Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"The Visitor" Movie Review

"The Visitor" has now opened across the country. Here's a review from my daughter that she did for Racewire.

The Visitor Understates Reality
by Julianne Hing
RACEWIRE: The ColorLines Blog

On Monday night I caught a screening of "The Visitor" in San Francisco sponsored by the Active Voice Social Action campaign. It's a new feature film that's already in a couple theaters around the country, and will be rolling out in most states by the end of the month. Banafsheh Akhlaghi, the president of the National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement and co-host of the screening, said that immigrants rights advocates, "hope that "The Visitor" will do for detainees what "An Inconvenient Truth" did for the environment." I agree the film has the potential to move people to consciousness, if not action, especially in the age of YouTube and social media-driven political campaigns.

But it's a lot to ask of one film to be both a primer on and empathetic portrait of detention and deportation for a country that's worked itself into such a fearful and outrageous tizzy. It does what it can, and mostly succeeds. In it, Walter Vale, a middle aged Connecticut academic stops by his long vacant New York apartment, and finds a young couple have moved in. That young couple is Tarik, from Syria, and Zainab, from Senegal. Instead of kicking them out, Walter lets Tarik and Zainab stay, and slowly Tarik, a generous and open musician, invites Walter into a world of new relationships and discoveries that the widower has lived for years without. Walter and Tarik form a kinship over Afrobeats, falafel, and Fela Kuti. A dubious conceit, sure, but a convenient setup for Walter to step out of his self-absorbed life and begin to engage with the world. When Tarik is nabbed by local police and sent into detention, Walter is confronted with the realities of the immigration system. ICE, privatized detention centers, and the multiracial faces of detainees all make cameos in the film. I imagine most people are like Walter, uninformed but not uncaring, they only need real contact, a human connection, to grasp the devastation of detention and deportations.

I'm working on a piece for an upcoming issue of ColorLines that sent me on my first prison visit to interview a detainee in Yuba County, California, just a few weeks ago. I drove three hours to see her on two separate days and got to know firsthand how taxing it is for family and friends to visit their loved ones in detention. I heard, albeit through a partition, what life in a county jail as a green card holder awaiting deportation is like. The woman I interviewed has been in detention since August 2007 fighting her deportation proceedings, but will likely be deported in a matter of weeks. Her young son is living in foster care right now with a couple whose name and whereabouts she knows nothing of. When I asked what life in detention was like, she mentioned a photo she'd received a few months ago of her baby. She described the photo in such tender detail, the jumper he was wearing, the merry-go-round he was on, the sun in the background, the arms of the adults holding him, it was clear she had memorized the photo and was trying to extend the scene past the frame. Who were the people taking care of her son? Were they fit and caring parents? How would her son be raised remembering her?

I remember my last minutes in the visitation center, before we separated. Some distant voice was calling through the loudspeaker that visitation time was over. The lights blinked on and off and we kept speaking hurriedly as we were gathering our things to go. Soon there were two glass windows and ten feet between us, and we waved a final goodbye to each other, knowing she'd be gone soon. Later, as I sat in front of the computer organizing my thoughts, I thought of this woman alone in her cell, staring at the photo and imagining the rest of her life torn from her son. Tears stung my eyes. I felt angry, but helpless. After that experience, I think "The Visitor" in some ways understates how harsh and unjust the experience of detention is. It's still worth seeing.



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The movie "The Visitor" moved me both as a drummer/speaker, and as a science, public policy and law advocate. It really moved me to think again about attending law school and practicing law. Not that I agreed in its entirety with the actions of the characters in the move in violating U.S. immigration law, but this movie made me want to pursue a deeper national discussion on immigration, and a refinement of applicable U.S. law and practice, particularly, with respect to better defining of political asylum. Since the father of the man (Tarek) in question had been persecuted by Syria for his writings and beliefs, it would seem plausable that his son would also face some danger in returning to that nation. But, the movie left us hanging on this point.

I felt the most powerful moment in this movie came when Walter was told Tarek had been deported. Walter became almost enraged beyond his control. At that moment, he stood for each of us and how we might have reacted in similar circumstances. As an accomplished professor and a believer in U.S. law and global policy, Walter was tested by the very system he had come to support, and you could see him ready to go crazy in that detention center as he was ordered 3 times to "move away from the glass."

The meaning of the djembe drum in this movie was also interesting. It was both an answer to Walter's inability to play the piano, and it represented a sharing of a cultural and spiritual practice from a man (Tarek) from one part of the world with a man in another (Walter in U.S.). The djembe became the lasting bond between Walter and these people he had come to love.

As a djembe player and related public speaker, I have come to appreciate the djembe and its role in community drumming, music, and dance activities. It is a communications conduit to our past, and an invaluable instrument in paving the way for better multi-cultural relations in the future.

Posted by: Stephen Dolle | May 25, 2008 8:50:08 AM

I caught The Visitor when it was in theaters, and it was one of my favorite films of the whole year! Richard Jenkins from Six Feet Under was outstanding, and the message of friendship throughout the movie was very powerful. The Visitor will be released on DVD October 7th, and I definitely plan on buying it. If you haven't seen the movie yet, you can find more info here: thevisitorfilm.com

Posted by: Ivy | Sep 26, 2008 5:29:23 PM

Interesting blog, I'm on the lookout for blogs about djembes and ran across yours. All the best, Chris

Posted by: Chris Barton | Mar 8, 2010 4:15:55 PM

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