In this post, I will continue to explore the world created by Joelle Touma in her attempt to figure out the place the Middle East occupies in the developed world. In the two films I will look at, Touma sets her stories in Western locations and creates complex Middle Eastern characters that represent her desire for a peaceful union between both cultures – a desire that contrasts with the violent, seemingly irreparable reality that currently exists in that region.
In Just Like a Woman, Touma explores the possible positive result of a medley between East and West by allowing a Middle Eastern woman living in Chicago to escape from her oppressive marital life where she served as a maid. “Mona” (Golshifteh Farahani) embarks on an adventure with a completely Western woman, “Marilyn” (Sienna Miller), who has a fondness for her version of Middle Eastern culture, which she experiences through the art of belly-dancing. The viewer follows their journey to Santa Fe, where the beauty in Middle Eastern culture is given a chance to flourish. Touma includes various instances that show the more attractive aspects of the culture. For example, the two women talk about Samia Gamal, a famous belly-dancer from the 1950s, who is regarded as an ideal embodiment of the art form. Not only is she mentioned, she is also appreciated by Marilyn, who expresses her desire to achieve her level of mastery.
The character of Mona allows Marilyn to have an inside scoop on real Arab songs, dance moves, and points of view. Their interactions show the viewer that Mona is in fact not unhappy with her life with her husband, contradicting with the popular stereotype of ill-fated, abusive arranged marriages in the Arab world. She also disillusions the viewer when it comes to the Western version of marriage: Marilyn’s husband does not appreciate her and cheats on her. In that sense, Touma uses their road trip as a way to reconcile two seemingly opposed culture and create a space where the beauty from each is allowed to exist and complement the other.
The beauty in the cinematography and the choice of music in the film also play an important role in the portrayal of an ideal world, where the Middle East and the West is allowed to form an Anglo-Arabic fusion, with positive outcomes.
Touma explores the other possible fate of Anglo-Arabic relations in The Attack (2012). In this film, an Arab surgeon who lives very comfortably in Tel Aviv discovers that his wife was a suicide bomber in a terrorist attack on a restaurant. This film has much darker undertones and leaves the viewer rather hopeless about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the clash of Middle Eastern and Western civilization in general.
After the news erupts, the husband finds himself unable to find a society that accepts him. His Israeli friends and his Arab family both turn on him, each packing a series of reproaches to his character and his choices. On the one hand, his upper-class friends urge him to turn the culprits to the authorities, which he refuses to do out of sympathy for Palestine. On the other hand, his family accuses him of leaving behind his identity in favor of professional success and money. As the film progresses, the husband finds himself more and more isolated – unable to relate to any of the other characters in the film, who each try to impose their views on him.
It seems that Touma sympathizes with both sides, as she gives the Israelis and the Palestinians time to express their views. However, she does not offer a peaceful solution, the only outcome of the film being that there is no place for a man like “Amin Jaafari” (Ali Suliman) in Tel Aviv.
As I have stated in my review of the film, The Insult is one of her more hopeful films that urges the viewer to see past religious and cultural differences and is very worthy of the attention it is receiving, especially at a time when the Middle East is mistakenly viewed as nothing but a source of trouble.
In essence, Joelle Touma uses film to explore the different types of people one may find in the world she grew up in – a world that finds itself constantly dehumanized and compared to the Western world. Her films are able to keep the viewer entertained, and to urge them to see the humaneness that exists even in the most violent of regions – an idea often forgotten in mainstream portrayals of the Middle East. It is through her emphasis on deep interpersonal relations and emotions that Joelle Touma is able to reach the gentle side that exists in every single spectator.
© Farah Elattar (2/5/2018) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Ali Soliman at the scene of the bombing in The Attack. Courtesy of Cohen Media Group.