Friday, October 10, 2008

Review – Not Without My Daughter

October 10, 2008

Not Without My Daughter – U.S., 1991

Rediscovering older films can sometimes be problematic. This is primarily because films are sometimes very much a product of the times in which they were released, and present-day sentiments may make contemporary audiences react to scenes and characters differently than audiences did upon a film’s initial release. I am no exception to this. I admit to feeling awkward when Wyatt Earp kicks a drunk Native-American and tells him to get out of town towards the beginning of John Ford’s masterful My Darling Clementine. I had an equally hard time watching African slaves smile proudly as they marched off to dig ditches for the Confederate Army in Gone with the Wind. “Did people really do this?” I remember wondering, for if they did, it had to be a result of Stockholm Syndrome and not because of their undying love for the South and the society that existed there at that time.

Another factor working against some films is prior knowledge of a film’s content. While it is often impossible to completely avoid hearing about a film’s fundamental elements, that often does not diminish one’s ability to enjoy and be enthralled by a film. This is not always the case with biographical films or films that show events using flashbacks. For instance, at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, I remember saying to myself, “Hey, there’s Ryan as an old man. I guess he doesn’t die.” Mind you, this was in the first two minutes of the film, so you can imagine the lack of suspense I felt toward the end of the film.

I mention these things because this weekend I sat down to watch Brian Gilbert’s 1991 film Not Without My Daughter, a film that I have my doubts would be given the green light today given the cautious nature of Hollywood studios today. If you remember, the Oscar-nominated Persepolis was withdrawn from a film festival prior to its run in U.S. theaters due to worries that it might upset some people. Not Without My Daughter begins in Alpena, Michigan, a place of amazing natural beauty, in 1984, less than a decade after the Iranian Revolution and the kidnapping of American citizens in Iran. In this beautiful place live Betty, her husband Moody, and their daughter Mahtob. Moody, educated in the United States, is a doctor, and neither of these facts shields him from the ignorant words of colleagues who seem to think that it’s open season of everything Iranian. To make matters worse, Mahtob is being told that she hates Americans because of her father’s birthplace. That Moody would begin longing for home under these circumstances, for a place where he could feel personally and culturally respected, is understandable. That he would resort to deception to attain that respect however is unforgiveable. Swearing upon the Koran, Moody makes a reluctant Betty three promises: They will be safe while in Iran, they will back in two weeks, and he will do nothing to jeopardize their safety. These solemn vows and the book upon which he makes them are enough to convince Betty of her husband’s noble intentions. She couldn’t be more wrong.

To be fair to Moody, the Iran that he remembers does not exist anymore, replaced by things like decency police that drive around with semi-automatic weapons keeping an eye out for anyone breaking the law. It is a land of immense social pressure to conform, a land where the penalty for not following the law is extremely severe. Upon his families’ arrival, Moody is unaware of the extent to which his country has changed. In fact, he seems as surprised as Betty is when his sister brings Betty a hijab at the airport and insists she put it on. Initially, he is apologetic about the inconvenience and discomfort that such traditions as these cause her. However, it doesn’t take him long to tire of his wife’s uneasiness and liberal Western tendencies. Betty soon finds her movements restricted and her opinions unwanted. Is this her husband’s true personality, or is it his reaction to the pressure he receives from his relatives, who often begin shouting loudly when Betty voices her opinion? The film doesn’t completely answer this, and by the end of the film, Moody is reduced to being an angry, violent character, unable to explain for himself why he has become this way.

In the end, Betty and Mahtob have no choice but to flee. The problem of course is that Iranian law gives a father absolute control of his children, and because of this, Betty and Mahtob have no choice but to find a way to sneak out of the country. However, here the film becomes a victim of its own genre. The audience is fully aware that the real Betty and Mahtob eventually found their way out of Iran, and this knowledge removes some of the suspense that the film’s climax should contain. However, the heart of the film is not the escape, but rather the relationship between mother and daughter. We see them go through terrible experiences, ones that would break normal people, and come out of each one stronger and more determined to escape their plight.

In the end, Not Without My Daughter is a film about a family in a country in transition and the effect that change has on a previously happy family. It is not an indictment of the people of Iran. Sally Field gives a very powerful performance, and Alfred Molina is able to portray Moody as a man who becomes increasingly terrifying, yet never completely becomes unsympathetic. Not Without My Daughter remains an effective and tragic film. (on DVD)

3 stars

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