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Sonia Nettnin: Film Review and Analysis of JIHAD!

Film Review and Analysis of JIHAD!


- Image Chicago Palestine Film Festival

By Sonia Nettnin

The Chicago Palestine Film Festival hosted the world premiere of JIHAD! at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday.

Directed by Muhammed Rum, the Topiary Productions film is an individual and global exploration of the word and its meaning.

Religion is the theme of the film. Verbal motifs from the Koran’s Prologue are utilized in the narration and the dialog.

In a yard a Muslim woman with hijab (head covering), wraps vine leaves around rice for dolma. Her dress has Palestinian embroidery and is as bright as the chalk on the sidewalk colored by a boy. A man picks figs from a tree.

The film moves to a college classroom, where the character, Dean Harold Harram, lectures about the meaning and misconceptions of Jihad.

“Jihad has been misunderstood to mean Holy War,” he says. “Jihad is the journey taken in faith.” Harram states the word, in Arabic, translates as striving zeal.

The film’s protagonist, Ahmed (Ed) lives in New York. Originally from Ramallah, the Palestinian-American struggles with the conflict of his roots. He grew up in Palestine as a small boy, but moved to America for protection from the Israeli army. Religion and current lifestyle are at odds, so Ed’s jihad is his inner struggle.

“Ahmad, I’m Ed, get it?” he says.

As Ed paints in his apartment, he has a conversation with the antagonist, Salaam, a relative who just came to America and now lives with him. Throughout the film, they have several controversial discussions, ranging from finding a woman to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Their conversations follow the format of Plato’s Socratic Dialogues: Ed states his opinions in the form of questions and Salaam answers him with vivid details of daily life for Palestinians who live under military occupation.

Even though Salaam lives in New York, living in warfare has not left his mind. As he walks alongside a park, he sees an Israeli soldier holding an Uzi. Salaam’s newspaper shakes in his hands and he runs for blocks. It appears he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, although he tells Ed at a Middle Eastern men’s club that he sees jinns: spirits who appear as humans or in animal form. Salaam says they can be good or mean harm. Throughout his life, Ed has encountered a pale-faced, man in a burgundy, velvet robe. He paints a picture of him. The silent character appears in the film at pivotal moments. Even though he is a flat character, he helps Ed with his inner conflict.

Both characters run away from personal fear or run to what they lack in life. Distance from religion means distance from the homeland. After their Transatlantic crossing, personal and familial identities are in a struggle. Then the burden of experiences with violence never subsides, as mind, heart and soul search for peace. Ed and Salaam contend over their contrasting ways of life, which gives this active motif another dimension to the film.

Although Ed talks like he is sure of himself, his dreams of his childhood love, Muslim Laila, reveal otherwise. He chases her in the forest, in search of his lost past with religion. In a beautiful, Arabic song, a woman sings:

“Oh mother, feel the joys emanating from the kin’s house/

Oh mother, the wind has snatched me away and altered my connections/

I kept in pursuit of the answers – to find them/

Oh mother, the wind has snatched me away, deep inside, for them.”

Throughout the film, the Laila close to nature does not say a word, as a girl or as a woman. This objectification of her detracts from the film. At times it feels like the camera is harassing her. Laila symbolizes the religion Ed left behind when he moved to New York. She has substance, but she needs dialog. On the other hand, Hanna talks but appears like a stereotype of European-American women. With the exception of Hanna’s friend, American women are represented as sexually available. A conservative and intelligent female character would have balanced the scale of characters. There is a Palestinian-American woman news anchor, Laila, but she is represented for brief moments. I was confused by the use of the same name for two characters. Was she the same person or was it a message about a Palestinian woman’s life based on her place of residence? Perhaps a Palestinian-American female character – Muslim or Christian – could have been represented in the film. An exploration of the double standard would have expanded the theme of religion.

However, the forest scene, along with the Arabic song, the film’s subject matter and camera effects, expressed deep emotions about the impact geographic moves have upon the individual. It is one of my favorite scenes. When a family uproots from their homeland for safety and survival, it has a different impact on the family and community consciousness. Tradition and culture are in turmoil within the individual, which can make a person indecisive about what are “the right choices.”

For Ed, Laila symbolizes Islam, which is no longer in his life. When he is on the phone with his parents, conversations are about family expectations and obligations. Ed loves Hanna and has an emotional and physical relationship with her. Yet, his mother insists on marriage with Laila. Photos are sent and his dreams speak of something else. A lifelong jinn looms around him. The jihad transforms into matters of the mind, heart and soul…the complexity of being. The differences between individualism versus collectivism are made flesh when people emigrate from their homeland either by force or by intolerable, living conditions; and then they immigrate to the United States.

The larger context of the Palestinian Diaspora is that these individual struggles are related, in large part, to the expulsion of a million Palestinians from their homeland in 1948. If Al-Nakba (the catastrophe) had never taken place, where would the millions of displaced Palestinians live today? Would they have a conflict of values if this event never took place? The Palestinian people live dispossession and disastrous events takes many forms in the real world over time.

Ed’s girlfriend, Hanna, is separated from her husband. She tells Ed she wants to be with him, but the way she handles divorce with her husband shows her confusion.

“Now more than ever I feel like I need more security,” she says. In her home, she meditates with candles and incense. In cross-legged position, padmasana, she sits like her statue, which appears to be Buddha. In her search for “enlightenment” to her dilemma, her actions show she has no will-power. Moreover, she succumbs to her desire, which is in contrast to her meditation. Although her friend tells her to trust her heart, her insecurity runs her life. Hanna’s identity is happiness with a man. Some people may see her sexual freedom as strength, but her life situation shows it has not helped her.

The progressive, controversial discussions between Ed and Salaam are the conflict within the political consciousness. In a heated conversation, Salaam describes how he found his mother trapped under her bed. Israeli forces invaded the house. He talks about life under military occupation. Daily life is checkpoints, curfews, home demolitions, humiliation, and violence endured by the Palestinian people. Oppression in the Zionist world is resolvable in Ed’s black-and-white world because he no longer lives in Ramallah. In between the lines, Salaam tells Ed that life in American has removed him from the reality and the roots of the Palestinian community.

“Jihad is love for God,” Salaam says. “Not love for war.”

“I still don’t see how anyone can justify killing innocent people,” Ed responds.

In the film, both men spill milk on the ground and on the table. The expression “cried over spilled milk,” is a serious issue for them. The film conveys this point poignantly.

Life in American is a challenge for Salaam. When he asks for a chemical at the hardware store, the owner comments “You see that foreign freak bastard, asking for mercury?”

The dialog spins the perceptions of Arab men in American media. The whole scene – along with Salaam’s project of pipes and wires – screams “terrorism” as the audience. The fusion and detonation manual, conversations back home and the presence of federal agents plays on the stereotypes inundated within the American consciousness. This added sub-plot works well with the inner struggles Salaam has with his new life. “American is beautiful – nice people...they don’t seem to care or understand what’s happening to us,” he says. Overall, the conversations he has with Ed are didactic, but are informational for a U.S. audience. The struggle between Ed and Salaam is the rising action of the film, with the resolution on a rooftop at night. It is where Salaam says people “…will see my heart, self, soul, fire, and sky,” as he lights a cigarette with a red blowtorch.

Enough said.

Director’s Comments

Harram is a character who plays an essential role in the film. In the glory of his didacticism, the professor acts contradictory to his religious proclamations. When asked about this character, Rum responded: “I created a character to represent religion. I opted to use a theology professor. I’m trying to illustrate religion has its own kind of world. Organized religion is terrifying. Each of us has our own will to act.”

Harram is a complex character because he is a theology professor for Islam, yet he talks about karma, which has Hindu, Buddhist origins. Although the meaning of karma challenges the professor’s weaknesses, he does not overcome them. Moreover, he is a hypocrite for his critical remarks about Salaam. Therefore, Harram is the counterpoint of Salaam; and their trajectories show one character rises while the other character falls in the end.

When asked why he made this film, Rum said: “Living as a Palestinian, Arab-American, I was able to disguise myself in my community…kind of like going on with your life; I got a little tired of that.” As a result, he returned to Palestine and collected stories for history.

“I’ve been actually lucky living in mid-Manhattan, but I was hiding,” he said.

After 09/11, his experiences and feelings expressed in the film encouraged his self-exploration. He began the 450-page script a week before the U.S. tragedy. The reference point for the script is Islamic history. Moreover, the original context is for peace. In the film, a song about peace and freedom from negativity expresses this goal musically.

“I felt isolated and confined in my apartment,” he said. “I was addressing who I am and my identity.” Overall, he felt blessed and started going to films and festivals. Since he had a low budget, Rum uses a lot of his family members for the film. His family loved the film.

The dialog about the Israel-Palestine conflict is Rum’s way of communicating people do live in these conditions.

“The boy running to get the milk was me running,” he said. “I was trying to incorporate that…it was hard for me to go there.”

Rum rewrote significant parts of the film. Some musicians and town artists omitted their work from the film. During filming and research, many people persevered under difficult conditions. One crew member was under interrogation and detention.

Rum describes Jihad as an emotionally-filled term that scares people. He sees his film as a Palestinian story within the United States. The Palestinian-Arab issue is an integrated part of his life. Psychologically it is challenging because it affects everyday life: how to eat, sleep, go out, and meet people. According to Rum, the Israel-Palestine conflict is Jihad. He wants people to know that what is going in Palestine is wrong and the story has to be told.

American mainstream media takes the concept of Jihad and feeds it to the public, per Rum. “It’s not Jihad that makes the decision for us,” he said. “Focus on Jihad places Islam in a negative light.” He said the word is used wrongly and misrepresents Islam. “Jihad is the easiest way I could present the message.”

With regards to the conflict, Rum said international intervention is necessary for peace.

When asked if the film has another title, he said: “The title has always been Jihad.”

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