Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why Do They Hate Us?

Come September, the world will mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Five months before the actual event, the Internet is already starting to come alive with questionnaires asking people if they can remember where they were and what they were doing at 8:46 a.m. EST on September 11, 2001.

I was awakened by a phone call from my business partner, who was living on the East Coast. But as Americans responded with a mixture of shock and awe to the live coverage of the Twin Towers collapsing, something else began to happen. Bitterness and prejudice directed at "the other" -- and sentiments that may have remained quiescent because they were not politically correct -- started to fester and erupt from folks who could not separate the attackers in their minds from the harmless and respectable immigrants (and children of immigrants) they encountered in their daily lives.

Forgetting that most of their parents had been immigrants, some people found it acceptable to lash out at Punjabi cab drivers wearing their traditional dastars (turbans). On September 16, 2001, 49-year-old Balbir Singh Sodhi (a Sikh man who owned a gas station in Mesa, Arizona) was shot to death by a gunman. During the 2008 Presidential election, conservatives stoked the rampant Islamophobia among members of the Tea Party to a point where many feared that Barack Obama might not live long enough to be elected President.

Racism continues to run rampant in conservative circles, but how can anyone be surprised at this phenomenon when one considers the number of Republicans who refuse to acknowledge that Hawaii is our 50th state (rather than a foreign country), that President Obama was born in Hawaii and raised as a Christian (rather than being born in Kenya and raised as a Muslim), and that freedom of religion does not exclude the building of mosques in America?

One thing is for certain: Whenever a war or terrorist incident threatens Americans, the families of ethnic immigrants have reason to fear for the well-being of their friends and relations. While there are many brave citizens in the United States, our nation is also filled with cowards whose fear and ignorance far outweigh their patriotism.

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For families of Middle Eastern descent living in New York City after 9/11, a feeling of paranoia was fully justified. People whose facial features made them suspicious had every reason to be terrified of potential DHS raids or violence. With "extraordinary rendition" becoming the buzzword du jour, politically active Arab-Americans had every right to worry about being "disappeared."

Zeina Durra's new film, The Imperialists Are Still Alive! does a good job of communicating those fears to the audience. Unfortunately, it does little else. Although Durra's film received the Best Narrative Feature Award at the 2011 San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival, I found it to be a crashing bore.

Asya (Meloudie Bouchez) in a taxi

That's not to suggest that the film doesn't grab its audience's attention during its opening moments. Born in Paris, Asya (Eloudie Bouchez) is an artist of Middle-Eastern descent who is trying to build her career in New York. Her latest project is to photograph herself in the nude (but with her face concealed) as she stands among a group of Arab women holding assault rifles. The photo shoot is intended to make a powerful political statement about modern Arab women.

Unfortunately, the images she tries to create might also draw unwanted attention from the FBI and CIA. So Asya and her new boyfriend, Javier (José Maria de Tavira), are forced to find a way to communicate in silence as she hurriedly packs the toy guns from the photo shoot into duffle bags. They then set out on a quest to find an appropriate dumpster in which to get rid of the suspicious fake weapons.

Asya (Meloudie Bouchez) heads through a Chinese restaurant
en route to a private party in The Imperialists Are Still Alive!

After that, the camera follows Asya and her friends (including a very drunk fashion model named Tatiana (Karolina Muller)) as they make the rounds of gallery openings, private parties, late night restaurants, drinking sessions, and an occasional rendezvous in a women's restroom or a rented limousine. Along the way friends, family, and total strangers try to impress upon Asya the fact that having a Mexican boyfriend (even if he's a shining intellectual with a smoking hot body who's a fairly laid-back Ph.D. student at Columbia) is beneath her social status.

An Egyptian cab driver belittles Asya's taste in men. Her Mexican maid warns her against getting involved with a Mexican boyfriend. And Asya's well-to-do mother and her friends question her lifestyle as they drive around in a chauffeur-driven limousine, Meanwhile, Asya can't stop obsessing over the whereabouts of her childhood friend, Faisal.

Javier (José Maria de Tavira ) and Asya (Meloudie Bouchez) in bed

Riddled with anxiety, Asya fears that Faisal may have been "disappeared" by the CIA while en route to Houston. Whenever she catches glimpses of news about the latest bombings in Lebanon (Faisal's eventual destination), she becomes increasingly concerned for his health and safety.

Billed as "comedy of radical solidarity and designer purses, shifting easily between Lower East Side lofts, Lebanese American grocers, Chinatown clubs, and Mexican American house parties," The Imperialists Are Still Alive! struggles to depict a tiny subculture of émigré intelligentsia in New York. But, as Durra readily admits:
"I don’t get into Middle Eastern festivals because they don’t think I’m Arab enough. In a way, that’s sad. I’d love them to see my film. It’s very funny. But I’m not doing stories about a guy losing his kebab in a market and walking through a desert with his father. I’m a feminist and I’m proud to be Middle Eastern. But you make better work when you look at it as art and work out what you want to say that way."
Unfortunately, The Imperialists Are Still Alive! quickly loses momentum because (a) the people at its center are such shallow, boring, and unsympathetic characters and, (b) her scattershot style of narration doesn't do much to keep the audience interested. Eventually, Faisal reaches Asya on her cell phone and Durra's film mercifully comes to an end. Here's the trailer:

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Barely five minutes in length, an animated short written and directed by Arjun Rihan does a much better job of storytelling.  Topi (which will be screened as part of the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival) has a clarity which pits its action against racial tensions between India and Pakistan shortly after the British government divided the subcontinent. You can watch Topi in its entirety in the following clip:

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Down in Mountain ViewTheatreworks is producing the regional premiere of Snow Falling on Cedars. First published in 1994, David Guterson's poignant novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography when adapted for the screen in 1999. In order to understand why the novel and movie have had such tremendous appeal, it's important to re-examine some 20th century American history.

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy conducted a surprise air strike on the U.S, naval base at Pearl Harbor. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the infamous Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal of all Japanese Americans (many of them natural born citizens) from the West Coast.

After the first evacuation order was issued on March 24, 1942, some 45 Japanese American families were forced to leave Puget Sound's quiet Bainbridge Island. According to Wikipedia, many of the Filipinos who had worked for the Japanese strawberry farmers living on Bainbridge Island took over the management of their crops and recruited First Nations families to work in their fields. The small population of Indo-Pinos that resulted from relationships developed in the strawberry fields was an unexpected by-product of Executive Order 9066.

In 2007, Kevin McKeon's stage adaptation of Snow Falling on Cedars premiered at Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre. His play has since been produced by the Community Asian Theatre of the Sierras, the Hartford Stage Company, CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore and the Portland Center Stage. As the playwright notes:
"At this historic moment, post-9/11, our rights are under terrific political pressure.  A story like this reminds us of how paranoia and fear during war prompt us to act irrationally.  This is a very elegant story where the overriding theme is prejudice.  But it's also a story of atonement and that really touches a chord."
Maya Erskine as Hatsue Imada (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Directed by Robert Kelley, the Theatreworks production reveals some obvious structural problems with McKeon's adaptation. Some of its style is rooted in the "Word for Word" type of readings in which McKeon was initially involved at the Book-It Repertory Theatre. The way he ends each act seems to indicate a much greater allegiance to how the story was told on the printed page than how one needs to punctuate a moment of live theatre, particularly to end an act.

While I was impressed by Andrea Bechert's set designs and found the story quite poignant, this is one of those rare productions where, as I left the theatre, I found myself most impressed by Gregory Robinson's masterful sound design.

Some people might think that's a slap against the production, but it most definitely is not. Robinson did a spectacular job of balancing the lonely sounds of fishing boats trapped in fog against the plaintive sounds of a cello; greeting the audience with the sounds of sea birds and livening up the depressing ambience of the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar with sounds of popular songs from the 1940s and radio news broadcasts.

Kabuo Miyamoto (Tim Chiou) and Hatsue Imada (Maya Erskine)
spend their wedding night at Manzanar (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Of the large cast, I was particularly impressed by Will Collyer's performance as Ishmael Chambers, and Anne Darragh's multiple performances as Etta Heine, Mrs. Chambers, and Dr. Whitman. Strong support in multiple roles came from Will Springhorn, Jr., Mia Tagano, and Randall Nakano,

McKeon's second act is primarly focused on the courtroom in which Kabuo Miyamoto (Tim Chiou) is on trial as a suspect in the mysterious death of his childhood friend, Carl Heine, Jr. In a beautifully written flashback scene, Kabuo (who had enlisted and served in the Army's famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team) comes to the rescue of Carl's marooned fishing boat.

When the two men try to settle some unfinished business about a land deal, it becomes obvious that Carl's emotions have been poisoned by his mother's severe prejudice against the Japanese. The moment in which the usually quiet Kabuo retaliates by calling Carl "a Nazi bastard" is a gripping piece of theatre.

Tim Chiou gave an exceptionally strong performance as Kabuo, aided in the courtroom scenes by Edward Sarafian's portrayal of his attorney, Nels Gudmundsson. Performances of Snow Falling on Cedars continue at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through April 24 (you can order tickets here).

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