Tuesday, April 26, 2011

West Beyrouth (بيروت الغربية)‎ Film Review

Ziad Doueiri's 1998 film, West Beyrouth, seeks to understand the zeitgeist of the 1975 Lebanese Civil War. The director approaches this goal through the examination of a group of adolescents and their interactions, adventures, and concerns. Beirut is divided into Muslim and Christian districts, Al-Gharbiah (The West) and Al-Sharqiah (The East), respectively. Nonetheless, young adults such as the main protagonist, Tarek, continue to hate attending school, forming their first crushes, and arguing with their parents. In this sense, West Beirut attempts to chronicle ordinary life in Beirut in a time of uncertainty. The nature of Beirut is changing, but so is the nature of its people – especially the youth.

In his film, Doueiri largely deals with social concerns and shifts in the Beirut of the mid-1970s, rather than the political or military happenings. Therefore, the audience gains a grasp on a certain lifestyle of the people. For example, the entrenchment of the French system (especially in education) calls upon colonialist themes and notions of the East that had remained unchanged in European perspective for millennia. This attitude is represented in the first scene as Tarek is reprimanded for standing for nationalism over the French. As the film continues, the audience also learns of Tarek's distaste for French literature as well as Arabs; he proudly claims Phoenician origins. Moreover, Tarek serves as a bridge between the Muslim and Christian peoples of Beirut. His friends are a Muslim boy, Omar, and a Christian girl, May. Therefore, Tarek symbolizes a new generation of Lebanese – one concerned over the entity of nation, rather than faith. He represents a strand of hope for Lebanon's unity and future.

As the film highlights a contentious era in history, the film today is likely to evoke different feelings from different areas of the world. Both Americans and Lebanese are likely to view the era portrayed in West Beyrouth as foreshadowing the current situation in the country. Moreover, the film might surface a feeling of helplessness that the 1975 conflict presented in the film still continues today – religious factions are not at peace, internal politics has yet to mature, and Beirut is still threatened by the actions of bordering powers such as Syria and Israel. Similarly, Americans might place the film into their own narrative pertaining to Arabs and the Middle East. They might view the conflict in the film through the perspective of 9/11 and two wars. Contrarily, the social and light-hearted aspect of much of the film encourages the audience to appreciate certain nuances in shared humanity. And it is these nuances of love, compassion, and community in Doueiri's story that manage to dominate lesser themes.

Finally, what is the image of the greater Middle East and the Arab population that the audience will take with it when leaving the cinema? They will notice the amount of fluidity between the cultures of the West and Lebanon. The ubiquity of Western brand names, music, and pop culture references is clear. Audiences will notice the permeable nature of English words such as “Ok” – and knowledge of French literature, history, and language. Audiences will notice traits of 1970s Lebanon similar to 1970s United States or Europe: the pre-occupation with hedonism, sex, and smoking. Moreover, audiences will notice the spectrum of ideologies and lifestyles present in Lebanon. The film reaches the level of the common Lebanese street, past the heightened, contentious politics most viewers experience through the news. Viewers see Tarek's family that is liberal and forward-looking. But they also hear Omar's narration of his father's shift to a stricter adherence to Islam – forbidding music and television, requesting that his wife adopt the hijab. The audience realizes these ideological debates and dichotomies similar to ones ongoing in their own society. And through this exposure to an Arab film that is based on social realities and relationships, rather than politics, audiences imbibe the humanity that exists in the Middle East – bringing people closer together and wiser in their judgement.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Ram Ke Naam: A Critical Look at the Ayodhya Dispute

Anand Patwardhan's 1992 documentary Ram Ke Naam (In the Name of God) chronicles the tumultuous scene leading up to the eventual tragic destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. People are killed around India, religious sentiments are hurt – but Indian right-wing politics benefits. In the documentary, Patwardhan follows former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president L. K. Advani on his “Rath Yatra” – a right-wing campaign to mobilize Hindu unity for the creation of a Ram Mandir where the Masjid stood. The campaign and its consequential destruction of the Babri Masjid resulted in communal Hindu-Muslim violence across the nation, perhaps violence unmatched since the Partition era. Moreover, the perspective of the film depicts how a potentially small issue was exploited by right-wing political entities to enact a movement nationwide – a shift in primary identity for many people from being “Indian” to “Hindu” or even “BJP.” In that sense, Ram ke Naam manifests the debilitating, dangerous fire that spreads when ideology is preferred over practical understanding and tolerance.

As one watches the series of events that unfold in Patwardhan's narrative, many small points prove to become integral in the development of the rhetoric expressed by the Hindu right-wing. For example, Pujari Lal Das of the Ramjanmabhoomi Temple mentions the striking “political game” played by conservatives in which the right takes advantage of small subtleties to “cash in on Hindu votes.” Furthermore, Pujari Lal Das emphasizes how the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) support of the Temple is purely exploitive of political sentiments, with no true passion for the Temple establishment and its spiritual significance. He notes that the VHP does not pray at the Ramjanmabhoomi Temple, nor does the organization make donations. As Lal Das vehemently states, the politicians do not mind the killings, but only mind money and seats in Parliament.

Another interesting point in the social tensions is Patwardhan's portrayal of the lower castes along the path of the “Rath Yatra.” They find themselves lost amongst the crowd of hot-headed ideologists; they realize only the daily concerns of the people. Given Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, these poverty-stricken people whose physiological needs are not met do not deal with ideological extremism. Often, the most rational and liberal views come from people of this socio-economic group. For example, a homeless woman holds her baby and watches Advani pass through. She demands: “What do they do for the poor? We live on the pavements...!” Similarly, another group of men also complain of the misplaced priorities of the Indian right-wing; politicians' ideological issues defeat the people's practical concerns. They suggest that both a Mandir and the Masjid should stand in Ayodhya – and that this conflict itself causes economic problems for ordinary people. In essence, this theme shows how the Babri Masjid conflict was largely a result of political exploitation by a select few right-wing Hindus. The conflict was not born and bred by the people, but rather born and bred at the top to be disseminated as political propaganda to the greater populace.

The viewing of this film comes at a critical point in the course as one examines Hinduism's reform into today's modern, consolidated spiritual and political power. Figures such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda are applauded for introducing Hinduism to the world as tolerant and progressive, but what has happened to their vision today? Is this is the same perspective of Hinduism that one will perceive through today's news headlines? At the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Vivekananda introduced the West to a reformed Hinduism with this impression: “We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true. However, only two decades ago, we hear chants from the right-wing: “Maarenge maraaenge mandir wahiin banaaenge!” and “Jo swapna dekhte Baabar ke / Armaan miTaa-kar maanenge!” – and this rhetoric of hatred and intolerance has only augmented in recent years. Therefore, a study of Hinduism's key figures follows the same portrayal of idealism in Hindu society such as that idealism shown in the Ramayana. Ideally, Hinduism is tolerant; however, in reality, Hinduism is susceptible to the same pressures of politics and extremism just as many of the world's other faiths.

Anand Patwardhan's Ram Ke Naam documents a formative event in the development of how India's Hindu and Muslim populations understand religion, politics, and the distinction between the two in their country. The event reveals to Muslims their own helplessness when the government falls into the hands of the Hindu right-wing, mobilized by ideology and united by identity. The same event reveals to Hindus their own responsibility as the nation's vast majority to employ democracy to present India in a manner respecting tolerance, pluralism, secularism, and the 'bhaai-bhaai' mentality. In this sense, both Hindus and Muslims have a common goal as Indians – to uphold the dreams of Gandhi and Nehru, in creating an environment fulfilling Vivekananda's presentation of India's legacy of acceptance throughout history. 

Watch 'Ram Ke Naam' starting with Part 1