Thursday, October 20, 2016

Sonita (2015)

We Americans have automated and commodified war. We’ve done this so thoroughly that even out of the meager 12% of Americans who can even find Afghanistan on a map (26% for Iran), our instincts cause us to dismiss Iran and Afghanistan as those places we want to raze because “they hate us.” But what if someone in Iran or Afghanistan wants to make life better for both Americans and Iranians, but repressive cultural traditions, a totalitarian government, and the constant threat of suicide bombers reduces her to a statistic before she even can?

Sonita, a documentary by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami (who comes to play an active role) tells the powerful story of Sonita Alizadeh, a budding Iranian rapper whose socially conscious lyrics aim to end the tradition of forced marriages and the struggles of families living in abject poverty. For any of a dozen reasons—none her fault and few under her control—Sonita could have become a statistic, just another battered teenage housewife of a wealthy Afghan man, a living deed sold off by her own family, for the price of a used car, so they could put food on the table or afford a daughter-in-law of their own. Through a long succession of miracles—including the creation and release of this film (courtesy of the feminist non-profit Women Make Movies)—Sonita has a chance to take control of her life and to make a difference for the people of Iran.



Thursday, September 29, 2016

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. inspired me to start Turban Decay. Growing up Arab in rural America meant (among many, many other things) that seeing any images of “people like me” in a film felt like finding Waldo. I’d just feel so excited at seeing anyone in any film from the same part of the world as my ancestors.

Then I watched To Live and Die in L.A., a movie that opens with Friedkin using the language of film to sing the praises of Ronald Reagan and his tough talk on taxes. Before the film’s actual plot even started, an Arab showed up for a handful of seconds only to summarily detonate himself. It hit me that what I just saw has become not the exception but the rule. I’d feel so excited about representation that I willed myself to ignore the hateful propaganda within. I might feel different if much had changed for racial politics in the 31 years since its release, but, well, Donald Trump.…


Thursday, April 21, 2016

God's Not Dead (2014)

Yes, I know I haven’t updated this blog in months. Sorry. I have a day job. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s do this.…


My girlfriend recently talked me into hate-watching God’s Not Dead. I really didn’t want to. Frankly, only one thing about this turkey ever interested me: the irony that this film exists to gainsay atheists… but technically, atheists agree with the title. Of course, the film fully lived down to my expectations of wholesale incompetence. God’s Not Dead probably unseats Buffalo ‘66 as the most spectacularly oblivious display of psychological projection in film history.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris, je t'aime (2006)

As of this writing, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris have claimed over 100 lives and left over 300 people injured. Pols and pundits have already come out of the woodwork to use this tragedy as an excuse to spread their own agendas, to spread otherization and hate. But as Martin Luther King famously said, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” More to the point, by hating Muslims, we give ISIS exactly what they want. Like any person with an ounce of humanity, my heart goes out to the victims, their families, and the city of Paris (as well as the victims of the bombings in Beirut). In that spirit, let’s counter that hate with love, as embodied in the anthology film Paris, je t’aime.


76 Links of Muslims Denouncing Terrorism

Update: I’ve already had people respond with something to the effect of, “Only 73?! What about all the other billion plus Muslims?” Several of these include lists of other Muslims speaking out. But more to the point, I shouldn’t have to provide literally over a billion links to almost every single Muslim in the world to make you understand the wrongness of bigotry and why you don’t get to pay back tragedy with genocide.


Muslims hear it all the time.

“Why haven’t Muslims condemned these attacks?”
“Why have Muslims remained silent?”
“Why haven’t Muslim leaders said anything?”

For expediency, let’s ignore the bigoted undercurrents inherent in presuming over 1.5 billion people as guilty unless they actively denounce the actions of less than 100,000 others who claim to share their faith. Let’s also ignore that ISIS has killed mostly Muslims who don’t share their opinions. Let’s then also ignore that ISIS has explicitly stated that they do what they do in the west to turn westerners against Muslims in the hopes of driving up ISIS’s numbers. So to actually answer these questions…

Friday, July 24, 2015

Hidalgo (2004)

One of the most important Arab actors in history—and a personal hero of mine—died earlier this month. For decades, Omar Sharif defined Hollywood’s Middle Eastern man. His performances varied from the cunning to the credulous, from the sleazy to the debonair, but he always brought that mysterious, exotic charm that became associated with the better ethnic roles in Old Hollywood. I originally intended to write a eulogy, but The Guardian eulogized circles around anything I could have written. Instead, let’s celebrate Sharif’s life by talking about his work. I thought I’d start with his last high-profile film: Hidalgo, a mediocre movie buoyed by his warm, charismatic presence.



Monday, May 4, 2015

Escape Plan (2013)

As an Arab-American of Muslim upbringing, the last 14 years have made one thing painfully, ineluctably clear: although I identify as a pacifist and I’ve never even met a terrorist, my fellow countrymen have no qualms about sacrificing my liberty for their security.

I don’t even just mean hate crimes. At any time, any day, for any or no reason, I could suddenly get disappeared by authorities. The feds could immure and torture me in some black site in the heart of America, or I could face even worse treatment in Guantanamo Bay, or face even worse treatment in an unknown facility on the far side of the world, all with no evidence that I’d done anything wrong, at a site specifically chosen to deprive me of the use of a lawyer, with an arbitrary “enemy combatant” tag designed to make sure I can’t use the Sixth or Seventh Amendments. They could intentionally set a prohibitive fine; maybe they just wouldn’t tell anyone they had me in custody at all. They could convince my friends and loved ones that I’d done something to deserve this. (More of them would believe it than I want to admit.) I might never speak to my lawyer, family, or friends again. I might literally never see the light of day again. The staff at these prisons know they could torture, brutalize, starve, and possibly murder me with no provocation and no fear of punishment for decades, if ever. Whatever higher authorities would do to my torturers wouldn’t compare to what they’d do to anyone who’d try to stop it.

You might respond with blandishments about how, as a civic-minded film critic with a graduate-level education, I have nothing to worry about. But don’t waste your time or mine by claiming this has never happened to people who don’t deserve it. Only an idiot would believe that the government only punishes “bad people.”

So Escape Plan—a movie taking place inside “the Tomb,” a super-duper-max, ultra-secret, privately-owned, putatively “escape-proof” prison peopled with dissidents and Muslims—hits home for me.


The film centers on highly-paid escapologist Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) and his attempts to escape the Tomb with the help of curiously solicitous fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Breslin also faces the reptilian Warden Hobbes (James Caviezel) and his violent assistant (Vinnie Jones).