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Posted in: Culture Wars & Censorship

Published on Jun 16, 2008 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Pajamas Media

Help! The Visitor


Has everyone seen Thomas McCarthy's universally praised film The Visitor? Or at least read the reviews about it? Having no idea what the film was about, I slipped in yesterday expecting to see a "romantic comic drama" which is how the snapshot review described it.

What I saw instead was a poignant, touching film about illegal immigration in post 9/11 America which, I now understand, has been embraced by almost every film critic.

Now, guess where the illegal immigrants are from. Which country or countries with terrifyingly surreal human rights records and almost permanent civil wars do our sympathetic heroes hail from? Congo or Sudan perhaps–or is it Rwanda or Somalia? How about Algeria, the former Yugoslavia, Guatemala, Chile, even Mexico since Mexican immigration is such a hot-button issue for us?

Of course, the illegal immigrants Tareq, Zainab, and Mouna (played movingly, brilliantly, by Haaz Sleiman, Dana Jekesai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass), are all Muslims from Syria and Senegal. They encounter a heartless, Orwellian American Immigration Department which detains, transfers, and deports charming and innocent Arab Muslims. We, the viewer, share the hero's growing involvement in their plight. Richard Jenkins plays the professor-hero, Walter Vale, who is inevitably drawn into their plight.

And, by the way, Mouna is Tareq's mother and she is an utterly charming and beautiful character. Mouna lives in Michigan where there is a large, radically Muslim population. Mouna's getting into bed with Walter her last night in America is not something that someone who lives in Dearborn, Michigan is going to do. This highly Westernized portrayal caters to Western sensibilities at the expense of reality. This is similar to what the film Paradise Now also did in terms of having a West Bank heroine who lives alone and lives quite an independent life. This kind of freedom is familiar to the West but forbidden and dangerous on the West Bank.

The Visitor presents a familiar story line which I have previously written about. For example, I have written about two British films: One, envisions the assassination of President George Bush and the other is a fictional feature titled The Children of Men. Both films show innocent, highly sympathetic Arab Muslims who are wrongly accused, on the run, living in hiding. I have also written about a movie in which a Arab Saudi-like Prince is seen as the potential liberator of his people, especially women, but of course, he is assassinated by CIA operatives.

While I personally know and love many sympathetic Muslim and ex-Muslim immigrants and totally understand that post 9/11 policy has led to tragic consequences for those Arab and non-Arab Muslims in flight from tyranny–I am equally concerned with the single-mindedness of the pro-Arab propaganda. Hollywood has not been making many films (and certainly no good films) about Arab Muslim terrorists. (There is The Kingdom, which I have also reviewed, but it received almost universal negative reviews. I thought it was an important film). They exist and the threat they pose is real but Hollywood is too politically correct to dramatize it. Their villains are still mainly white neo-Nazis, Nazi-era Nazis, and CIA agents.

Mind you: I am not saying that such villains do not exist; they do. But c'mon, Hollywood, the media, and the university world are afraid to describe anyone as "Arab" or "Muslim" lest the mere description of reality be seen as "racist." Thus, countless mainstream media articles refer to the ethnic Arab Muslims who are gang-raping and genocidally slaughtering black African Muslims and Christians in Sudan as "insurgents," "rebels," "men on horseback," "government sanctioned troops," and sometimes as "Arabs" but rarely as Arab Muslims.

I have an Israeli friend who covers Culture for a variety of Israeli newspapers. She told me that many of the best Israeli filmmakers are focused on portraying Israel's (small) role in Palestinian suffering. No Israeli filmmaker has depicted the (much larger) role that Arab and Palestinian leaders have played in Palestinian suffering. No Arab filmmaker has dared do so either. The Israeli films that are critical of Israeli policy are celebrated both in Israel and abroad. It speaks well for Israel that its artists and thinkers are free to criticize Israeli policy; if they are Jews, whether they are religious or not, they are actually fulfilling a Jewish religious commandment.

The problem: No Arab country allows its thinkers to publicly criticize its policies and thus, the Muslim world as well as Europe and America have come to believe that only Israel commits terrible human rights abuses. This belief is out of proportion to reality.

Who is funding what amounts to a perpetual propaganda machine against Israel and America? Inch by inch, film by film, people are becoming dangerously brainwashed. Thus, psychologically: All Arab Muslims are innocent victims; all Americans and Israelis are evil. Where will this end? What will become of us in the West?

I realize that most Westerners who are critical of their government's policies do not really want to live in Afghanistan or Iran–but they fail to understand that if they don't temper and balance their righteous criticism of western democracies, we might just end up living under even more repressive regimes.


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