So the gracious folks at Warner Brothers decided to include some special features on the Towelhead DVD: specifically, Rajdeep Singh of SALDEF debating the film’s director, Alan Ball. Rajdeep is hard at work compiling the DVD reviews that mention the included special features. It’s clear from the snippets below that people seem to generally ‘get it’ and Rajdeep did an excellent job representing SALDEF’s position. I think this is an example of activism done right, and it’s still reaping returns as people buy and watch the DVD. Thanks again Warner Home Video!
“The only extras provided are two roundtable discussions about racism and the film’s title. Ball hosts both, joined in the first by MacDissi, Bashil, and Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Ball is joined in the second by the book’s author, Alicia Erian, and Rajdeep Singh Jolly, legal director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. These features are interesting, but overlong—the first discussion comes in at 30 minutes, the second at 50. They are not really satisfying as the only extras—we don’t even get a theatrical trailer, let alone a commentary track. Both discussions center on the same question of whether the title of the film is justified, and the basic procedure seems to be “Islamic or Sikh representative objects to title” followed by “Ball defends title and points out that he is gay.” Ball falls back on his sexual orientation a bit too often in these discussions, apparently subscribing to the belief that intimate knowledge of one form of prejudice makes him an expert on all forms of prejudice. On a related note, Ball also naïvely claims, “When you watch the movie, you become a towelhead. You know what it’s like to be called that.” It’s a noble ambition, but one that is not realizable by any film, and certainly not by this one. You do have to feel a little bad for Ball in all this, who obviously thought he was going to get a pat on the back for making a movie that deals with race. To his credit, he is pretty open-minded and receptive to criticism in these discussions. On the other side, Jolly does the best job of articulating why the title is objectionable (and for that reason, I’d recommend the more heated second discussion over the tamer first discussion), saying quite frankly that he believes it to be a shock-value marketing ploy. He continues persuasively, “The million dollar question for us is whether a movie studio would straight-facedly consider marketing a movie as ‘Nigger.’ And if the answer to that is yes, we just have a fundamental disagreement about good taste and tact and what’s appropriate and what’s in the interest of the public…if the answer is no…we have a contradiction, because the term is as hurtful as the n-word is for African-Americans.” While this “million dollar question” is hard-hitting and fair, Jolly hits on the real “million dollar question” for Towelhead at another point: ‘What does this movie tell us about race that we don’t already know?’”
“The discussions are both cordial and frank, with Ball acting as moderator and ensuring that all participants have ample opportunity to express their views on the controversy surrounding the film in general, but its title in particular. The advocates for the American Islamic and Sikh communities both make a point against the use of the title with which I happen to agree. Using a racist slur as the title for a film from a large distributor presents unique problems no matter what the intent since films tend to be saturation marketed so that posters and advertisements will be seen by a lot of people who will never see the film or know its content. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that this particular film was not all that aggressively marketed, but I still am not all that crazy about the title of this movie showing up in the thread header for this review or on the Home Theater Forum ‘Software Reviews’ and ‘Forum News’ splash pages.”
“The only extra is the two-part featurette “Towelhead: A Community Discussion” (1:20:34 total), in which writer/director Ball engages in self-important discussions of the film’s title and racial themes. The first discussion features Ball, Bashil. Macdissi, and Council on American-Islamic Relations Executive Director Hussam Ayloush; the second features Ball, Alicia Erian (author of the novel the film is based on), and Rajdeep Singh Jolly (Legal Director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund). I had literally forgotten about the controversy surrounding the film’s title (no doubt encouraged by distributors Warner Independent–controversy can help sell tickets, after all), but watching this (rather dull) discussion of it highlights how arbitrary the title and racism in the material are. It’s really not about any of that; in fact, the xenophobia feels more like a headline-grabbing red herring. A return to the film’s production title (Nothing Is Private) and a few minor line changes, and the film could have been about a girl of any race; its portrayal of teen sexuality is much more disturbing and cringe-inducing.”
The AMU DVD has been released, get your copy at AmuDVD.com. The film is eye-opening, thought-provoking, and engaging. It’s the work of a talented director named Shonali Bose, who I had the opportunity to meet in Seattle. All I can say is we need more people like Shonali in this world–people that are passionate, driven, and pursuing a higher cause: the cause of justice, rights, and freedom for all.
To my surprise, when the film was screened in India, it had to be first reviewed by a censorship board. Can you believe that? The world’s largest democracy has a censorship board! That doesn’t sound very democratic. The censor board recommended the deletion of several ‘controversial’ lines of dialog from the film. Instead of removing these scenes, they merely muted the audio when the film was shown, prompting the immediate question in the post-film Q&A — “What were they saying?” Read the details here!