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Review: An Explanation (And Then Burn The Ashes)

Film Review: An Explanation (And Then Burn The Ashes)

By Sonia Nettnin At The Chicago Palestine Film Festival

A dead pigeon hangs from a net at Columbia University. Sometimes, people send hate voicemail to professors. Why? When people cannot accept differences in opinions they resort to hatred...they cannot let go of their fear (Photo courtesy of CPFF)

Director Annemarie Jacir's short, experimental film, "An Explanation (and then burn the ashes) contains a sordid stream of racist and religious hate voicemail received by Columbia University Faculty, with images of Columbia University as the cinematic setting. Columbia University is one of America's oldest, educational institutions, located in Morningside Heights, a Manhattan neighborhood in New York City.

Imagine you are a professor at Columbia, and you publish articles, books, editorials, op-eds, etc. You are Arab and/or Muslim. Some members of the American public disagree with your expressed beliefs and opinions. Instead of writing a letter to the editor where you published your writing; or submitting an op-ed in response to your commentary for constructive, public discussion, some people (who probably do not attend psychotherapy or anger management classes) decide to verbally assault you. When you walk into work and access your voicemail, here are the nasty grams these people left for you:

"You are a terrorist..."
"You should be fired from Columbia you are pathetic..."
" f------ low-life scumbag..."
"'re a bunch of gangster murderers..."
"'re all a bunch of bastards..."
"'re going to be in hell..."
"Listen you Muslim terrorists, we're going to get you, we know where you live and where you work..."

Their hatred is just a sampling of the verbal assaults, attacks and threats experienced by the Arab-American and Muslim-American community that Americans will not hear in the news. Through the cinematic public, Jacir confronts the racial and religious hate speeches by exposing them. Listeners hear the people who are the root-cause of violence. Images of the university show that people are subjected to hate in some of the most respected institutions of society. Hopefully the institutions' administrations address the safety and well-being of their employees. If Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans receive these voicemails, what else is happening to them? What are the experiences of Arabs and Muslims worldwide?

In a democratic society people have the right to express themselves, but they do not have the right to assault and threaten people for their opinions. If society does not challenge the hate mongers, then there will always be racial, ethnic and religious inequalities. Jacir creates an artistic bridge for understanding these injustices so that people can promote change within society and through government policy.

With regards to the film's title, perhaps people resort to hatred because they cannot accept differences in appearances, beliefs and opinions. They cannot let go of their fear.

Directed and edited by Annemarie Jacir
Camera by Catherine Rios
Music by Kamran Rastegar
Voicemail courtesy of Columbia University Faculty
Philistine Films 2005


U.S. journalist and film critic Sonia Nettnin writes about social, political, economic, and cultural issues. Her focus is the Middle East.

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