< Continental Divide


Friday, March 31, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: The problems of assimilation, ghettoization and crippling stereotypes are not limited to Mexicans living in the United States. In the democracies of Western Europe, millions of Muslim immigrants and their second and third-generation progeny also know the experience of being strangers at home. The clash of cultures has been tragically evident lately with the protests over Danish cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammed, and before that, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was slain for perceived slights against Islam in his 2004 movie "Submission." Such violence has historically liberal societies struggling with their basic values, struggles increasingly reflected in art. At the Berlin Film Festival in February, at least three movies from three different countries addressed this internal divide. Los Angeles Times reporter Jeffrey Fleishman lives in Berlin and attended the festival. He joins me now with his impressions. Jeffrey, welcome to On the Media.


BOB GARFIELD: In your story, you called Europe "the cultural ground zero of Muslim frustration." Okay, I get the "Muslim frustration" part. I get the "ground zero." Why the cultural one, particularly?

JEFFREY FLEISHMAN: Well, what's been happening here is for decades there's been this population, no matter where you go in Europe, of immigrants, and many of them came over as guest workers. As the years passed, they failed to sort of penetrate the barriers, some of them consciously put up and some of them not. Now, probably more than in the United States, the Muslim population in Europe is wondering how can we integrate and keep our identity and keep our mosques and even our call to prayer echoing out over European neighborhoods? How can we have this but at the same time become democratic citizens of the West? That's the problem right now, and that's what some of these films are trying to address, I think.

BOB GARFIELD: Before I ask you about the films themselves, I just want to get a better idea of what these immigrant communities are like. Is it more like the black urban ghetto or maybe like Little Italy or Chinatown in L.A.?

JEFFREY FLEISHMAN: In Berlin, for example, you have a number of neighborhoods that are almost strictly Turkish. And you cross into these neighborhoods knowing that you're in a European city, but at the same time, you cross a barrier, and part of it could be akin to something like Little Italy. But it's almost more closed off than that, because many of the Turks here, now into their second and third generation, can exist in this pocket without speaking German, without really bumping into anybody in three or four or five or six or ten blocks, where they have to really interact with another culture. And one Turkish leader told me a little while ago that the problem in Europe is that, at least from the Muslim perspective, the non-acceptance has been so deep that they've retreated back into the cultural ethos and patterns and religious beliefs of where they came from 30 or 40 years ago, on the plains of Anatolia, and that actually in some neighborhoods in Berlin their customs are more traditional and more rural than actually in Turkey itself, which I found quite interesting. But a stroll through the neighborhoods reaffirms that.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, this year, you found three films at the festival that to one degree or another had to do with Muslim dislocation. One of them, by Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven, was actually [CHUCKLES] a comedy. Clash of civilizations [LAUGHS] sounds like a barrel of laughs. Was it?

JEFFREY FLEISHMAN: "Schnitzel Paradise" was a film that took place in the Netherlands in a hotel kitchen with the staff of a Serb, Moroccans, a number of various Muslims and Dutch. And all these were kind of co-mingled in their own pot, so they sort of used the kitchen as an analogy for the multiculturalism trying to exist in the Netherlands today. And it was quite comic. There were a lot of quips and asides about race and culture and things like that. And the narrative went toward sort of a "West Side Story" kind of thing, if you will, between a Moroccan dishwasher and a waitress, and around that, depending on who they were, whether the Moroccan or the Turk or the Dutch became worried, in their own sort of cultural way, of how this would work out. With the Moroccan dishwasher, whose father wanted him to be a doctor, would he disappoint him by running off with this young blond-haired woman? And then the flip side of that, of course, is would her family even accept him? So it dealt with all these issues that are happening today, but it did it in a very light sense.

BOB GARFIELD: What struck me most about that was that Koolhoven is Dutch, and writing on these themes in the wake of the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was killed by Muslim extremists for, from their perspective, somehow disrespecting Islam in a film of his. Did Koolhoven take care not to tread on Muslim sensitivities?

JEFFREY FLEISHMAN: When the murder of Van Gogh happened, it sent a ripple completely through the artistic community and the film community, not only of the Netherlands but all of Europe, because it was the case of, if we're going to explore things culturally, how far can we do it? And Van Gogh's film "Submission," which dealt with the oppression, the rape and the forced marriage of Muslim woman as its thesis, really offended the more conservative Muslim elements. And so the outrage was palpable, and Koolhoven told me that he thought about his script and who are we going to offend? For example, he was having problems even casting a Moroccan dishwasher because many Muslims did not want to kiss on film because they thought it was against Muslim humility, and they didn't want to offend their families. So even on the set, they still had to reach certain levels of understanding on how far they could go. And then he felt if we do it honestly and truthfully and with good-natured humor, then we shouldn't be afraid to do this.

BOB GARFIELD: Another film at the festival came from Denmark, a country itself only too well-acquainted with the kind of hostile reaction to content that killed Van Gogh, in this case, the editorial cartoons depicting Mohammed.

JEFFREY FLEISHMAN: Yes, I think the Danish film, which is called "The One on One," was the most profound of the films that dealt with these issues. The opening of the film was the unfurling of blueprints for what the Danes were considering the perfect housing project. But as the blueprints were stripped away and you were dropped into the reality of this city, you saw that all those social democratic ideals that Scandinavians are so proud of were really being challenged by what was happening on the ground in those apartments. And in this story, you had a young Danish girl with her Palestinian boyfriend. And her brother quickly, as the film opens, one night he is beaten into a coma. And so within this tension pulling both sides, you see the young Danes who are the victim's friends, automatically thinking it has to be a "darky," as they say. But it asks all these questions from so many different angles. For example, the mother of the son who was beaten is a social worker, so she subscribed to this Utopian theory and she wouldn't leave the housing projects, as all the other whites did. And then in one very poignant scene, she's out walking, just trying to contemplate what has happened to her son, and the camera takes in this wonderful swirl of a woman, blond hair and blue-eyed, standing amidst black chadors and head scarves and all these billowing things of another world, but they are of her world. And so she's asking questions, “Did I do the right thing? Can this work?” And the film continues to ask that in very different ways.

BOB GARFIELD: Maybe the most unnerving of the films that showed up at Berlin this year was – I don't know if it's a documentary, more of a docudrama – called "Hamburg Lectures." Tell me about it.

JEFFREY FLEISHMAN: "Hamburg Lectures" was directed by Romuald Karmakar, and what he basically did was on January 3rd and 5th of the year 2000 in the al-Quds mosque, where Mohammed Atta and some of the other September 11th hijackers frequented, there were two lectures given by Mohammed Fazazi, who was sort of a mentor to Atta and the others. And these lectures were taped. But what he did was he took the direct text from both those lectures, and he sat down a German actor who had glasses sliding down his nose like he was reading some kind of sinister [CHUCKLES] fairy tale, and just recite these in a very deadpan manner. At the beginning of the film, you're getting all these arcane descriptions of when the moon is full, when should we fast, can a woman flying from the Middle East to Europe fly unaccompanied, or is that a violation of the Koran? You're starting to wonder, “Well, what is he driving at here? Well, what's going on?” And then slowly, through this rhetoric, through this labyrinth, and then slowly using the Koran and quoting from that, you begin to hear Jihad. And so gradually the rope begins to tighten around the pole and you can see, even in the very deadpan delivery of the actor who's looking straight at the camera, the power of words and the power of thought on young disillusioned men, and how they can be guys like Moroccan cooks in "Schnitzel Paradise" and be twisted and turned another way.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, that leads me to my final question, and this one will require some guesswork from you. These films, which ostensibly aim to address these nagging questions of isolation and assimilation, do you suppose they will help forge some sort of cultural understanding?

JEFFREY FLEISHMAN: I think we'll probably see more attempts like these. And it will depend on, I think, the quality and the subtlety of the writing. One of the positive things that hasn't been talked about a lot in the Danish cartoons thing is that, for the most part, Muslims in Europe handled their disdain and their disgust for the cartoons in a Western democratic way. They protested, they petitioned governments, they marched in the street but there was very little violence and very little outrage. It was only after that was co-opted by the Middle East was it turned into something more combustible. So I think by being in Europe for so long that the Muslim community is trying to say, “Hey, we need to fit in here. We need our ideals to be respected, but at the same time, we have to learn how to bend into a larger Western democracy.”

BOB GARFIELD: Well, Jeff, thank you very much.


BOB GARFIELD: Jeffrey Fleishman reports from Germany for The Los Angeles Times. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]