DOHA: The events of Sept. 11, 2001 and their immediate aftermath have inspired a cavalcade of films.
They speak a number of cinematic dialects, from art house to mainstream.
Several of these movies take up the stories of Muslim men tangled in Washington’s post-9/11 dragnet. The more ambitious of these are concerned with humanizing the purported conflict between East and West. Some works, like Douglas Freeman’s 2007 “Rendition,” are creditable A-list injunctions of the hypocritical security state. Others, like Sam Kadi’s 2012 feel-good flick “The Citizen,” apply pop cinema convention too enthusiastically to be taken seriously.
Then there is Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” about how the loyalties of an America-loving Pakistani man change after 9/11. Its topicality may be one of the reasons “Fundamentalist” was chosen to open the Venice film festival this year. It has just had its Middle East premiere on the opening night of the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival.
The film opens in Lahore, where a family is enjoying an evening of Quwali (a genre of Sufi-inflected performance common in Punjab). As the vocalists croon their way to ecstasy, more mundane business is being cooked up nearby. Thugs kidnap an American university professor and warn that unless a number of arrested militants are released, he’ll be killed.
Most of the film is concerned with relating the backstory of this kidnap. It’s largely related in flashback during an interview between the amusingly named Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani wealth manager-cum-university professor, and Bobby (Liev Schreiber), a journalist now working for a shadowy United States intelligence agency.
“Appearances can be deceiving,” Khan tells the American at the start of his tale. His words speak to the film’s Quwali-accompanied jump cut-riddled opening sequence, which leaves the audience to believe that Khan might be implicated in the kidnap.
The flashback begins at the ivy-league college where Khan is about to graduate. There he has a job interview for a spot in one of those financial institutions that assesses the value of companies and then looks for ways to increase that value – usually by sacking scads of employees.
Khan, who comes from an aristocratic family from Lahore that’s in a state of decline, demonstrates the ambition and ruthless intelligence that gives him a natural aptitude for such work. Soon he’s ascending the ladder to corporate success.
Along the way Khan finds a love interest. Erica (Kate Hudson, looking less Photoshopped than usual) is a photographer and artist who happens to be the niece of his company’s CEO. The chemistry between the couple is offset by the inexplicable grief she feels for a dead former lover.
All is going swimmingly for Khan when the attacks of Sept. 11 strike. From this point forward he ceases to be merely an upwardly mobile economic analyst and becomes a brown-skinned Pakistani citizen with a Muslim-sounding name, and therefore a target for the post-9/11 security state.
It’s only a matter of time before Khan begins to reconsider his faith in the American dream and his place in it. While the color-blind corporate meritocracy opens many doors for him, the state’s color-coded legal system discriminates against him. He attends Erica’s debut art exhibition only to find bits and pieces of their intimate conversation up on the wall, literally blazing in neon. The anger he feels rings with authenticity.
It would be simple enough to imagine that “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is about how the dialogue between East and West is doomed to fail. Yet this timely, if bleak, moral isn’t the most interesting thing about Nair’s film.
“Fundamentalist” is interesting because it is, on one hand, an unusually well-designed effort to reconcile a “message movie” with the conventions of mainstream North American cinema. Mainstream cinema discourages speechifying in favor of gun play and jump cuts, romance and A-list actors, suspense and soundtrack. Nair’s film is replete with all the above.
As is the case with genre hybrids, this film isn’t an unqualified success. Though she makes a valiant effort to balance the identity politics angle of the story with the tales of romance and family conflict, it’s difficult to package in film. Consequently “Fundamentalist” may be less diverting to watch than it is fun to disassemble.
In this regard, the story – based on Mohsin Hamid’s novel of the same title – complicates the “innocent victim” narrative that usually defines the more liberal Muslim-man-in-post-9/11-New York movies. The complication can be summed up in the key word in the title “fundamentalist.”
Since the Cold War ended, fundamentalism – the increasing importance of religion in politics – has been one of the two stories with which the news industry has been preoccupied. The word has tended to turn up both in discussions of America’s “religious right” and of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (aka “jihadists” and “Salafists”).
The other favored post-Cold War story has been the episodic and tragi-comedic follies of unfettered capitalism. Film seldom applies the term “fundamentalism” to IMF-style slash-and-burn principles and their social and cultural consequences.
Khan embraces these principles in his work and the conflation of religious and market fundamentalism is Hamid’s, and Nair’s, premise. The film may not be a complete success in filmic terms but the analysis that drives it is perceptive.
The Doha Film Institute, which played a large role in supporting “Fundamentalist,” has reason to be pleased with Nair’s film. The previous edition of the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival opened with Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Black Gold,” DFI’s first major co-production. Annaud’s desert epic also aspired to be an A-list-driven action movie with a message. Unfortunately the movie too often toppled over into unintended comedy.
Over the course of this week the fourth edition of DTFF will project 87 films, most of them at the Katara cultural complex on the edge of Doha. Pride of place in the program is given to Made in Qatar, three evenings of locally made short and feature-length films.
To honor the anniversary of Algerian independence, the festival has also assembled a tribute to that country’s cinema, which includes Merzak Allouache’s seminal 1976 feature “Omar Gatlato” and Tariq Teguia’s 2006 breakout film “Rome Rather than You.”
The noncompetitive program is rounded out by an eclectic assortment of Contemporary World Cinema and a Special Screenings section.
Among the festival highlights are the Arab film competitions, with a selection of seven feature films, seven feature-length documentaries and a three-program short film competition.
The feature competition mingles a range of freshman talent with the work of more established artists, including “God’s Horses” by Morocco’s Nabil Ayouch and “The Repentant” by Algeria’s Merzak Allouache – who last year won DTFF’s top prize for “Normal.”
The feature-length documentary competition includes the Middle East premieres of two artful works from Lebanon – Tamara Stepanyan’s “Embers,” which just took the top prize at the Pousan International Film Festival, and Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s “The Lebanese Rocket Society,” which has been enjoying vigorous festival play since its debut in Toronto.
The Doha Tribeca Film Festival continues until Nov. 24.