x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

More than shock value

Film A controversial new picture from the writer of American Beauty examines Arab-American identity with darkly comic timing.

Director Alan Ball works with his lead actress Summer Bishil on the set of <i>Towelhead</i>.
Director Alan Ball works with his lead actress Summer Bishil on the set of <i>Towelhead</i>.

The filmmaker Alan Ball is dashing between a press junket and a magazine photo shoot, only to become stuck in snarled Manhattan traffic. Even the Oscar-winning writer of American Beauty and creator of the beloved US television series Six Feet Under must contend with the realities of congestion, but at least the Park Avenue jam allows Ball time to discuss his controversial new film, Towelhead, which opened in the US last week.

The dark but comic movie introduces us to Jasira, a Lebanese-American 13-year-old facing racial harassment from her peers and leering sexual attention from both boys and grown men. Adapted from the 2005 novel by Alicia Erian, the story unfolds in a blandly stultifying suburb of Houston, Texas at the height of Operation Desert Storm. "In America there is a tremendous ignorance about the Middle East and Arabs," Ball says, sitting on crossed legs in the back seat of the chauffeured sedan.

It's a lesson he has learnt repeatedly in the past few months, as community groups ranging from the Council on American-Islamic Relations to the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund voiced strong objections to the film's title. Despite the fact that Towelhead's Lebanese characters don't practice Islam -"We're Christians, just like everyone else in Texas!" Jasira wails - many reviewers, and even well-meaning supporters, have mistakenly characterised Jasira and her father, Rifat, as Muslims.

Though he understands the concerns of groups who fear the title will perpetuate racial stereotypes, Ball declined to abandon it, with the full support of Erian and the film's distributor, Warner Brothers. Some who initially protested changed their minds after he screened the film for them, Ball recalls. "They understood the context in which the word is used and they got that it's a story about what it's like to be called a towelhead," he says. "Forbidding the use of words like that only gives them more power."

Ball's stars are staunch allies in his defence of the film. Summer Bishil, who plays Jasira, spent most of her youth in the Middle East, first in Saudi Arabia and then in Bahrain, and Peter Macdissi, cast as Rifat, is himself Lebanese. Asked what she would tell moviegoers in the Gulf region who may never have the opportunity to see Towelhead, Bishil says, "That it's not racist. I understand that the title has caused upheaval, but we really do show just how damaging that word is."

"When someone is fearful, he sometimes judges other minorities just as viciously as he has been judged," Macdissi adds. His point is illustrated by his character's outrage upon learning that Jasira is dating an African-American boy. ("You can't come over because you're black," Jasira sobs to her suitor on the phone.) Though the title has indeed proven incendiary, the actual content of the film is arguably far more controversial. Jasira's is molested and ultimately raped by Mr Vuoso, her married-with-children neighbour (played by Aaron Eckhart, most recently seen in the Batman blockbuster The Dark Knight). Though Bishil was 18 years old when the movie was shot in Sept 2006, she conjures with alarming skill the awkward insecurity of a barely pubescent girl, leaving viewers all the more queasy at the predations of the man next door. (Jasira is also mistreated by her father, who abuses her physically and emotionally.)

While the film in no way condones sexual molestation, it does suggest that Jasira is conflicted about her participation - voluntary or not - in grown-up activities. Eventually, Jasira escapes the cycle of abuse and takes control of her body and her life. Bishil, now 20, holds forth with unwavering conviction on the subject, despite her relative youth: "People who are uncomfortable with this girl's coming of age need to wake the hell up," she exclaims. Recalling her years in Bahrain, she tells stories of adolescent girls - some Christian, some Muslim - who engaged in risky behaviour, in some cases contracting diseases.

"There are 13-year-olds getting HIV and Aids. "That's a tragedy. Jasira's story is a triumph. Something is wrong in a society where kids don't know about the dangers of HIV. That sends the message that society prefers fatality in children to talking about sex with them." She adds her opinion that the situation among teenagers in America isn't markedly different, despite the two cultures' varying mores.

Ball, 51, also sees hope in Jasira's story. He explains that part of his identification with Erian's novel was rooted in his own confusion and experiences as an adolescent. "Trauma can enrich and deepen life, and I think there's an inherent trap in the way we sometimes approach victimhood," he says. "Is Jasira entirely healed by the end of the movie? Of course not. But she's not entirely destroyed either."

Despite its heavy themes, Towelhead incorporates humour to a surprising degree. It is as much about identity as it is sexuality, and the script often plays for laughs various characters' confusion about ethnicity. Culturally impaired Americans mangle Jasira's name in every conceivable way; one minute she's "JAZZ-a-ra" and the next "ja-ZYE-ra". "It's ja-ZEER-a," she finally sighs. "Your parents don't speak Spanish at home?" someone angrily demands of Jasira after she mutters "No habla español." People assume she's Mexican, an experience shared by Bishil, whose dark features are often interpreted as those of a Latina (Bishil is actually of Mexican, Caucasian American, and Indian descent). "There has been a fixation on my heritage ever since I've been talking to the press about this film," the actor explains. "I never really noticed how ethnically different I am until now, but I understand why people are asking." The film's easiest jokes are visual gags that come at the expense of early Nineties fashion. Jasira and her schoolmates sport side-mounted pony tails, puffy LA Gear trainers, and truly tragic knitwear. And reprehensible as his actions may be, Rifat's solipsism and hypocrisy often reach comic proportions as well.

He forces Jasira to write her Lebanese grandmother, whom she has never met. Dictating the letter, Rifat extols his own virtues and doesn't allow Jasira the latitude to express herself. When her grandmother replies in French, of which Jasira has a poor command, Rifat forces her to have the note translated aloud in school, leading to further taunts and humiliation at the hands of her classmates. Macdissi says that the contemptible character of Rifat appealed to him because Ball's script imbued him with humanity, however flawed. Reflecting on earlier bit parts he's played, with character names like Syrian Guard and Iraqi Lieutenant, Macdissi says that he "would be happy to play a terrorist or 'Omar's Henchman' if those roles somehow illustrated the human condition, but unfortunately they typically don't".

Ball's film, on the other hand, is replete with humanity - innocent, depraved, and the grey sort that sometimes bridges the gap between the two extremes. He illuminates life's darker corners with the light of absurdity; after all it is humour, he says, that "serves the purpose of keeping us from despair".