DVD Review: Towelhead - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

DVD Review: Towelhead

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Scene from the film "Towelhead" Scene from the film "Towelhead"

I found the extras on this DVD more interesting than the actual movie. Not that the movie wasn't interesting. I simply became more fascinated by the extras. The two extras weren't the usual documentaries on DVDs where actors yak about how much they love the movie, how great it is, how much fun they had, and blah, blah, blah. The extras here have the actors and even the director defending their work to two people who don't like what they've done.

The extras are basically two discussions. Both are uncut and unedited. The first is a half-hour where filmmaker Alan Ball sits and talks to Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The second is a 50-minute conversation that Ball has with Rajdeep Singh Jolly, the director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The reason that Ball had these discussions was because both CAIR and SALDEF lodged personal complaints against the filmmakers as well as the film's distributor, Warner Bros., about the film's highly offensive title. In case you didn't know, the word "towelhead" is a racial slur against Muslims, Arabs and Sikhs.

Each of the discussions opens with a statement from the filmmakers. It reads, "The film 'Towelhead' is based on a critically-acclaimed novel of the same name written by Arab-American author, Alicia Erian, who chose the title to highlight one of the novel's major themes: racism. One of the ideas conveyed in the book and subsequent film is that we all make assumptions about each other, even unintentionally, based on racial stereotypes. In that spirit, it has always been our hope that the release of this film can serve as a medium to create dialogue and support the expression of ideas, as controversial or as unpopular as they may be."

The book and the film center on a teenage Arab girl named Jasira who goes to live with her father in Texas. Her father is very conservative and very strict. Actually, he's a racist. He seems generally irritated by white people, but black people particularly bother him.

This is why Jasira hides the fact that she's secretly having sex with a very horny black teenager. Her sexual awakening and in fact sexual exploration are what fuel this film. From sex with boys her age to men twice that, from lesbian curiosity to masturbation in the middle of school, Jasira probes and allows herself to be probed.

This film becomes more of an indictment on the state of teenage sexuality in our culture. Racism, especially against Arabs, is subtextual here, like a phantom menace, as a way of pointing out misperceptions.

And, it's misperceptions that become the theme of both DVD discussions. Misperceptions about Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs following 9/11 were very intense. Some even led to violence against Middle East men and women. What Ayloush and Singh Jolly deal with on a daily basis are people who still face bigotry and discrimination today.

Both felt this film's title would add to that bigotry and discrimination in that it would perpetuate the use of the word "towelhead," which to Ayloush and Singh Jolly is just as potent as the word "nigger" is to black people.

About six years ago, a group of people in Dover, Del., protested the Schwartz Center's screening of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. They felt it was offensive to the Catholic Church. Their protests were based on the title alone and not on the substance of the film. The same thing happened here. Yet, the substance of both films refutes the superficial arguments against their titles.

Ball tries to convey this, but Ayloush and Singh Jolly continue to reinforce how the word is hurtful. Both men would have preferred the word not be used as a movie title. Ball says that it's not good to make words forbidden because it emboldens the power of the word, especially if it's a negative one.

I would generally tend to agree with that reasoning but Singh Jolly asked a very powerful question. He asked, "Would a movie company market a movie, meaning TV ads and billboards in Times Square, if that movie was titled Nigger?" He asked, "Would a movie company seriously market a movie with that racial slur as a title?" He says they didn't understand that "towelhead" is just as bad of a racial slur.

For the latter DVD discussion, Alicia Eria, who authored the novel on which the film is based, says it's just a story. It wouldn't push someone to violence, and even if it did it shouldn't stifle his or her art.

Singh Jolly says it's the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater. He says the title is for shock value and is more of a marketing tool to gather interest. He says the title overshadows whatever good message the film has.

In a story that CBS News did back on Feb. 24 with Harriet Lessel, the executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault. Lessel spoke about her disapproval of a rape video game. She said, "If you let something like this pass by... then people think it's just a regular part of our world."

That's the fear that Ayloush and Singh Jolly have, that this slur becomes a regular part of our world. Nobody wants it used to hurt people. Their methods for getting there are slightly different. But, watching intelligent people debate it civilly, Charlie Rose-style is quite enthralling.

If nothing else, this discussion spurred within Ball the impetus to want to do movies that are more inclusive of Muslims, Arabs, and Sikhs. Rajdeep referenced Spike Lee's Inside Man, a movie that had a Sikh in a cameo role. His name was Waris Ahluwalia, and this discussion taught me a lot, including Ahluwalia's name. If we can get more minorities like Ahluwalia into movies, if we can increase their presence, it would help to end the bigotry that causes stuff like this to happen.

Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for strong sexual content and language
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 4 mins.

 
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