by Emily Frost, guest contributor
When Jeff Roy first met Maya Jafer in Los Angeles, he had prepared a long list of questions. But he barely got in one; Jafer had finally found someone with whom she could share her story.
Ms. Jafer, a 42-year-old transgender woman and a practicing Muslim from India, spent the next hours detailing a cultural and religious background that never accepted her and describes a personal journey full of upheaval. Mr. Roy, who had never made a film, decided Jafer’s story needed to be told.
Rites of Passage is all about the journey. The metaphor is central to the documentary. Before the film begins, Ms. Jafer has been on an internal voyage during two years of hormonal and psychological therapy. In the opening scene, she is moving again.
Without any explanation, the viewer is thrust into an airport in Thailand, the only place where she can afford gender reassignment surgery. The harsh lighting and close-up shots make it feel as though we, too, have been on the impossibly long flight from Los Angeles. The director favors immediacy and honesty above all else, shooting with a cinéma vérité style.
Ms. Jafer rarely needs prodding to open up. She views the camera as a chance to share wry and self-deprecating commentary. As she and a friend of the director’s, whom she just met, taxi to a nighttime shopping area, she discusses a sexual massage. There’s lightness in how she addresses this stranger as she tells him “she hasn’t had sex in two years,” but, after the surgery, men will be all over her. She’s basking in the liberation of her decision. There’s no turning back.
The film benefits from its tight focus on Ms. Jafer. These opening confessions hook the viewer. And lest the audience think the trip will be all light-hearted quips and high jinx, Mr. Roy cuts to the heart of the matter, inserting a climatic scene early in the film.
Riding in a taxi through congested streets, Ms. Jafer speaks directly to the camera: “I have no one to talk to at all,” she cries, “all I have is God.” This may be the most intense period of her life, a turbulent mix of dread and anticipation. Though Mr. Roy is filming, he’s beyond her reach. Jafer is alone.
Here’s where Mr. Roy’s film strikes out on an independent path. Other American documentaries have focused on the enormity of transitioning from male to female or vice versa. They delve deep into the physical and social side of the transition. But what about the spiritual side? The tendency is to think of transgender or transsexual people as progressive and, by extension, secular. But Mr. Roy puts religion and ethnic identity at the heart of Ms. Jafer’s journey.
In the taxi, she begins to pray. The prayer has a soothing power, but Ms. Jafer’s trembling voice bespeaks the fear and anxiety washing over her.
Prayer and her faith are the only connections she still shares with her Indian and ultra-orthodox Muslim family. Her father is devout, and was also abusive. As a child she was awoken early in the morning, beaten, and ordered to pray. “How would you find love for God in that way?” she asks, sweeping tears from her face, trying to preserve her black eyeliner and mascara. It took Ms. Jafer many years to create her own relationship with God, separate from what she knew as a child. Here, again, the director lets the camera roll, and the uninterrupted scenes of Ms. Jafer struggling to regain composure don’t seem out of place with the “along for the ride” quality of the film.
Early on, the film establishes the stakes are high. “If it were not for God and spirituality, I would not be alive today,” Ms. Jafer says, pressing the palm of her hand to her forehead, her yellow headscarf slipping slightly. There was a time when she realized her choice was transitioning or suicide.
God plays a huge part in her decision to live — and to transition. Ms. Jafer pushes aside the temptation to curse God for giving her the wrong physical body. As the taxi pushes forward, she works through her distress, the camera tight on her face, knotted with tension.
The film is intentionally short. Mr. Roy trimmed the fat so moments like those in the taxi stand out, but it’s hard not to wish to see more of Ms. Jafer getting from point A to point B in Bangkok. In a later scene, she sits with a group of Thai men, sipping her first ever glass of wine and eating a bowl of long, steamy noodles. How did she get there and who are these men? They barely seem to know each other.
Back at the hotel, the film shows Ms. Jafer dancing in the dark, losing herself to trance music. She drapes herself across the couch, rises, and spins around her long, black wavy hair. Mr. Roy illustrates her moment of release — a respite from her direct confessional approach to the camera.
After the wine and the dancing, the film moves back to reality. Ms. Jafer, brow furrowed, consults graphic anatomical photos as a Thai doctor describes how the surgery works. The filmmaker’s choice not to interview doctors or nurses helps capture Ms. Jafer’s disorientation, as does his quick and choppy editing style.
Mr. Roy stays in raw mode in the next montage. Ms. Jafer has her photo taken and is shown nude from the waist up, her new breasts exposed. Her red toenail polish is removed, her genitals are shaved, and her playfulness is gone. She’s wearing a blue hospital shower cap and murmuring prayers, prone on a gurney and quietly weeping.
The film closes as it began, with movement — and with the audience thrown into the middle of things. It feels like a suspense movie. Kudos to Jeff Roy for transforming what could have been a very talky documentary into a film full of action. In the final shots, the camera angle is low, the world seen through Ms. Jafer’s eyes — the neon lights glaring down, the anonymous Thai nurses moving efficiently — and then the doors of the operating room swing shut.
"Rites of Passage" screens at the Palm Beach International Film Festival on April 15 and at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival on April 21 and 26. The full version, “Mohammed to Maya,” will connect with Jafer after the operation and will premiere in Mumbai at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival from May 23–27. A special preview screening of “Mohammed to Maya” will be held on May 1st at Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles, with a question and answer session with Jeff Roy and Maya Jafer.
Emily Frost is a radio reporter and online journalist. She is an Annenberg Fellow at USC’s Annenberg Graduate School for Journalism and an executive producer and host at Annenberg Radio News.
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by Steven Martin, guest contributor
Fans give the three-fingered salute of District 12. The gesture is one of admiration, meaning thanks or goodbye to one’s beloved. (photo: Doug Kline / © 2012 PopCultureGeek.com)
I was certain I was going to hate it. All of my four kids have been fans of the series of books by Suzanne Collins since before they were cool; therefore when the movie was announced, we all knew the midnight screening on the night of release was a must-do.
But in the run-up to last night’s trip to the IMAX theater, the reviews I read and heard helped confirm my feeling that this would be a disgusting movie: violent, gratuitous in every way, repulsive to my social conscience.
I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
I tend to approach these cultural phenomena with a concern that my comfort level will be jolted. What I should be concerned about is what these phenomena say about our culture, and in the case of The Hunger Games, what it says about the generation that elevated the story to its current status. With an eye to the latter, I drove home early this morning with a deep satisfaction that my kids were smarter than I was at their age, and that their generation understands something mine did not.
First: yes, the movie is violent, and disturbingly so. The story is one about a future world in which a wealthy ruling class dominates a world that it is linked to, but separate from, itself through overwhelming police and military power, and entertainment that both enthralls and intimidates the underclasses. The focus of the story is an annual gladiatorial ritual in which representatives from the “districts” under domination give up children to a tournament of slaughter and death. Yes, this movie is based around images of children killing each other.
It is a valid question to ask: why must we tell stories that constantly elevate the level of violence necessary to grab our attention? Why is it now necessary to portray children killing other children, and children dying by each others’ hands? This is indeed an important question for our society to wrestle with. But more importantly, we should direct our moralizing to the question the film itself seeks to ask: why are we satisfied to be part of a society that finds it necessary to feed upon its young?
Viral successes like The Hunger Games reach mass audiences because they strike a nerve. The audience for the books and the film, the “millennial generation,” is not lost on the message. Our society is held together by a craving for violence. What is, say, middle-school football, after all?
We should ask: is it tolerable for us to send our young boys into a game that breaks legs, destroys knees, causes concussions, and otherwise changes the course of life forever? Of course it is! Not only does the game bring our community together, provide economic opportunities, but for the lucky few, college scholarships and professional opportunities. For the players, they are willing to risk limb and even life for a lottery-styled shot at fame and fortune. For the audience, we are willing to cheer when the fallen player limps off the field, or worse, is carried off to the emergency room, sighing a concern or uttering a prayer for the well-being of the child who may suffer permanently in the name of our entertainment.
The Hunger Games causes us to consider other forms of this structural violence. Not to only pick on the venerable institution of football, the film’s prevailing metaphor can be applied to all kinds of American institutions of empire: soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, Treyvon Martin, state-sponsored gambling (the lottery), Wall Street, and so on. Face it: our society is one that eats its young. Through its horrific portrayals of a society that dominates via a tournament in which children kill children, The Hunger Games might well shock us into seeing the way we ourselves do it.
After the movie, my kids wanted to know my reaction. Did I just see it as yet another violent kid-pic? “No,” I said, “I didn’t expect to come here and see a movie about the young Israeli soldiers sent to occupy the West Bank.”
In return I asked if, when they read the books, they saw them as overtly political. “Yes,” my fourteen- and seventeen-year-old kids replied. And while they discussed on the way home the ways the movie changed story details of the books, I went to bed at 3:15am knowing that the major theme was not lost on them.
It gives me hope.
Steven D. Martin is a documentary filmmaker, photographer, and activist. He currently serves as a founder and executive director of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. You can read more of his thoughts at the Uncommon Voices.
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by Martin Marty, guest contributor from Sightings
Reverend Sam Childers poses with SPLA soldiers. (photo courtesy of Machine Gun Preacher)
Preachers, pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams number in the hundreds of thousands in the United States. They minister at the borders between what get tabbed “sacred” and “secular” realms, and as such cannot go unnoticed in public media.
Some critics in the culture wars complain that they too often do get unnoticed. But most representations of them in movies and on television evoke, in the minds of those who have positive regard for clergy, George Bernard Shaw’s often paraphrased saying that there are two tragedies in life: not getting what we want, and getting what we want. “Not getting what ‘we’ want,” whoever “we” are, used to be represented in comments that ministers, especially Protestants, usually came across as namby-pamby and culturally marginal types as if labeled “Handle with Care.” They often appeared begowned and silver-coiffed, viewed over the groom’s shoulder, saying, “I now pronounce you… You may kiss the bride.”
Everyone who knew, or was, a full-of-life cleric, resented that cultural posture. In today’s world, however, most clergy representatives on film are not suave mainline clerics, beloved Irish-American priests, or wan and thin play-it-safe rabbis. Today, with the rise of presumably Protestant born-again studs, manipulators of people, and takers-of-the-law-into-their-own-hands types, we see images of law-breakers with macho swagger. Those observations are background comments to this week’s version of the sometimes robed swashbucklers, in a film called Machine Gun Preacher. It was hard to evade reviews last weekend; two which found me were in our local Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.
We don’t need to review the reviews or condense all details of the plot. The regular run of characters surrounds the Reverend Sam Childers: his ex-stripper wife, here “stuck with platitudes such as ‘God gave you a purpose, Sam Childers.’” The movie is based on a book which is based on a (presumably) true life story of a convict who gets violently born-again, thoroughly baptized, and self-licensed to pick up a gun and fight in defense of children in Sudan. Childers built an orphanage there, we are told and shown, and evidently does some good things for the kids. But that’s not what the movie is about. To compete today, it has to be violent, and is.
Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune deals with the scene in Sudan, personalizing it along the way. Here is how he voices the Gospel: “Staring down an enemy, he seethes: ‘The Lord I serve is the living lord Jesus. And to show you he’s alive, I’m going to send you to meet him right now!’ Blam! Another enemy, smote.” What does the viewer get to see in a plot plotted for today’s American market? Roger Ebert in the Sun-Times, on the reverend gun-slinger: he “is nothing but a one-dimensional rage machine.” So the preacher and the film-maker “can’t wait to get to the ass-whipping part of this inspirational story, [which] lacks any real sense of how Childers underwent his staggering transformation.” Well, “he isn’t the first to go to war in the name of the Lord— He’s born again, yes, but he seems otherwise relatively unchanged — He seems fueled more by anger than by spirituality.”
Until next week’s violence-in-religion movie comes along, Machine Gun Preacher invites some pondering: Is this preacher what we wanted? And, if so, who are “we”?
About the embedded image: Gerard Butler stars as Reverend Sam Childers in Machine Gun Preacher.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
by Susan Leem, associate producer
"We are a storytelling species, and we have always used our stories to teach one another how we should live, and how we should not."
— David Gushee, "Teaching virtue at the movies in 2011"
In a recent article from the Associated Baptist Press, David Gushee, a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, highlights four recent films, including The Fighter, that have narratives with accounts of moral virtue. This is a fresh way for me to share and evaluate new films.
I want more meaningful categories with which to talk about films rather than discussing whether it goes on the holiday viewing list or is an Oscar contender. Though I trust Roger Ebert’s judgment implicitly, the number of stars doesn’t tell me anything about how to live well or how to treat other people. Gushee’s language does.
What four films come to mind that have provided you with some teaching moment in the shape of a moral compass?Comments
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
"Finding happiness doesn’t necessarily follow from pursuing it. Sometimes the deepest happiness comes when you’re least expecting it."
Grazia Cesarini Sforza (pictured in red above) is one of the stars of Mid-August Lunch, a lovely Italian film about a middle-aged bachelor who takes care of four elderly women — each with distinct and sometimes conflicting temperaments — during Italy’s annual August holiday. Sforza, like most of the cast, had never appeared on screen before. Reflecting on the film’s success and her own experience being part of the production, she echoes Rabbi Sacks’ sentiment:
"The film was … one of life’s gifts that you don’t expect at the age of 90. At 90 what’s gone is gone. … And then the success that it’s had and the friends I’ve made, the people I’ve met is something really. I hadn’t imagined anything like that."
What experiences come to mind in when you think about an unexpected happiness that landed in your lap?Comments