the house, goes to his room and plops onto his bed. this is tony – son of george nail.

they live in a gated community and all the vestiges of a perfect american life are here: huge homes with even bigger pools, wide roads and even wider driveways, an abundance of impeccable grassy lawns, in-ground sprinklers and noisy lawnmowers. we get to experience george’s almost reverent use of his chain saw to cut down some trees – something that seems to make him feel in control and obviously content. but for tony things are not going well. he feels terribly sad. he cannot get out of bed. he doesn’t want his father’s success or its attendant vacuous excesses.

in the meantime, a new homeowner moves into this exclusive neighborhood, called the parc. the new character’s intro is cut with scenes from prison where he is being interrogated by the police. we know this man will commit some atrocity. we just don’t know when and how. we do get a clue though when george is invited to his neighbor’s house warming party. they introduce themselves:

“nail”, says george, “george nail”.
“hammer”, returns his friendly neighbor, “paul hammer”.

through twists and turns and numerous metaphorical allusions, nail and hammer come into closer contact. nail represents the well-heeled american male who made it – he loves to play golf and tennis and wonders what he would do without sports. hammer is the outsider, the misfit. rich and handsome, a “trophy neighbor” for exacting suburbia yet quite dangerously unhinged on the inside. he meets his mother. they speak in american accented english. his mother, played exquisitely by geraldine chaplin, says she hates france (france being a direct stand-in for the usa). she cannot abide the consummerism, the waste of resources, the excessive life style. something needs to be done. a man who exemplifies this repugnant lifestyle must be crucified – literally. on a church’s door. that will wake people up.

struggling through his own depression and darkness, paul hammer finally becomes convinced that he must carry out the plan. he decides to crucify tony nail. tony in the meantime is doing better with some help from a healer. he parks cars at the club and has become intelligible to his parents. paul hammers the kid over the head, takes him to the neighborhood church, and places him on the altar. he is about to set him on fire but then decides to have a smoke.

nail gets there and bangs at the door. he can’t get in. he goes home, gets his chain saw and cuts an opening into the door. his wife waits in the car. he goes in, finds his son on the altar, picks him up and goes out to the car. his wife waits for him with an embrella. she doesn’t forget to pick up his chain saw. they drive home. they get out of the car and tony walks out with their support. he is alive. they close the garage door. turn off the lights. lower the automatic window blinds. material things and their precise orchestration create a sense of sanity for these people, it becomes the underlying rhythm of their lives.

hammer lies in a fetal position at the foot of the altar, under a gigantic gold image of christ. in another cut from his future, he tells the police that he knows he will be crucified eventually. he just doesn’t know if he’ll be invited to a fashionable party before that.

throughout the film there is talk of storms, there are startling sounds, and much thunder and lightening. the director explained that whereas cheever had used the LA riots to evoke a comparable psychological storm, he decided to use the french riots to the same effect.

the constant repetitive sound of news, jarringly cut, and on a permanent loop is unnerving and brilliant. for people living in an artificial bubble the only connection to the real world is through the radio or tv. we never see much of what is on the tv screen but the nauseatingly repetive, bland sound of the news is omnipresent. it creates this malaise, a certain mal du present.

another scene that i, as an american, recognized at once is when tony is told by a teacher at school that he must give up football to focus on his studies. she adds rather cruelly that his coach thinks he has no talent and that he’s wasting his time. it’s a mean thing to do to a kid. tony tells her that he could kill her for what she said. in the next scene, a male teacher or principal is interrogating tony, insisting that he tried to commit violence. the woman is distraught, sobbing. on being asked if she would like to press charges, she nods yes and asks to be accompanied to her house that day.

des pallieres shoots his characters in uncomfortably tight close-ups. he decides to keep the details of their lives out of sight. for example, we see george having breakfast in such close proximity to the camera that the chewing of every bite becomes a small explosion. but we never get a peek at what he’s eating. again, in spite of the important role played by the news on tv, we never catch much of what’s on screen. i asked him if transplanting the film to france had added another layer to its meaning. he said absolutely not. the locale of the film was quite irrelevant. “there is no implication here that france is an american colony”, he added.

french new wave

it’s too funny that right after i saw and wrote about “the 400 blows” here comes this terrific essay about the french new wave and truffaut and godard’s friendship, “cinema revolution”, the new yorker, april 7, 2008. here is an interview with richard brody and a cool slide show:

truffaut on a shoot

if all of rochester read the same book

writers and books’ initiative “if all of rochester read the same book” featured laila lalami’s “hope and other dangerous pursuits”. laila is a moroccan american writer based in california. her blog, which has been on my blog roll since day one, is a repository of information about books and writers, especially non-western writers who are mostly absent from mainstream best seller lists. laila came to rochester to talk about her book and i met her at the st john fisher college reading, a couple of weeks ago.

laila’s book is a panoramic narrative which explores the lives and hopes of four moroccans trying to make it across the straits of gibraltar into spain. the non-linear structure of the plot is a great hook. we start with a vivid scene showing complete strangers thrown into uncomfortable proximity. all the characters are here. this is our first encounter with each and everyone of them. they are cramped together into a lifeboat – illegals trying to get smuggled into spain. we can feel their anxiety, their desperation. we hear their thoughts. the landing is bungled and the characters are left to fend for themselves, struggling to make way in the dark, freezing water.

we then go back in time, pre-lifeboat. we get a peek into the lives of all four characters. we come to know them, understand them, sympathise with them. we become familiar with the realities of living in morocco – corruption, nepotism, red tape, non-existent upward mobility, political repression. many of these problems are characteristic of developing countries. i could immediately see the similarities with pakistan – the differences between various socio-economic classes, the corruption at every level of society, the dejection that comes with joblessness, the urgency to find a better life and become the hinge that pulls an extended family out of poverty. we also see the charm of simple lives unencumbered by greed. even in their most indulgent dreams, the characters wish only for basic comforts.

the final part of the book nudges us forward in time, post-lifeboat. here we see who made it and who didn’t and in the end, were they better off or not. laila’s writing is temperate, lucid, fluent. the book could have easily been three times its present size, packed with more details about the lives of its protagonists. but i like some of its open-endedness. like a great french film it lets you fill in the blanks and become part of the narrative. to me brevity and the natural, homespun quality of a story makes it all the more poetic.

in person, laila was animated and funny and refreshingly honest. she is passionate and not shy about expressing her views. she talked about morocco, the u.s., french colonialism, language and her love of words, the characters in the book and the process of writing.

laila lalami

geva readings: thomas repair

this last monday went to see “thomas repair” at geva. this was one of the best play readings i’ve been to so far, and i’ve been to many. truth be told, it was hardly a reading. the cast was solid and their performances absolutely electrifying.

the story unfolds mysteriously at thomas repair, a repair shop owned by jacob thomas, which advertises proudly “if it can be fixed, we’ll fix it”. it’s the middle of the night. jacob is busy tinkering with random bits and pieces of junk fashioned into a curious machine. a young girl called brenna appears at his door. she forces her way in using various pretexts but there is a sense of foreboding here. she articulates it in so many words – he should have seen this coming. she has brought her guitar with her. she painted it blue and wants the paint removed. we soon discover that she herself is literally blue, covered with splotches of blue paint all over her body. she enjoins jacob not to touch her for she infects whatever she touches with her inner “rot”. that rot is gradually revealed – a sexual relationship with a married man, an abortion, lies and deceipt, a final severance of ties with her parents. what jacob doesn’t expect is for his own family to be at the epicenter of brenna’s crisis of conscience.

her need to come “clean” is urgent and all-pervasive. slowly jacob’s daughter and son-in-law and finally his ex-wife are dragged into this emotional fray. jacob’s own life becomes more and more transparent: his hatred of his wife after she left him, the troubled relationship with his daughter whose existence he could never fully sift as disparate from the rage directed at his cheating wife or the contempt he felt for his loser son-in-law, and the self-perpetuating cycle of hate and defensive anger that his life has been reduced to since their departure.

brenna becomes the trigger that sets off this dysfunctional dynamite, to eventually create some space for truth and healing. she is an other-wordly presence with some very human problems. this touch of magic realism generates rich dramatic subtext throughout the play. similarly, recurring biblical verses speak to jacob’s religious convictions but also weave yet another fine pattern onto the play’s canvas. there are fables and edifying conclusions, mirror images and stark contrasts, metaphors, poetic prophesies, mundane realities and much humor. by electing to cast multi-racial actors in various roles the writer and director add another layer of interest.

this is the kind of play one can sink one’s teeth in. it has substance and nuance, a rich tapestry of what is humdrum and sublime, a sound dramatic arc and characters just waiting to fly off the page and walk in the door.

keith randolph smith, a terrific actor who has worked successfully both on tv and on broadway, played jacob thomas.

keith randolph smith

the 400 blows

just saw truffaut’s first film “the 400 blows” – most excellent. a young boy’s lonely life gradually veers into disorder, ending at a reform school for delinquents. jean pierre leaud, the film’s 13 year old star, is absolutely stunning as antoine. through his effortless performance we experience once again the awkwardness, the bravado, the dislocation and touching vulnerability of a teenager. the “psychological profile” of the film includes interviews with leaud at 14 and much later when he collaborated again with truffaut. leaud explains that he never got any script sheets from truffaut. they discussed the facts of each scene but leaud used his own words to verbalize thoses ideas. in one of the keenest representations of cinema verite, antoine talks to a psychiatrist at the reform school. the scene is pivotal and flawless in its execution. we never see the shrink. antoine sits in front of the camera and explains matter of factly how he is not his father’s real son, how he was born to an unwed mother who considered abortion, then tried to keep her child out of sight whether it was dumping him at his wet nurse’s, or parking him with her mother, and now relegating his future to the juvenile justice system. the film is simple, elegant, fluent. it’s charming, only as a film with a child protagonist can be. but truffaut goes further. not only is antoine the focal point of the film, he also commands more gravitas than all the adult characters around him. great cinema, kudos to the french new wave.

the 400 blows

the diving bell and the butterfly

i had been dying to see this film. i had read reviews in the new yorker and other magazines and everyone seemed to agree that this was one brilliant film. for me it didn’t hurt that it was in french and directed by new york artist julian schnabel. the film is based on jean-dominique bauby’s memoir “le scaphandre et le papillon”. bauby was the editor of elle magazine – a talented bon vivant who lived a cosmopolitan life. at the age of 43 he had a massive stroke and became a victim of locked-in syndrome, an indescribably cruel condition in which the mind remains as sharp and alive as ever but the body stops functioning, becoming a trap or an oppressive “diving bell”. bauby could only blink his left eye and that became his connection to the world. he wrote his book in his head, editing and re-editing every sentence inside his mind before painfully and slowly blinking at the correct letters of the alphabet and thus forming each word of each sentence.

schnabel’s artistic coup here is that we, the audience, are in bauby’s body and together we undertake his unnerving journey into locked-in syndrome. we see the filtered light streaming into his room, the blurry edges of reality as he passes in and out of consciousness and the confusing angles of his vision as he looks up from his hospital bed into faces hovering over him. and we hear him. we hear him as he comes to and tries to orient himself, as he answers simplistic questions with increasing weariness, as he uses humor in the face of much uncertainty. and we witness the moment of truth when he realizes that the doctors cannot hear him. this is arresting filmmaking. as his paralyzed right eye begins to dry up, we see from behind it what it looks like to have your eye sewn up with needle and thread. slowly stitch by stitch, we see the lights go out. we hear his agonized, horrified pleas as he tries to drive away the jaded surgeon performing the procedure and we feel his helplessness – so completely.

for the first third or so of the film we do not see bauby, except for a quick reflection he catches of himself on some polished surface. we see how people react to him, how they try to communicate with him, stooping awkwardly to stay in his frame of vision. only later in the film do we finally see bauby in the third person. the film changes pace and fluctuates between past and present. we see his prior life, the women he loved, his children. these memories are intercut with sessions with his speech and physical therapists, the involved procedures necessary to give him a bath, change his clothes, sit him in his wheelchair. we also see the day of his stroke as he drove his convertible on picturesque french country roads, his adoring son by his side. this shift between past and present is echoed by his changing moods – depressed, sarcastic, vulnerable, emotional, angry. we can feel his pulse, the waxing and waning of his spirit.

but my favorite scenes are those of exhilaration, when bauby realizes that because his body is weighed down by a diving bell, his spirit is all the more free like a butterfly. a symphonic montage of his life’s dreams transports us, enraptures us. like so many fluid paintings whose colors and textures bleed into one momentous masterpiece, foamy waves under a surfboard are transformed into the sepia tones of a heated bullfight, only to be turned once again into a panoramic shot of a lone skier gliding perfectly down a silvery slope. this is where schnabel the artist gets a chance to create a cinematic synonym for ecstasy. scenes between bauby and his aging father are also unforgettable – their proximity, intimacy and emotion are hard to witness.

all in all, this is a great film – true to the beat of bauby’s book, true to his witty, literate yet surprisingly light touch. jean dominique bauby died just days after the publication of his book in 1997.

the bookbauby

evie’s waltz

went to see “evie’s waltz” by carter w. lewis at geva theatre. the reading was part of geva’s american voices series.

what an explosive play – full of conflict and contradictions, bitterness, delusions, verbal violence and physical aggression. danny’s bizarre behavior results in his parents’ emotional detachment, especially on the part of his mother. it also invites persistent abuse at school. his friend and neighbor evie has her own problems. her mother has survived her father’s departure and the forced lowering of her expectations by turning to booze. evie is dangerously reckless with a long list of exploits to prove it, such as using a nail gun to pierce her tongue. she and danny have known and loved each other since they were children. together they seem to attain some sense of calm sanity, like partners in a perfect waltz. yet here they are – caught trying to buy a gun on the internet. there are detailed maps of their school stashed inside danny’s locker and a disturbing blood stain on evie’s neck as she shows up for a family barbecue at danny’s house. the play is a fusillade of words that summarizes every strained relationship in the play. danny’s parents argue the bejesus out of anything that comes their way. they have reached a place in their marriage where a spouse is just an irritant in a series of disappointments and verbal jousting is the only means of communication left. evie lashes out at them for all these reasons. she is smart but has her own distorted sense of reality. danny, whom we never see and who is perched in the woods behind his house looking at evie and his parents through the scope of a rifle, participates in the conversation through text messaging and well-timed rifle shots.

the play is well-written with a litany of intense, forceful, actionable language that brings home the clash between incongruous realities. the verbal savagery is an apt vehicle for exposing the violence inherent in 21st century american culture – whether it’s the story of the well-intentioned parents who have lost touch with their child and their own sense of self, the single mother who feels isolated and hopeless, the little girl who learns to act out to forge a sense of identity and acquire a false sense of control, and the little boy who deals with his oddity by taking revenge on the world. although the play is about more than the genesis of a school shooting it nevertheless touches a nerve, especially in view of the latest northern illinois university shootings.

here i have to say how ridiculous i find efforts to prevent such terrible tragedies by trying to identify possible assailants in their early childhood or through sensitivity training or some kind of social discourse where potential problems like violence in films, video games and rap music are happily pointed out. we can analyze our socio-cultural identity and the age we live in until we’re blue in the face. the answers need not be so broad, complex and ultimately impossible to redress. anger is natural and so is social alienation, teenage angst and mental disease. these are things we will never be able to fully understand or regulate unless we start replacing human beings with impeccably-wired robots. humans will be humans. the only thing that makes america different from other countries where school shootings are not commonplace is the easy availability of guns. anger is natural but the snappy and efficacious use of a gun to act out that anger is not!

away from her

away from her

at a time when big budget films like “atonement” (dizzyingly beautiful cinematography but story-wise much ado about nothing) and “3.10 to yuma” (beautiful wide-lens cinematography but flimsy storyline steadily crumbling into a sad pile of film debris) are making the oscar rounds, it’s good to partake of a film like “away from her”. there is a quiet elegance to this film, a spareness which is not thrust upon you like so many musical scores with too many notes, or a series of impeccably-constructed sets that demand your attention, or clever camera angles that take themselves too seriously. julie christie’s performance is radiant. the dialogue is economical, intelligent. the film’s structure is both skillful and assured. this is the kind of filmmaking i like – terse, nuanced, quiet, poetic, perfect. here is a trailer:

whose children are these?

last thursday i saw theresa thanjan’s “whose children are these?” at the u of r. it is a documentary about how post 9/11 domestic national security measures have affected the lives of three muslim teenagers. the film focuses on one such program, special registration, which required male non-citizens (as young as 16) from 25 countries, to register with the department of justice. under this program, 83,000 muslim men got registered, 14,000 were deported, yet not one terrorist was found. the deportations were on account of immigration status violations, even if these constituted minor snafus.

the film follows the trials and tribulations of 3 teenagers. as we become better acquainted with them we are moved by their experiences. navila’s father is kept in a detention center for almost a year, then deported to bangladesh. all of a sudden, she becomes the father figure in her family. “i am tired”, she says later in the film, “i just want my dad back”. sarfaraz, a basketball-crazed new yorker who has already lost both his parents, is on the point of being deported to pakistan. at the last minute media attention and activism save him from being sent to a country he knows absolutely nothing about. hager, who wears the hijab, is confronted by strangers on the subway. a man calls her an arab bastard before making a quick exit. she responds to this racism by becoming an activist and educating people.

the film sheds some light on a subject that has been completely ignored by mainstream media and tells the stories of people who are lost in the deafening noise surrounding terrorism and fear. it is an admirable effort to delve into that which is not kosher by today’s standards – muslim communities in america.

what was even more heart-breaking was what many young muslim students had to tell theresa after the screening. they thanked her for making the film and for telling a small part of their stories. they talked about being held up at jfk airport every time they enter the u.s. for 6-8 hours and being harrassed in sadistic ways. they talked about being sent to a detention center in upstate ny, where they were kept for 3 weeks in spite of legal representation and without any accusation of being linked to terrorism. i found it difficult to hold back my tears. it is one thing to look at statistics and read stories in the paper. it is another to hear first hand accounts of racial profiling and the open-ended (and totally legal) persecution of communities across america. it is all the more painful and terrifying if the people being persecuted look like you and pray like you…

whose children are these?

“doubt” at geva theatre

i’ve been interested in this play ever since playwright john patrick shanley’s interview on npr. i followed the play’s fortunes off broadway and read the reviews. cherry jones won widespread accolades. all in all, the play didn’t do too badly – it won the 2004 pulitzer prize, the tony award and every critics’ award. unfortunately, i still hadn’t seen it.

imagine my joy when i found out that “doubt” was coming to geva theatre. my husband had his own doubts – the last (and only) time he had been to geva was to see a vapid “camelot”. we had just moved to rochester from the nyc area and were sorely underwhelmed by the lackluster staging of this larger-than-life arthurian legend. long story short, my husband had vowed never to return to geva.

however, i could figure that this 3-character play was going to be a completely different affair – not a big stage production, but rather a study in character acting. i bought 2 tickets and we went to see the play last weekend. it was terrific.

it’s the writing that hits you first. it has a sharpness and sparkle that’s very new york. it’s witty and profound all at once. i found the subject matter very thought-provoking – not just its reality-based depiction of scandal in the inner sanctum of a closed, rigidly hierarchical system such as the catholic church, but on a broader level, the yin and yang between doubt and certitude and the values society or religion ascribes to each. when does certitude become fanaticism? when does doubt become moral ambiguity? these are important questions to ask in today’s world.

sean patrick reilly gives a nuanced performance, undulating dangerously between the roles of charismatic, hands-on, accessible priest before his congregation; self-important, bullying man when locked in a power struggle; and perhaps morally tepid, unrepentant child molester in private life?

but it’s judith delgado who steals the show. she is a powerhouse of wit and obstinate determination. we hate and admire her. there are no cracks in her shield of arrogant conviction until the very end of the play, when we are reminded of the dangers of absolute certainty, untempered by doubt.

doubt poster