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April 12, 2017 by

Cinematic Sustenance for a Jewish Feminist Exodus

zoe-francis

Arranged

Let’s face it: the U.S. today is looking a lot like Mitzrahim, the narrow straits of Egypt from which the Israelites needed to be liberated. Jews and Muslims increasingly feel the binds of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Legislators are trying to turn bathroom stalls and doctors’ offices into new borders to police. The Statue of Liberty weeps as the Trump administration tries to make deportations, bans, and walls the law of the land.

Jon Stewart got it right when he called out the Trump presidency for being exhausting and reminded us that “the presidency is supposed to age the president, not the public.” At Passover, we ritually re-enact the journey from slavery to freedom. This year especially, we need to resist exchanging one narrow place for another. This is a moment for alliance politics, even as resistance fatigue becomes a clear and present danger. For me, beloved indie films from my recent and distant past provide sustenance; they energize, engage, and re-educate my intersectional Jewish feminist soul for the long political journey ahead.

So let me share a list of five flix worth watching or re-watching. They’re fun and/or hopeful without being fluff. All of these picks speak to the present moment as they forge identity and alliance politics in often counterintuitive ways (news flash: those two forms of politics aren’t oxymoronic, despite what the likes of Mark Lilla might have us believe; see airport protests in response to the first Muslim ban as evidence of this). May such cinematic comfort food help us to productively and empathetically cross the borders of interlocking liberation movements.

Arranged (dir. Diane Crespo and Stefan C. Schaefer, 2007)

Rochel, an Orthodox Jew, and Nasira, an observant Muslim, are neophyte teachers in a public school who bond as they encourage their students to reconsider the view that Muslims and Jews can’t be friends. They also join forces to fend off their principal who, in the name of feminism, admonishes them to give up “this religious thing,” insisting that “we’re in the 21st Century.” Even as they call out religious bigotry veiled as progressive thought, they resist the practical but romantically unappealing orientation of the arranged marriage market. This alliance film originated when Yuta Silverman contacted Schaefer about the friendship she developed with a Muslim woman whose disabled son she tutored; Schaefer agreed that it merited cinematic treatment. An official Sundance selection, Arranged was filmed in 17 days on a $300,000 budget.

A Day Without a Mexican (dir. Sergio Arau, 2004)

An isolationist fog descends over California and all Latinx disappear (the tendency to lump together diverse immigrant groups under a Mexican sombrero is satirical fodder throughout the film). Crop growers and construction firms without a labor force become desperate, as does Border Patrol. The American Pastime is cancelled because 8 of the L.A. Dodgers are Latino, and families are divided by blood and politics. While this mockumentary got lukewarm reviews from the mainstream U.S. press in the U.S., it inspired the 2006 “A Day Without Immigrants” protests and boycotts held throughout the country. Such boycotts were recently reprised, while a NYT article about Trump-supporting farmers fretting over the prospect of mass deportation reads like an ad for this film.

Two Days, One Night  (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)

The arresting Marion Cotillard plays Sandra Bya, a Belgium solar panel worker who spends 48 hours trying to convince co-workers to forego a bonus so that she can keep her job. The range of obstacles to worker solidarity —from a foreman’s strong-arming tactics to economic desperation to an empathy deficit—are on full display here. However, moments in which co-workers express their gratitude to Sandra for giving them another chance to do the right thing are equally present—and just as powerful. While Two Days, One Night isn’t a Hollywood feel-good movie, it does imagine that emotional self-interest might promote economic ethics and even trump a politics of divide and conquer. “Nevertheless, she persisted” aptly describes the long takes of Cotillard fighting depression and visiting her colleagues before they cast their vote for “Sandra or bonus.”

The Muslims Are Coming (dir. Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah, 2013)

The double-edged title of this comedic documentary summarizes the schtick at the heart of the film: to combat the Islamophobia spread by Fox News and company, a Muslim comedy troupe travels to Columbus, GA, Gainesville, FL, Lawrenceville, GA, Birmingham, AL, Tupelo, MS, Murfreesboro, TN, Tucson, AZ, and Salt Lake City, UT. In addition to performing stand-up comedy shows, they engage these communities with stunts such as Hug a Muslim, Ask a Muslim, and Bowling with a Muslim. The laughs are accompanied by reports from Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center and by members of the troupe sharing their own back stories. Other talking heads include the history-making politician Keith Ellison as well as non-Muslim comedians Janeanne Garofalo, Lewis Black, and Jon Stewart (who comes out as a halal food lover). 

The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (dir. Maria Maggenti, 1995)

This lesbian high school romance smartly crosses class and race lines: White, working class Randy Dean “unshelters” Black, Range Rover-driving Evie Roy. Daring to hold hands in a diner, listening to one another’s music (classical for Evie, hard rock for Randy), discovering the relevance of Walt Whitman, getting stoned and cooking a gourmet dinner as erotic foreplay are just some of the adventures that earned this indie a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film. “We made it through another day, thank the Goddess” is the daily toast that precedes the inhaling of organic pasta by Randy’s extended lesbian kin. Those of us trying to find an exit strategy from our contemporary Mitzrahim, Trump’s America, can only say “Amen.”


Helene Meyers is Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University. She is the author of Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness and Reading Michael Chabon. Her more journalistic writing has appeared in Lilith, Tablet, Ms. Magazine’s Blog, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She is currently writing a book on Jewish American cinema.