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March 8, 2007
The recent denial of an American visa to a Saudi filmmaker reveals how State Department highhandedness is harming U.S.-Middle East relations.
Saudi filmmaker Abdullah al-Muheisin was barred entry to attend the screening of his film “Shadow of Silence” on March 4 at the New York Arab and South Asian Film Festival. The State Department apparatchiks claim a bureaucratic snafu. Rubbish, say al-Muheisin and Ahmed Issawi, the director of the film festival.
“We’re talking about improving cultural relations, the struggle for hearts and minds,” The New York Times quotes Jack Shaheen, an expert on cinema and a frequent contributor to the Progressive Media Project, as saying. “Karen Hughes goes to the region and talks about commonality, and here we go against everything we tell them.”
A Saudi filmmaker is almost a perfect oxymoron. Saudi Wahhabism is so culturally repressive that movie theaters are officially banned in the country, except for a single outlet allowed to screen cartoons only to women and children. (There is a film culture of sorts, in spite of such discouraging conditions, and movies are viewed on video/DVD and satellite television.) That a moviemaker could survive under such circumstances and make a film that is a political allegory, no less, is incredible. Such a filmmaker needs to be highly encouraged, not barred from the United States.
“My Arab friends who would argue with me over freedom in America, when they were Communist and Socialists, they are laughing at the procedures today,” Muheisin says in the Times. “They say, ‘Look at what your American friends are doing to you.’ ”
His isn’t the only unfortunate case at the festival. Khaled Chouket, a Dutch of Tunisian origin and the director of a film festival himself, was held by immigration authorities at JFK Airport for five hours.
But the most heartbreaking thing of all was Issawi’s admission that a conscious decision was made not to invite any Iranian filmmakers.
“That’s a territory I no longer want to tread,” Issawi said. “It’s over. Given the whole thing with Iran—I refuse to approach it.”
There can perhaps be no statement more distressing than that in the world of cinema. An international film festival without Iranian directors is like an international wine gathering without French winemakers. Iran has been producing some of the most impressive movies on the planet for the past two decades now. So much so that there are several people who stand out as stalwarts—Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and the father-daughter combination of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Samira Makhmalbaf. There is, in addition, another group of equally talented (and often more accessible) filmmakers, such as Bahman Ghobadi, Darius Mehrjui, Majid Majidi, and Hassan Yektapanah. (See a profile of Iranian-Kurdish filmmaker Ghobadi in the March 2005 issue of The Progressive.)
Iranian filmmakers have to battle on two fronts. They face repressive conditions at home (Panahi’s movies have never been screened in public theaters in Iran. Kiarostami’s films haven’t been shown in Iran for the past ten years.) And they’ve suffered international humiliation because of the routine denial of U.S. visas. Kiarostami, who consistently ranks on the top of lists of international filmmakers, was disallowed entry in 2002 to attend the New York Film Festival and to speak at Harvard and Ohio State. Ghobadi was denied a visa in 2002 to attend the Chicago Film Festival. Ironically, his film, “The Songs of My Motherland,” got an award at the festival, which he refused to accept in protest at his treatment by U.S. immigration authorities.
These filmmakers, with their humanistic, tolerant outlook, are the sort of people that the Bush Administration should be encouraging. Instead, they are considered potential threats to the United States and denied a chance to engage in cultural interaction with the American people.
Fortunately, Iranian films are allowed—so far—in this country. (My not-so-short list of must-see movies would include “The Apple,” “Children of Heaven,” “Marooned in Iraq,” “Gabbeh,” “The Circle,” and “A Taste of Cherry.” Readers are welcome to add their picks.)
What is needed is a more sane entry procedure to the United States. A humane visa policy toward the Middle East aimed at a broader cultural exchange and as a sincere attempt at winning people over would be the preferred alternative to the current one. Or so you would think.