Sunday, February 5, 2012

Arranged: Three Takes

Last night I watched the movie, Arranged, by Cicala Filmworks, starring Zoe Lister-Jones and Francis Benhamou.  The film pleased me very much on an emotional level; but at an intellectual level it gave me many things to think about.

As far as appealing to the senses, this film is a prize. It it beautiful. The actors and actresses are lovely to look upon, and excellently cast.  The settings, too are wonderful.  And not just beautiful, but bleak, lonely, uncomfortable, confused, according to need. The visual touches coincide perfectly with the various aspects of the plot.

The primary story line is based upon the true story of an Orthodox Jewish teacher in Brooklyn, who develops a close friendship with a devout Islamic woman, the mother of one of her students.  In the movie, the friendship is similar.  But in the film, both young women, Rochel and Nasira, are teachers in a Brooklyn public school.  The women share the obvious bond of living within a traditional societal system, and yet also participating in the mainstream world.   But it soon becomes apparent that they have another thing in common.  The parents of both young women are in the process of finding a match for their daughters.

After I watched the move, my mind was spinning with contradictions.  Firstly, I loved the movie!  Besides the beauty of the movie, I loved the respect shown to those of traditional lifestyle.  Although we have few blatant religious rules that dictate such a lifestyle, we do choose rules for our family that are more traditional than many.  I have many friends who have chosen a much more traditional lifestyle than we have.  I have Lutheran Christian acquaintances who even now discuss the merits of arranged marriage and encourage the idea that marriage is bigger than in individual choice. 

We don't allow our children to "date."  We've tried to teach them that dating ought to be a way of finding someone to marry, not just passing time socially with a peer of the opposite gender.  In that light, it is to be reserved for people of a certain maturity, and participated in only by those who are ready for marriage and actively looking for a spouse.  And their behavior during the process ought to reflect a respect for the goal of finding a Godly spouse. 

I very much appreciated the respect shown by the producers of Arranged to not only a traditional lifestyle, but toward religion itself and devout people of faith.

I liked the stereotyped personality of the principle.  She was quite one-dimensional, which in general detracts from a production.  But by including such a personality, but the film was able to encapsulate in a short amount of time, the kind of pressures and bigotry against which people of traditional lifestyles and strongly held religious convictions stand, and the insulting attitudes to which they are routinely subjected.

However, as I thought more about the film, and tried to set the emotional appeal aside in order to really think about the movie, there were a few things I didn't like.

OK, here comes a big paragraph of statement insurance.  I don't want anyone to think I'm claiming any kind of expertise in this.  These are just some thoughts based on the limited experiences I've accumulated and the somewhat eclectic reading I've done.  I realize I live a fairly sheltered life, in the sense that I've mostly lived in homogeneous communities.  When I have lived in more multicultural areas, it was years ago.  And I've never lived in an ultra-urban, mixed city like Brooklyn.

However, I found the movie to be a little bit more pro-Muslim than pro-Jewish.  Not outside of what might be considered normal character sketches.  It's entirely possible that the producers simply chose two kinds of family  personality and two kinds of individual personality and randomly assigned them.  But this bent was noticeable enough that it made me question the motives of the producers.  While Nasira was very confident and comfortable in her own skin, Rochel was reserved, sometimes to the point of social awkwardness.  Nasira's family seemed mostly comfortable with the friendship between these two girls, whereas Rochel's family could not accept it (it appeared to have more to do with the social risk to Rochel's marital prospects than to any innate bias against Muslims; ie, what would the neighbors think?).

I don't have much first hand experience with either of these people groups, so perhaps the cultures are accurately portrayed.  I'm finding it difficult to express my concerns without engaging in judgement based upon mere stereotypes, which is exactly the sort of thing the movie seems to stand against. 

The Witherspoon Institute conservative thinktank in Princeton, NJ, gave the film a positive write-up in, "Arranged: Happily Wholesome in a Brooklyn World".

New York Times movie reviewer, Jeannette Catoulis, reflected what I believe to be a rather typical contemporary lack of understanding  toward traditional religion and traditional lifestyle choices in "Teachers United".

But I read some of the variety of comments on the New York Times article.  I think they capture some of my mixed thoughts on the movie.  Comment #14 reflects perfectly why I enjoyed the film.

Comment #17 reflects some of my negative instincts about the film. The commenter here seems more extreme and vitriolic in his opinion than I feel.  But I can see the validity in some of his concerns.  In fact, I had noticed several of them myself.  I think the commenter goes too far; but the film does seem somewhat self-conscious in its mainstream portrayal of the Muslim family.

Most of my discomfort with this film stems from an issue I have read and written about in the past.  We in our western world, however multicultural we like to think we are, always run into a catch-22 with the religion of Islam.  When discussing a film about intercultural relationships, and respect for differences, a person feels somewhat shallow or calloused taking stand against a certain culture.  But that is the exact dilemma our multicultural, global world cannot escape with Islam.

Extreme Christianity is often compared to strict Islam.  But there is a significant difference.  The violent element of what might be called extreme Christianity, is outside of a true Biblical perspective and therefore marginalized.  Whereas in Islam, the most extreme elements are those who are most faithful to the original intent of the religion.  I have only a cursory familiarity with any Islamic people at this time in my life, although I have known a few previously, well enough to engage in polite conversation, but not really know them.  But I have read and studied the religion quite a bit, including several books written by people both currently within Islam and also former Muslims, who live in fear of their lives because of leaving their religion.  My husband has read the Koran several times and has assured me that the violence espoused by the most extreme factions of Islam, and by the main of Islam during the Middle ages, is in fact very much in line with the teachings in the Koran.

The truest interpretation of Islam's holy writings demand either the destruction of or conversion of anyone outside itself.  The religion also allows for adherents to punish its followers who are not ardent enough.  And Islam also allows its followers to lie to anyone who is not Islamic.  That leaves those of us outside the religion at a decided disadvantage in understanding, and in bridging any cultural divides.

I am not saying here that a woman like Arranged's Nasira, or a family like hers, could not exist.  I'm trying to show an intrinsic difficulty with it.  There are many Islamic families that do not support the extreme elements of the religion.  But they are in danger if they are too obvious about their dislike of it.  In many areas they cannot safely be too friendly with those outside their religion.  There are individuals and families each year, especially in Islamic countries, but even in the West, who are persecuted through physical, emotional, and economic means for being too accepting of other people and ideas.  It happens.

And simply because of the permission within the tenets of the religion to lie to those they consider infidels, a person outside Islam who has interaction with an Islamic family or individual, can never be confident that what they are seeing is the true face of Islam, or of the individuals with whom they are acquainted.

In our multicultural, global world, we like to think we can all just get along, but the very essence of the religion of Islam is so far removed from our western ideas that I'm not altogether sure that particular bridge can be crossed.

For a look at true Islam and it's difficulties in the West, see Cruel and Usual Punishment, by Nonie Darwish, and Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Both books also highlight the violent nature of Islam in Islamic countries.  Saved by her Enemy is another book that shows the danger to Muslims who are too friendly toward those outside the religion.  There are many others with first hand experience who have written on this subject, but these are three books that I found very compelling.

Joe has read several things by Bet Ye'or, and highly recommends them.

No comments: