I wasn’t looking forward to seeing this one. I’d already seen the trailer with its pictures of stereotypically aggressive Muslim lads calling women “whores”. And any film about honour killing is going to arrive with a degree of ideological baggage. But I did want to be part of the debate, and having tickets for a late starting concert, which was literally in the basement of the cinema showing the film, now was as good a time as ever.
The film uses a narrative device used very effectively in The Lonely Bones (the book version, let us never mention the terrible film adaptation again) – it is narrated by a dead person. But there is one significant difference. The Lonely Bones was about a fictional character. Nur eine Frau is based on a true story, so although the real victim never uttered any of the words in the voiceover, we are very much encouraged to think that she did.
This leads to some unanswered questions. When the voiceover talks about “my culture” (which it does on many occasions and quite insistently), presumably it wants us to think of the Turkish and very Muslim family of the protagonist and not that of the white Germans who have directed the film and written the screenplay. Yet what expertise have they to bring to the table?
Similarly, when she tells us to listen carefully to things of which we have little experience, this sounds like this is a didactic film to explain to “us” (a presumed white, Christian/Jewish/secular audience) how we haven’t understood just how horrible Islam is. In short, this is not a film by Muslims nor is it a film for Muslims. Nonetheless it has a lot to say – and even more to imply – about Islam.
But, the director and writer will splutter, they take care in the script to show that they don’t mean all Muslims. The narrator says that there are some good Muslims, and we even see 2 good Muslims in the film. Leaving aside that one is a boss and the other is a cop, let’s just look at what you have to do to be a good Muslim.
The copper is good because “she is good to her daughter, who never wore the headscarf”. Because that’s where it starts, isn’t it? Quite literally, one character in the film starts her way on the road to perdition by putting on a headscarf. Despite the claims that only the values of small villages in East Anatolia are on trial, quite a lot more religious Muslims are deemed to by highly suspicious just because of what they choose to wear.
Meanwhile we go through the checklist of Islamophobic stereotypes. Leaflet that says 9/11 was organised by Jews? Check. Hate preacher who says that of course we can’t stone infidels in Germany, but just wait till we have sharia law? Check. Sage brotherly advice that you only need 2 rules – 1. follow the word of the Koran. 2. don’t trust women. Checkity checky check.
This is not to say that no Muslim has ever uttered these opinions (though its been way fewer than the writer presumes), nor that the case that is being shown wasn’t tragic. But when was the last time that you saw Muslims portrayed in popular culture as anything other than a sinister threat?
I remember an interview with a darker skinned successful British actress (it may well have been Meera Syal – I can’t remember for definite, but its not like there are lots of people who meet these criteria). She said that for years the only roles that were offered to her were scared kid in EastEnders whose parents were trying to force her into a marriage. Positive discrimination in film isn’t just about offering more parts to Actors of Colour, its also offering parts that don’t conform to pernicious stereotypes.
What makes this more complicated is that as well as being well meaning (within very liberal restrictions) it is well made and powerful. In a sense I would rather it weren’t. The decision to make a film about the infrequent event of an honour killing was an editorial choice, as was the idea of filming so much of the action inside Mosques. I don’t know whether they wanted to reinforce Islamophobic stereotypes, but this is what they have managed to do. In a Germany where the AfD is the third largest party in parliament and Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab is a best seller, this is nothing to celebrate.
Further Reading: I am currently reading Arun Kundnani’s brilliant “The Muslims Are Coming” which is excellent on how the mainstream Islamophobic narrative has changed from “we hate Islam” to “some of my best friends are Muslims, and if all Muslims just accepted our superior values, there wouldn’t be any problem”. Neither opinion, of course, challenges the idea that “our” culture is just empirically better.