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'Daughter' takes liberties with anti-Muslim images

If a society does not allow its women to speak to men other than their husbands, or own property, or vote, or drive cars, or appear in public unless covered in traditional dress from head to toe, or take trips without written permission, or have any rights to their children, and if that society nods approvingly when a husband beats his wife when she disobeys these rules--is that society sexist? Or are we racist to think so?

I ask these questions in a spirit of some confusion, after having seen a new film named "Not Without My Daughter." This is certain to be one of the most controversial films of 1991--and even more so because it opens nationally on January 11, only a few days before President Bush's deadline in the Middle East. The film stars Sally Field as an American woman who marries an Iranian man, bears him a daughter, and travels back to Iran with him, where she finds herself a virtual prisoner with no rights, and her daughter held hostage. At least, that is the way the movie sees it. From a Muslim point of view, the husband has exercised his rights in a perfectly legitimate fashion, by informing his wife of his will, and expecting her to obey.

The child is his, not hers, and having been born in the Islamic faith cannot be permitted to be raised by infidels.

The paradox is that the movie accuses Muslims of doing things which Muslims are only too willing to defend. It stirs up its audience against a group of people simply because their religious beliefs and social customs are different than our own. There are some difficult questions here.

Let me begin my declaring my own feelings. I do not agree with the Muslim view of the role of women, because I believe it denies women their basic rights as human beings. Yet, at the same time, I realize that Muslims believe their teachings are inspired by a deeper respect for women than we possess in the West. There are two sides to the issue, but only one is dramatized in this film--which takes a rigidly negative stance toward a group of people, seeing them completely in terms of scorn and hate. As I was watching "Not Without My Daughter," I was aware of one obvious fact: This is not a film that hopes to promote understanding between different groups of people, but an uncompromising propaganda film concerned primarily to make its audiences hate Muslims.

"Not Without My Daughter," directed by Brian Gilbert from a screenplay by David W. Rintels, opens in a bucolic American setting, where Sally Field, her Iranian-born husband (Alfred Molina) and their daughter vacation with her parents by the side of a wilderness lake. The father has been trying to teach his daughter to fish (having learned about fishing by studying a book). Everybody drinks lemonade (his is too sweet). He receives a telephone call, and seems distracted.

We cannot know what was said on the telephone, because his conversation is in his native tongue. It is one of the hallmarks of this film's style that no foreign speech is ever translated with subtitles. All of the "good" people in the film speak English. Everybody else speaks--usually in shrill, angry tones--in a tongue we cannot understand, and which is never subtitled. It must have been a deliberate decision to leave out the subtitles. Surely we would benefit by knowing the content of key conversations? Surely it would be interesting to hear the Muslim point of view articulated, whether or not we agree with it? Surely there must be one person in Iran who does not scream with spite and hostility?

Yes, but then the Muslims in the film would be somewhat humanized, and the film is at pains to make them alien ciphers. Racism works by denying a people its specific humanity, and turning it into a stereotyped collection of negative attributes.

The husband is a doctor. There's a perfunctory scene at a hospital, at which American doctors make crude racist comments about him. He grows unhappy and suggests a two-week vacation back home in Iran. His wife is uneasy, but finally goes along with the suggestion, after he swears on the Koran that no harm will come to her or her daughter.

From the moment they land at the airport, Iran is a nightmare of women shrieking at poor Sally Field, and police surrounding her with machine guns because she appears in public in indecent dress. Her husband's relatives flock around in noisy and hostile shouting matches. The visual style of the movie is to portray all the Muslim characters in mostly negative terms. They look at Field out of the corners of their eyes, and sneer, and exchange significant glances, and are angry toward her, and snatch her child away.

Eventually her husband confesses that they are not going home. They are staying. He has lied to her. And then the full horror grows on her: She has no rights as a wife. She must obey him. She has no rights to her daughter. Attempting to flee the country with her child would be an offense punishable by death. She is locked in a room, spied on by the women in the family, made accountable for every second of her day. When she is disobedient, her husband tracks her down and beats her in the street. And so on.

The message is clear. Muslims will lie, even on the Koran. They have no respect for the rights of women, and beat their wives, and are religious fanatics and child-snatchers. The only "good" Iranians in the movie are a liberated, Westernized man and his sister, who speak British-inflected English, and run an underground railway to help such women as Field escape from the country.

The movie begins with a reminder that it is based on a true story (a book by Betty Mahmoody, based on her own similar experience). It ends with the notation that many women such as the character in this movie are currently being held in Muslim countries against their wills. To dramatize this, the movie provides another character, an American woman who says she is a "happy" Muslim wife, and who turns up one day with a split lip after her husband was not too happy with her.

I am not an expert on the beliefs and practices of Muslim nations. I could pick up the phone and call an expert and find out all about them--but that is not my purpose here. I want to view this movie as a naive observer, like anyone who would plunk down some bucks and buy a ticket and walk into the theater. What do I see? Virulent anti-Muslim images from one end of the film to another, with no attempt to even begin to explain a point of view other than the one held by the filmmakers and, probably, almost everyone in the audience.

Well, what about it? Do religions have a right to hold strong opinions on controversial subjects? We would all say they do. Do they have a privilege to teach that women have no rights separately from their husbands? That was a tenet even in parts of Europe until well into the 20th century. Are they correct in withholding the right to vote from women? Remember that right here in the United States, women did not have the vote until 1920--fifty years after the right to vote was won by emancipated (male) former slaves.

Quite respectable mainstream "American" religions have policies designed to assure that children will be raised within a proscribed faith. (I myself, to take a convenient example, was raised as a Catholic because the church made that a prerequisite for my mother to obtain permission to marry a Lutheran.) Civil rights cases are fought every week involving parents who seek to raise their children by the tenets of a faith. I do not agree with the teachings of Muslims regarding the place of women and children. But I am not so narrow-minded as to forget that similar teachings have had currency in Catholic and Protestant countries right up almost to the present moment, and that we are still living with prejudices and traditions left over from those times.

I have no doubt Betty Mahmoody, the woman whose case inspires "Not Without My Daughter" suffered grievously, as who would not, at suddenly finding herself a captive in a strange land with no rights to herself or her child. I could not help but sympathize with her as she tries to escape from Iran with her child. I was on her side. And indeed this movie is so skillfully constructed that it is sure to grip and involve audiences in a very direct way.

Even though I sympathized with the protagonist, however, I could not resist certain mental reservations. My advice to that woman, had it been solicited, would have been to stay out of Iran at all costs, unless she knew her husband better than this character obviously did. "But why," a solicitous Swiss diplomat asks the heroine at one point, "did you agree to come here to Iran with him?" And the woman sobs, "I don't know." I have never climbed a mountain, not because I am afraid of falling, but because if I did fall I wouldn't be able to stop blaming myself, all the way down, for being stupid enough to voluntarily place myself in such a position.

The rules are clear. The Muslims take their religion seriously, as anyone professing a religion ought to. I have sympathy for those residents of Muslim countries who do not agree with the religion, for they have been deprived of rights without the consolation of faith. The genius of the American constitution was to separate church and state for precisely such reasons--so believers would be free to worship, and dissidents free to dissent. But it does not make Muslims villains that they practice their faith.

No matter what we as Americans may think of certain Muslim practices, we have values in this country of fair play, of open-mindedness, of abhorrence for racial stereotyping--values not incorporated into this film. Right now we seem prepared to go to war against a Muslim state, and conveniently here comes this movie portraying Muslims in the same sort of across-the-board negative terms once reserved for Japanese, or others of our enemies.

Regardless of the merits of the film, which are many, I felt uneasy because I knew the film's purpose was to manipulate me to hatred. Yes, Muslims have beliefs that in my opinion do not reflect the dignity of human beings. But I kept stubbornly reminding myself of old truths, such as that two wrongs do not make a right.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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