Something interesting is happening in Hollywood this year. IFC Films just released a theatrical trailer for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a movie based on the tense and brilliant 2004 novel by Mohsin Hamid. The film follows Ahmed, a young Pakistani man who graduates from Princeton University and secures a job at a top Wall Street financial firm. But his fast track to the American Dream is derailed following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
On Sunday, we’ll be presented with two Best Picture Oscar nominees dealing with backlash against American foreign policy in the Middle East. Argo addresses the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, while Zero Dark Thirty charts the more recent hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Yet critically lauded as these films are, The Reluctant Fundamentalist attempts something they don’t: it explores the impact these events had not on Americans, but those victimized by American retaliation. This is a vital move towards publicly addressing the human costs of our foreign policy decisions, and their domestic manifestations.
In the Fundamentalist trailer, the protagonist is asked if he chose a “side” after 9/11, to which he replies, “I didn’t have to. It was chosen for me.”
The question implies that Ahmed’s Pakistani identity creates the automatic likelihood of exclusion from an “American” post-9/11 experience. Even though he’s a “lover of America,” he’s made to "feel very Pakistani.”
This post-9/11 “othering” of “suspect” communities isn’t limited to racial profiling or hate crimes. It’s an integral part of the events’ cinematic representations as well. The Hurt Locker, for example, presents a complex but ultimately heroic portrait of camaraderie and sacrifice, while neglecting any remotely Arab perspective. Additionally, despite its well-intentioned opening montage, Argo de-historicizes America’s role in the Iran hostage crisis by turning it into a Hollywood-ized chronicle of (again) American heroism and sacrifice. And Zero Dark Thirty (besides the debate over whether or not it constitutes torture propaganda) posits Arab characters as a voiceless means towards an American end. In all these films, the voices of those most profoundly impacted by these events are notably absent.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m a fan of both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo was a decent attempt to tell a fascinating story. The filmmakers aren’t obligated to make movies that don’t reflect how they experienced these events, and it’s logical that American directors would tell what they think are “American stories.”
But that doesn’t change the glaring problem their films fail to address: we’re a nation at war, and the justifications for this “war on terror” are largely rooted in marked misunderstandings of the people we’re killing.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist has the opportunity to begin a new conversation surrounding these topics. Its perspective is unique to the American cinematic landscape, and for this alone it should be seen when it comes out in April. One can only hope the issues explored in Ahmed’s story are foregrounded sooner rather than later. Perhaps they'll help America avoid future foreign policy blunders.