Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Adam Hartzell: The Mosque in Morgantown

Seventy-five words is not much description of a film. And a particularly high proportion of the programs at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (which begins this Thursday and runs for a week and a half at multiple Frisco Bay venues) are marked at "hold review" status this year, requiring no more than that be used in festival articles by accredited press. For all the hand-wringing about the state of independent and foreign film distribution, I take the high percentage of "hold review" films as a healthy sign. The SFIAAFF's program seems as strong and uncompromising as ever, yet a significant portion of these films are either slated for a commercial release, or else deigned to have a good chance of securing one.

When my friend Adam Hartzell sent me a piece on SFIAAFF competition documentary The Mosque in Morgantown I was so excited to get a set of thoughtful, personal paragraphs about a festival program that was essentially (and, I'm now convinced, undeservedly) off my own radar screen, that I forgot to check to see whether it was among the "hold review" entries in the festival. Once I realized it was, as it's slated for PBS broadcast June 17th, the piece was already edited and ready to go. And certainly more than 75 words long. But I realized that much of Adam's writing was really about his anticipation of the film and the external connections it evoked in him. After cutting his remarks on the film itself to fewer than 75 words, it still provides a multi-layered, personally-inflected context for a viewing. Perhaps it's not as creative a solution as Michael Guillen's 75-word "article" on Jia Zhang-Ke's Still Life in advance of last April's SFIFF, but hopefully it will be taken well by the festival publicists and enjoyed by readers and viewers of the film. It plays the festival March 15, 17, and 22. And now, here's Adam:

Regardless of its critical acclaim, Brilliante Mendoza’s Serbis is the film that proves the rule of what is too often required for Asian films to get a U.S. release: lots and lots of sex. When was the last time a film from the Philippines got a release in the States? It’s been awhile, if it has ever been. The sex affirms it. The sex has it.

Part of why I’m disillusioned by this is because a film as touching and pertinent to the world financial crisis as Jade Castro’s Endo couldn’t find a similar release or international push. Endo is a reference to the contract work that enables limited employment for many working in retail and service industries in the Philippines. Castro’s film portrayal of people struggling from contract to contract, their employment forever in a delicate balance of being discontinued when the contract ends, is exactly the kind of cinematic stimulus we need right now. I’ve mentioned this film here before, but I’ll refer readers to Francis Cruz’s blog for a fuller discussion of Endo than I can afford at this time.

What I really want to talk about here is how the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is important for this very reason. Of all the many wonderful things the SFIAAFF does for us here in San Francisco, I’m particularly reminded of how the folks at CAAM (Center for Asian American Media and the people responsible for this gift of a festival) seek to expand the impressions and expressions of Asian Americans through Asian American and Asian cinema. Although SFIAAFF will show the occasional sexy film, its goal is not to get us hot and bothered, but to get us thinking and talking. Set to begin its 27th run on March 12th, it carries on for ten more days (until March 22nd) and is yet again chockfull of fascinating takes on the varied experiences of Americans of Asian ancestry along with films from various Asian countries.

This year the festival conflicts with family duties I have, so I won’t be in attendance. But when I was asked if there was anything I might want to check out from the available screeners, The Mosque in Morgantown leapt from my lips.

Those who know me know I’m a bit of a Canadaphile, so of course my primary interest in The Mosque in Morgantown is fueled by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s successful sitcom, Little Mosque on the Prairie. Taking place in the made up town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, (actually filmed in Regina which, for those not hip to British Commonwealth pronunciations, rhymes with, eh-hem, vagina), the sitcom approaches the conflicts that come from ignorance and cross-cultural confusion with the light-handed touch of humor. Although not a brilliant series, I do appreciate the show’s earnestness, something I don’t see as immediately deserving of ridicule as the contemporary deluge of snark artists feel I should. (Have you read The New Yorker magazine film critic David Denby’s treatise against snark? It’s exactly the mirror that pop culture needs to look into right now.) Although it has its critics, much of the problems are genre, not topic, related. This is a sitcom. So it takes a light-hearted look at a mosque and demands pat resolutions. It is a vision of a mosque progressives hope for, not a representation of how a mosque actually is. The show’s creator, Zarqa Nawaz, acknowledges this. As reported by Guy Ruddy in the Fifth Anniversary issue of Canada’s The Walrus magazine, “Nawaz softened a few edges for Little Mosque. Mercy hosts one lone fundamentalist...,” when from her experience “he’d be, like, 90 percent of a mosque.” Still, Little Mosque on the Prairie is the little show that could. It demonstrates the public good of public programming since broadcast media would demand evidence of success before putting their private money at stake.

But my appreciation of my northern neighbors is not the only aspect of The Mosque in Morgantown that intrigued me. My late father’s late cousin went to the University of West Virginia in Morgantown, where her roommate was a woman who grew up down the street from famed Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton. Plus, my Aunt and Uncle live at the tip of the nose that situates West Virginia between Pennsylvania and Ohio. So unbeknownst to director Brittany Huckabee, I was her most specific demographic.

Unlike Little Mosque, The Mosque in Morgantown contains very little comedy. It’s mostly nervous laughter that runs through this film. Everyone comes off as experiencing discomfort in confronting or avoiding the internal politics of this little mosque. Sadly, after submitting my final draft to Brian, he found out there was a ‘hold review’ request on this documentary. I sit in an ethical dilemma. My free speech self knows you can’t prohibit people from talking about what they want to talk about. However, if a friend requests me to hold off on talking to someone about something, I respect that request by a friend. I consider films conversations, often conversations with friends. So I will respect the ‘spirit’ of the ‘hold review’ and not reveal any major plot points or story arcs. (What I will reveal is that I learned from this film that the University of West Virginia has a fun looking mass transit rail system for its students!)

What is so compelling about many documentaries, especially on the festival circuit, is that they are conversation starters. And The Mosque in Morgantown definitely got a wonderful, enlightening, holistically-discomforting conversation going between myself and a co-worker who has also seen it. A Muslim herself, she had a very experiential perspective to add to what I saw. Ironically, the dialogue we had with each other is exactly what is missing amongst the people in this film. Dialogue happens around this film, not within it.

Witnessing this talking at (not with) each other on screen enables a test run for our own confrontations later in equally discomforting spaces. We watch and listen and sort out the problematic tactics of our own approaches through our observations of the tactics of others. Although the issues addressed in The Mosque in Morgantown relate specifically to the American Muslim community, they are paralleled in other religious communities and non-religious communities across the U.S., Canada, and the world. Cue Pogo – “We have met the enemy and he is us”. For a recent example in the U.S., “The Enemy Islam” that former Senator Rick Santorum and others are boogeymanning with across the country is mistakenly applied to Islam as a whole, rather than properly applied to the particular applications of particular practitioners. (Just as the problem is not “The Enemy Christianity” but Santorum’s application of it.) In this way, Santorum’s discourse is more disruptive than helpful because it doesn’t ameliorate tensions but seeks to fuel his cohorts’ prejudices. Santorum is not engaging in dialogue. He’s engaging in demagoguery, exactly what one risks when not seeking to connect in dialogue.

The Mosque in Morgantown’s call to prayer is a call to dialogue. The connections that are difficult to establish amongst the various members of the mosque in Morgantown are similar to the connections I fail to make with the Christian Dominionists at the churches in my hometown in Ohio or Neo-conservatives or Neo-Liberals yelling at me on the TV. My experience is not the same as the folks featured in the film, but their experience helps me rethink my own.


  1. "When was the last time a film from the Philippines got a release in the States?"

    That would be The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros which was not too long ago.

  2. I don't know if you are aware, but this won the best documentary award at SFIAAF.

    It was definitely the best Q&A I have been to in a long time. The director was very thoughtful and articulate in her discussion of the film. I was not expecting very much because of the polarizing nature of her subject, but it was handled really well and would be a great choice for a discussion group.

  3. Wish I had been to that, Sam. And I suspect Adam does too, though I happen to know he's currently too busy to be checking comments on this post.

    The winner on the narrative side was Half-Life, the only one of the films that I'd seen. Can't say it was a personal favorite but I'm not surprised it connected for some viewers.

  4. Thanks for reminding me, Peter. I saw that film at a film festival, not in the theatres. Which brings me to wonder, did that film ever get released outside of New York? I am one to feel that, if a film only shows in New York it doesn't truly represent a US release. But, to be meticulously clear, I should have said, 'When was the last tima a film from the Philippines got a release in theatres outside of New York and film festivals?'

    That is, unless it did receive a true US release outside of New York city, then my point is less impactful, even though I still can't recollect any prior to The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros and one other film in several years doesn't detract from my point too much. So the spirit of my point is still valid, although less impactful.

    And Sam, thanks for dropping in to provide your experience with the Q&A and I'm happy to hear that went productively and that the film won the award. Hopefully it'll be a ratings winner for PBS as Little Mosque on the Prairie has been for the CBC.