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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Director: Mira Nair
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Liev Schrieber, Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland
130 Minutes, 2012

Earlier this week I scored some tickets to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a new film doing the rounds in Melbournes art house cinemas. This is the story of a Pakistani named Changez (riz Ahmed) who lives in the pursuit of the American dream as a corporate head cutter until the fallout of 9/11 and the response ordinary American citizens had to anyone resembling a Muslim. The film is told in flashbacks as Changez is being interviewed in regards to the whereabouts of a kidnapped American citizen. There are a lot of twists and turns in this film as you never quite know how far one side will push the other. There was no way of knowing where this film was going. While the description makes this sound like a thriller, it is not exactly that. There is so much more going in this film.

What kept my interest in the film was the degree of empathy that they built around these characters. It could have been easy in the hands of a lesser film maker to turn this into a sympathising propaganda film. However, they remain objective on the subject of racism and bigotry. What comes out in this film is the need for cultural security. This is present not just in Changez but also in Kiefer Sutherland’s character Jim Cross, the corporate mentor of Changez. this character could have easily become a one dimensional plot device. What Sutherland gives is a deeply flawed character who is trying to cling to what he identifies with. Kate Hudson’s character as Changez photographer girlfriend behaves similarly. She relates to the world and to Changez through photographs. She is hiding behind her camera just like Changez hides behind his faux accent and expensive suits but then later hides behind his beard once he becomes objectified. There is no evil present in this film, there is only the fear of being seen. This also applies to Liev Schriebers character conducting the interview. Schrieber is one of those actors that always delivers solid supporting roles but in this film he demonstrates a complexity in his character motivations that he generally does not have the opportunity to explore.

This is a film about hiding and whether we hide because we are guilty or scared. The film touches upon this theme in various ways. The most obvious is Changez in the first half of the film in the flashbacks tries to hide his heritage by speaking with a faux English accent and being clean shaven. He tries to deny his cultural connections in exchange for the American dream. This is a dream that is shattered in one moment where history stood still and the people of the western world realised how fragile their protective bubble was. It was after this point where he encounters a series of police and security interventions where Changez let’s go of the delusion of security in America.

In summary, this is a powerful film. It is far from generalised mainstream entertainment where you forget half the film as soon as you exit the theatre. The content of this film is so strong that I cannot imagine anyone watching this and not being affected by this story or at least reevaluating their own treatment of minority cultures.

This is currently screening in Melbourne at the cinema nova in Carlton. The reviews of this film have been mixed. Imdb rated it 6.4 and Rotten Tomatoes at 56%. Do not let this dissuade you. This is a film that challenges perceptions of the past without forcing us to take sides. In doing so, the film becomes provocative and will obviously not be to everyone’s tastes.

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