What happens when six Iranian young women disguise themselves as men so they can watch a World Cup qualifying match in Tehran? This is the situation in which director Jafar Panahi places his talented actors (all nonprofessionals) who play their fictional roles in the very real setting of a soccer stadium in Iran, where the national team faces Bahrain.
Women are not allowed in sports stadiums in Iran. So when Panahi went to get permission to make his film, he told the authorities that it was about boys who go to a soccer game. He got approval and promptly made Offside, a humorous and engaging film that defies easy categorization. It's not quite a sports movie -- we only get a few distant glimpses of the soccer match -- and it's not a purely fictional film. But one thing is certain: It is a film worth seeing.
Panahi got the idea for the film several years ago when his daughter wanted to accompany him to a soccer stadium. He didn't think she would be allowed in, but he decided to take her anyway. She was indeed turned away, but to his amazement, found a way in and joined him in the stands.
Winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Offside captures the plight of women soccer fans who try -- often unsuccessfully -- to bluff their way into the stadium.
In an early scene, we see a young woman trying to pass as a man on a stadium-bound bus full of men. One passenger points her out to his friend who remarks that women know how to get into the stadium. Instead of reporting her to the authorities, they let her continue her quest to get in. Panahi makes it clear at the outset that people do find ways to get around the rules, and not everyone agrees with enforcing them.
Besides providing lively, character-driven entertainment, the film comments on the political and social contradictions in Iranian society, where, for example, custom prevents women from attending soccer games (to shield them from profanity) but allows them access to movie theaters.
Much of the film takes place in the holding area on the upper level of the stadium where women are forced to stay until the vice squad picks them up and takes them away. The women can hear the crowd but can't see anything, so they plead with the soldiers to let them inside the stadium, saying that they can blend in with the crowd. One woman points out that Japanese women were in the stadium when Japan played Iran. "Well, they couldn't understand the swear words," says one soldier. "So my problem is that I was born in Iran?" she retorts.
The camera often takes a veritÃƒÂ© documentary approach, blurring the line between fact and fiction. Some of the soldiers are not just playing a role; they are real soldiers serving in the Iranian army. And Panahi's direction is so self-assured and the acting so natural that you forget you are watching actors. He captures the fervor of soccer fans -- male and female -- and their intense desire for their country to qualify for the World Cup.
The script, written by Panahi and Shadmehr Rastin, is filled with unexpected humor, particularly from the women who have the best lines. Upon seeing a tomboy smoking a cigarette, one of the soldiers asks if she's a girl or a boy. "Which do you prefer?" she replies.
Another laugh-out-loud scene occurs when one of the women must use the bathroom, which is, of course, for men only, and we see how one soldier struggles with the task of taking her there and "protecting" her from the graffiti on the walls. Here, Panahi shows the perspective of the soldiers, who are not comfortable with confining the women but also don't want to get in trouble with their superiors and risk having more time added to their mandatory military service.
According to press notes, none of Panahi's films have been released in Iran; however, Offside did have one at least one screening in Tehran at the Fajr International Film Festival last year.
Panahi's previous films have been described as neo-realist and dealt with poverty-stricken men and the struggle of women in Tehran, apparently subjects the Iranian government doesn't wants its people to be reminded of. Panahi says that he makes his films for Iranians, but so far, his main audience has been people outside of Iran who have seen his work at film festivals and in art house theaters.
Offside has been a darling of the film festival circuit, and deservedly so. It is now making the art house cinema rounds in the U.S.
What Is Ralph Nader's Legacy? An Unreasonable Man tries to answer this question as it chronicles Ralph Nader's life and career as a public interest attorney, consumer advocate, and presidential candidate. The two-hour documentary opens with a George Bernard Shaw quote: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." This is the theme the film is intent on proving -- that Nader is a man of uncompromising principles and it is those principles that have guided his decisions throughout his career.
The first scene shows Nader announcing his 2004 presidential candidacy followed by James Carville's response, claiming that there was no other person on the face of the earth for whom he had greater contempt than Nader. Nation magazine columnist Eric Alterman proceeds to thank Nader for the Iraq war, the tax cuts, the destruction of the environment and the destruction of the Constitution. Alterman and journalism professor Todd Gitlin later describe Nader as a "megalomaniac" and "intellectually dishonest," among other things. Ouch.
Clearly, many people blame Nader as the reason Al Gore lost the election in 2000, and they were even angrier when he decided to run again in 2004. Directors Steve Skrovan and Henriette Mantel, who formerly worked for Nader in the late '70s, set out to remind us of his career as an unparalleled advocate for consumer protection and to examine whether Nader deserves to be the Democrats' scapegoat.
Over the years, Nader has crafted a stunning track record on behalf of consumers, including the establishment of government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the passage of landmark legislation, including automobile safety laws, the Freedom of Information Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as the founding of numerous public interest organizations. He and his various public interest organizations have been responsible for numerous consumer protections, such as making air bags and seatbelts standard car features and product labeling de rigueur.
The most fascinating part of the film begins with his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, which exposed the lack of safety in the design of the Corvair, a car manufactured by General Motors. We see clips from the Congressional hearings that resulted from the book's publication. And we learn that he successfully sued General Motors for invasion of privacy when the corporation hired detectives to find information that could damage his reputation. However, they didn't find anything -- to this day his personal life remains a mystery even to his friends -- and he used the settlement money for future advocacy work. Nader's storied career as a consumer activist was launched.
His work inspired scores of college students (dubbed Nader's Raiders) to work for him and write reports on a plethora of consumer issues ranging from water pollution to the FDA's weak oversight of the food industry. Archival footage of enthusiastic students offers a glimpse of how inspiring Nader was. Many former Nader's Raiders fondly recollect their experiences working for him.
By the 1970s, he became a cultural icon, appearing on the cover of People magazine and hosting Saturday Night Live. And he became a Washington insider, working with Carter administration. He was so esteemed and trusted that people were writing him from all over the country, asking for his help on any number of things. They believed that he could solve their problems no matter what they were. One woman even sent him the drive shaft to her car in the hopes that he could find a way to fix it.
The film briefly slips back into his childhood growing up in Winston, Connecticut, where Nader family dinners were a time when everyone had to come prepared to discuss that night's assigned topic. Nader recounts that when he was 10 years old his father asked, "Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?" after he came home from school.
Moving quickly through the Reagan years, the documentary attributes the removal of hard-fought consumer laws, deregulation, the rise of corporate power and the Democrats backing away from protecting citizens and embracing corporate money. But it was also a time during which Reagan was embraced not only by Republicans but also by many Democrats. After all, Reagan was dealing with a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate -- something that the film doesn't address.
Then the directors shift to the 2000 election and talk to people critical of Nader's presidential bid as a Green party candidate, including former Nader's Raiders, as well as his supporters. And we see how some of the people who supported Nader in 2000 distanced themselves from him in 2004.
Skrovan says they wanted to recreate the arguments around the four accusations that came up repeatedly in 2000: Nader should have dropped out; he spent too much time in the swing states; he claimed that there wasn't any difference between the Republicans and the Democrats; and he should have worked within the Democratic party. Nader's critics agree with those arguments while his campaign staff and others refute them. The argument goes back and forth and this section gets bogged down in talking heads, especially after the dynamic and inspiring section on the impact of his earlier work.
For many people, Nader's legacy as a veteran consumer activist gets overshadowed by his 2000 and 2004 foray into presidential politics. And the fallout for some of his organizations has been a significant loss of financial support. Public Citizen, the organization he founded in 1971, even went as far as removing his name from its letterhead.
Skrovan (who voted for Gore) admires Nader for never giving in to cynicism and for his unflagging desire to make democracy a reality. An Unreasonable Man presents many opinions through the 40-some interviews and leaves it to us to decide whether he was a man of principle or a man who fell behind the times.
An Unreasonable Man is currently playing in theaters across the country and on Comcast digital cable as video on demand. For a list of cities and dates, visit http://www.anunreasonableman.com/calendar.cfm.
For the past three years, the Israeli government has been building a wall through the West Bank and around Jerusalem in order to, it claims, combat Palestinian terrorist attacks. But Palestinians and other critics say Israel is using the wall as a means to annex Palestinian territory. French-Israeli filmmaker Simone Bitton focuses on the impact of the wall's construction in her new documentary, titled simply, Wall.
The Israeli wall was initially approved by the Israeli Defense Cabinet in 2001. At that time, according to the Israeli Ministry of Defense (MOD), the "security fence" was intended "to prevent illegal entry into Israel through the seizure, interrogation and arrest of [terrorist and criminal] elements" and to be constructed in three separate areas for a total of 80 kilometers. However, the MOD determined that in order for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and police to operate more effectively, "a contiguous obstacle" was necessary. That is what remains under construction today.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which refers to the wall as the "anti-terrorist fence," says it will eventually be 720 kilometers or 480 miles long -- nine times the length of the original plan. Parts of it include huge concrete sections, electronic chain-link fences, razor wire, paved patrol roads, dirt roads, and ditches -- all of which are under constant surveillance by the Israeli army.
A number of international bodies have criticized the construction of the wall. Amnesty International said the majority of the wall is being built on Palestinian land, "separating farmers from their land and Palestinians from their places of work, health care facilities and other essential services." In 2003, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said construction of the wall should cease. The following year, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion that the wall was "contrary to international law" and that Israel should "cease forthwith the works of construction of the wall being built in the Occupied Palestinian Territory." Writer Noam Chomsky has called the wall a "land grab."
Meanwhile, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that "the route of the fence has been determined on the basis of security needs and topographical considerations" and that it is a "temporary defensive measure, not a border." (For an Israeli map of the wall, visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Defense.)
But "wall" is an inadequate word to describe the immense barrier that Israel is constructing. It is also a contested word, as the Israeli government insists that the majority of the obstacle is a chain-link fence, not just the tall concrete blocks that have received media attention. Wall may not be an accurate word, but "fence" is too innocuous to describe what is under construction.
Simone Bitton's 100-minute-long documentary, Wall, takes a personal and contemplative look at the wall's effect so far on the people and the landscape. Born in Morocco to a Jewish family, Bitton has both French and Israeli citizenship and speaks several languages, including Arabic, French, and Hebrew. She decided to make the film after she saw a television news report in 2002, announcing the wall's construction.
"The very idea of a wall erected between Israelis and Palestinians tore me apart," recalls Bitton. "I had the feeling that I was being cut in half, that who I am was being denied -- an Arab Jew whose entire being is the site of a permanent dialogue."
She began scouting locations in 2003 and soon put together a crew for a four-week shoot, capturing different views of the wall in its various stages of construction and including details such as the artwork painted on several tall concrete sections -- Matisse-inspired dancers cavorting with doves, pastel landscapes and desert scenes, and colorful animals and figures similar to Keith Haring's outlined blocky style.
As Bitton filmed, locals often approached her to talk about the wall. "We've been suffering for three years now," says one man. "We need to live together, that's it. And leave our destiny to God." Another man says that he does not feel safe and that the wall is "a waste of money. Were the fence the solution, they'd have built it 50 years ago."
Bitton also interviewed General Amos Yaron of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, who describes the wall as Israel's greatest engineering achievement, using 500 pieces of equipment that move millions of cubic meters of earth every day at a cost of around $2 million per kilometer.
The presence of the wall is overwhelming, looming psychologically and physically throughout the film. Clearly, it is not a solution, but a terrible and disastrous barrier to peace, which is an underlying message in the film. One way Bitton tried to break through seemingly impenetrable boundaries was by not identifying whether she was filming on the Palestinian or the Israeli side of the wall or whether she was speaking to a Palestinian or an Israeli. She made this conscious decision because for her, Israel-Palestine is one country "inhabited by Jews and Arabs alike." In fact, she says, "Nothing touches me more, in life as in my film, than to mistake a Jew for an Arab or vice versa."
Bitton has directed more than 15 documentaries about the history and culture of Arab people, including Mahmoud Darwich: As the Land Is the Language, which focuses on the renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich. Wall, in Hebrew with English subtitles, has been screened in many festivals worldwide and makes its California premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 23. Bitton spoke with AlterNet about filming difficulties and the people she interviewed for the film.
In your research for choosing locations, how did you decide where to go?
I just went all over looking for the wall and for the sites where it was under construction. There was very [little] information about the wall and that is still the case. You cannot know from the newspapers or from the official communications where exactly they are building it. All the maps are false and the projects change all the time.
I wanted to show how the landscape is destroyed by the wall and for this you need to find high places, special angles. It was very strange because while looking for the wall, I rediscovered the beauty of the place at the same moment it was being destroyed.
Did you need permission to film or was the press card enough?
You need the press card to pass the checkpoint but many times the press card is not enough. Sometimes I asked for permission and sometimes I didn't. In many places I filmed, I was not supposed to be there according to the law or all kinds of military regulations, which change every day. I just have to sneak in or out, which is how Palestinians mostly live for years now.
Did you have any trouble with the military at the checkpoints?
I wouldn't say so. It was not easy all the time. There were some moments of tension, which you can somehow feel in the film but nothing really serious. But that's because I'm an Israeli and a Jewish Israeli. Nobody will shoot at me.
A Palestianian colleague could not move in the territories even without a camera. I used my tribal privilege to make the film. It would be obscene to talk about my difficulty considering that Palestinians are not allowed to walk one kilometer from their home.
In one scene, you are talking to a Palestinian man working on the wall. You seemed angry that he was building the wall, pointing out the irony of the situation. But he's resigned to his position, which he sees as a decent paying job.
Because this is how it is. You said ironic. I would say it's tragic. Just for feeding their family they are obliged to build the wall against themselves. And this is not a new phenomenon. Long before the wall, for example, all the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have all been built by Palestinian hands, and most of them on the land which has been expropriated from the villages from which these workers came.
They are building the settlements on their own land because they have to make a living. All these people used to be farmers and when their land is taken, they become workers. All they have is their hands.
The economic situation in the West Bank and in Gaza is such a catastrophe with all the checkpoints, the closures and everything, that the only way to make a living without humanitarian food distribution is working for Israeli settlements, walls, etc.
You also show people circumventing the wall, finding little places where they can climb over.
All the West Bank is full of people looking for the holes. There are fewer and fewer holes but they are obliged to. They are not crossing it to go to Israel. They are crossing it to go to the other side of their own village because the wall is in the middle of the land, in the middle of the villages. So they are just trying to find any holes to go on with crucial things in their lives, going to school, to hospital, to water their land, etc.
|Filmmaker Simone Bitton.|
Many of the Israelis that you interview seem quite ambivalent about the wall. But everyone seems to feel like it can't be stopped. Do you think that it will just continue?
It's continuing. New kilometers everyday, new walls everyday. What you are pointing out is a very general problem with the Israeli population, which is that every time you make a survey, there is a majority of the Israeli population who is in favor of dismantling the settlements, in favor of the Palestinian state, etc. But it doesn't happen. Many people didn't vote according to their ideas or maybe they don't have anybody to vote for because all the Israeli traditional political establishment is in favor of the occupation.
Do you feel that your documentary is a good reflection of the way people are feeling there?
I made it very clear in my film that this is a very personal and intimate look at things. I show the reality through my eyes, which I believe are well-informed eyes and thoughtful eyes. I think it's interesting for people to see this place through the eyes of somebody like me. I know this place very well and I love it. I know the people and I am part of them.
Dragon lady, lotus blossom, seductress. Asian-American actress Anna May Wong played all the Asian stereotypes during her film career, which began more than 80 years ago, during the silent film era. More often than not, the characters she portrayed were killed, by either murder or suicide. In today's Hollywood, Lucy Liu, arguably the only bankable Asian-American star working in films today, manages to survive most of her films -- is this the only progress that has been made?
Wong's choice of roles was limited by what Hollywood studios were offering her at the time. In the early 20th century, anti-miscegenation laws were still in effect in the U.S., including California's 1880 law that prohibited issuing marriage licenses for white and Chinese couples as well as black and white couples. The 1930 production code stated, "Miscegenation (sex relationship between the white and black races) is forbidden." Even kissing was not allowed. The anti-miscegenation law remained in effect until 1948 -- by which time Wong had essentially retired from films. Eventually, she became so frustrated with the limited roles available to her that she left Hollywood in 1928 to go to Europe for three years, making films in England, Germany and France, and appearing in stage productions. "I think I left Hollywood because I died so often," Wong said.
Wong had a remarkable career, acting in more than 80 films over a 23-year period, successfully making the transition from the silent to the sound era. Forty-three years after her death in 1961, Anna May Wong is undergoing a revival of sorts. Retrospectives of her work were presented earlier this year at the New York Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. In addition, two biographies have been published, Anthony Chan's Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (Roman & Littlefield, 2003) and Graham Hodges' Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
Four of Wong's films screened in the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in March. In The Toll of the Sea, a 1922 silent film, 17-year-old Wong played her first starring role as Lotus Flower. Despite a moving performance, her character's inevitable decisions -- telling her son she is not his mother, but rather his Chinese nanny and giving him up to her white lover and his white wife and then Lotus Flower's eventual suicide -- are frustrating. The Madame Butterfly self-sacrificing storyline overshadowed the beauty of the film -- it was one of the first Technicolor productions. After The Toll of the Sea, Wong was offered some supporting roles and lost leading Asian roles to white actresses in yellowface. It is no wonder that she left for Europe.
In the 1929 British silent film Picadilly, Wong's character Shosho is a scullery maid turned successful nightclub dancer. In this film, Wong had a starring role. Sadly, her on-screen kiss with her white co-star was cut by the British censors and her character is eventually killed. In Shanghai Express, released in 1932 and starring Marlene Dietrich, Wong has a supporting role as a prostitute who is raped by the Eurasian leader of the revolutionaries. In Daughter of Shanghai, released in 1937, she stars as the adventurous Chinese American Lan Yin Lin who is searching for the smuggling ring responsible for the death of her father. She works with an Asian American government agent, played by Asian American actor Philip Ahn. In the film, he eventually asks her to marry him -- but they do not kiss on screen. So even when she is with an Asian man, she is still not allowed any real romance. But at least her character is not killed.
How far have Asian American actresses come since then? Unfortunately, not very far. In U.S. cinema today, only one Asian American actress seems to be working regularly -- Lucy Liu.
Is the situation really that bad? None of the actresses in The Joy Luck Club are working in mainstream Hollywood films, not unless you count Ming-Na as the voice of Mulan in Disney's animated film Mulan and its upcoming sequel. Certainly, more than one Asian American actress should be working steadily, starring or co-starring in films. The 2000 U.S. Census states that 4.2 percent of the population reported themselves as Asian and 3.6 percent identified themselves as only Asian. But if the Screen Actors Guild employment statistics are any indication, Hollywood still has a long way to go. According to SAG's 2002 casting report, Asian/Pacific Islanders were cast in 2.4 percent of all roles in theatrical productions, no change from the previous year. When will Hollywood's casting of Asians will reflect the percentage of Asians living in the U.S.? At this no-growth rate, it may take decades before the casting catches up with the population.
So, does Lucy Liu or any other Asian-American actress have any more options than Anna May Wong did in film? Let's take a look at some of the roles Liu has played since she launched a film career in the late '90s. She has played a dominatrix in Mel Gibson's Payback; a kidnapped Chinese princess in Jackie Chan's Shanghai Noon; a detective in the Charlie's Angels fluff films, co-starring with Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz; a secret agent in action flick Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, co-starring with Antonio Banderas; and a supporting role as the leader of the yakuza in Kill Bill, which stars Uma Thurman -- not exactly a wide range of roles during Liu's brief film career. But as she has said in an interview, "I don't have many options right now. You create options for yourself so that you have more opportunities later. ..."
Although Liu's film characters usually survive by the end of the film -- unlike Anna May Wong's -- they do not have much opportunity for romance, or if romance exists as it does in Charlie's Angels, it has been with a white guy, not an Asian one. So, Liu is taking what Hollywood is offering her. As an actress, she wants to work so she takes what is available and tries to do the best that she can with those roles.
Although Liu's roles may not have done much to dismantle the dragon lady stereotype, is it fair to expect her to represent all Asian American women? Or that every role she takes refutes a stereotype? She is an actress trying to make a living.
When Liu made a name for herself as the seemingly heartless lawyer Ling Woo on television's Ally McBeal, she was accused by some Asian Americans of perpetuating the dragon lady stereotype. However, she has also been credited with helping to demolish the submissive, eager-to-please Asian woman stereotype. As an actress, her position is somewhat similar to Anna May Wong's but without the additional restrictions about interracial romance. The bottom line is, if Liu's films do not make money, then it will be difficult for her to sustain a career and eventually get the clout to play more interesting roles -- roles that go beyond stereotypes.
The Charlie's Angels films each made more than $100 million domestically, but Liu's 2002 film Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever tanked at the box office. The film's budget was an estimated $70 million and it made less than $15 million in its U.S. theatrical release. Liu shared top billing with Antonio Banderas, which doesn't say much for their combined box office appeal. With Charlie's Angels, the success of the films could easily be attributed Liu's white co-stars. Liu has third billing, behind Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore.
As a movie star, Lucy Liu is not yet Anna May Wong's equivalent but her film career is still in its early stages and her popularity seems to be rising. In 2000, Liu became the first Asian American to host Saturday Night Live. She has co-starred in a few big-budget films. However, she has yet to open a film with her name above the title -- the true endorsement of Hollywood. She still needs to prove her box office appeal and get a decent script. If her career has some longevity, perhaps the door will open a little wider so more Asian-American film actresses can break through. But the fact remains -- no Asian-American actress has had a career that has lasted as long as Anna May Wong's and she died more than 40 years ago. Let's hope that will soon change.
Chuleenan Svetvilas is a freelance writer. She was formerly the editor of Release Print, the magazine of Film Arts Foundation.