April 16, 2008


The Visitor
"The Visitor" is a vehicle to tell us about our country's immigration policies. It's an unabashed "message movie" and a darn good story. The company behind "The Visitor," www.takepart.com, is also reponsible for "An Inconvenient Truth," "Syriana," and other "edutainment" films, mostly political.
The main character, Walter, a bland, closed-in, almost-selfish, economics professor, is played by Richard Jenkins, one of those character actors we see in everything but we don't know their names. "Visitor" is Jenkins' Oscar moment. Truly, people have garnered Oscars for much less worthy performances than this. Jenkins' makes this initially unlikeable, forgettable character sing.
Walter meets two illegal immigrants, boyfriend and girlfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) from Syria, and Zainab (Danai Gurira) from Senegal, and slowly comes out of his shell to give them much-needed assistance. In return, the warm, kind, ever-buoyant, comfortable-in-his-own-skin Tarek teaches Walter to play an African drum, which offers Walter a much-needed outlet for expression and release. Walter's jerky little head motions blossom into full-body jiving by the time Tarek is through with him. Walter's first drum lesson is the quintessential metamorphosis of an uptight, above-the-neck white man getting in touch with the rest of himself. Tarek urges him: "Don't think." The prevalence of drumming (everything from a jazz club to "bucket boys" to a drum circle) puts "Visitor" firmly in the category of a "music movie," or rather a "rhythm movie." One feels the whole ebb and flow of world music and world cultures intermingling, joyously breaking down barriers until the unthinkable happens: Tarek is arrested. Walter hires an immigration lawyer and wades into the harsh, barely humane, prison-like, legal quagmire world of detention. Walter is not a bleeding heart. Tarek is his friend.
It becomes immediately evident that something is terribly wrong with the system. People who yesterday were living lives indistinguishable from "legals," are treated with stern recrimination as if they are the most dangerous of criminals (and yet being in the USA illegally is not even a felony, so when activists chant: "We're not criminals!" they are exactly right). Tarek's mother (Hiam Abbass) comes to New York, where Tarek is incarcerated, to be close to him, and a tender romance springs up between her and Walter.
Spoiler alert: When Tarek is deported, Walter "takes his place," drumming in the subway. But nothing can replace this blythe spirit who enriched the USA with his presence for a while. This simple story, simply told, enables us to graze the surface of the immigrant experience, who love their birth countries, miss them "sometimes," and definitely feel that America is "home." I would fault the movie for not having told a more intense, desperate tale, but maybe that wasn't the point. Maybe the point was to show ordinary people we know and love, friends and neighbors, more American than the Americans. As Tarek's mother says: "after time, you forget, you feel you really belong."
One thing is certain: America is still the land of opportunity for people seeking not just jobs but rule of law; a future; freedom of speech, press, movement; ethnic and gender equality--things we natural-born citizens barely even think about. Many try to jump through all the necessary hoops, but the immigration system is badly broken, and America doesn't seem to have the will to reform it. Why not? Perhaps it benefits some powerful few in its present unrealistic, irrational, almost arbitrary state? Can we really shut up the Promised Land? Or make people wait 40 years to get there? Should we retract Emma Lazarus' welcome: "Give me...your huddled masses"? Wallflower Walter, face-to-face with icy bureaucratic indifference, loses it and wants someone to be held responsible for the utterly impersonal and intractable way Tarek is handled.
Although illegal immigration and border security are very real concerns, and laws should be upheld and not mocked, let's remember that human laws only have value insofar as they are based on a higher law, and let's work to bring them into that conformity. The website is chockfull of resources, organizations and ways to get involved: www.takepart.com.
By the way, "Visitor" makes a great argument for drum circles as a way to bring about world peace. The music of Nigerian, Fela Kuti, father of Afrobeat music, is prominently featured. Tarek even holds up his CD very auspiciously:
Open And Close/Afrodisiac
The title: "The Visitor" instantly reminded me of the claymation "Michael the Visitor," an adaptation of Tolstoy's "The Truths We Live By"....
Michael the Visitor
...and the whole concept of hospitality and welcoming the stranger as Christ.
"I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Matthew 25:35 (RSV)
"Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels."
Hebrews 13:2 (NAB)
"When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV)
The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Emma Lazarus, 1883


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