FEATURE: From Baghdad to San Antonio, QARANTINA Comes to South Texas

UT San Antonio Professor Steven G. Kellman (and former HuffPo contributor) on fighting off the ‘the toxins of cultural provincialism’ with QARANTINA…

A scene from QARANTINA (dir. Oday Rasheed, Iraq)

Though it is the seventh largest city in the United States, San Antonio is, like all but a few other areas in the country, virtually quarantined against foreign cinema. When an imported film does get screened in a local commercial theater, it is almost always from Britain, since, according to the industry’s conventional wisdom, Americans are monolingual, and they do not go to the movies to read; box-office receipts for inferior remakes of The Vanishing, The Debt, and The Seven Samurai exceed those for the subtitled originals. Film is the most portable of the arts, but national aversion to foreign film reflects widespread indifference to anything beyond our borders but violence.

As an antidote to the toxins of cultural provincialism, the San Antonio Museum of Art has scheduled monthly public screenings of works – twice each – provided by the Global Film Initiative. I was invited by SAMA to introduce the films and lead post-screening discussions.

October’s offering, Qarantina, written and directed by Oday Rasheed, is an outstanding demonstration of foreign cinema’s power to bring fresh perspectives to worlds that many hardly knew existed. Set in contemporary Baghdad, Qarantina is a film by Iraqis, about Iraqis. The fates of Iraq and the United States have of course been closely linked both before and after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and U.S. military intervention in Iraq has been central to such recent American movies as The Hurt Locker, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Stop-Loss, and In the Valley of Elah. But what is perhaps most striking about Qarantina is how oblivious it is to Americans and the war. At several points within the film, the camera is positioned within a US tank as it makes its way through the busy streets of Baghad. As if quarantined within their armored vehicle, the American soldiers, who remain off-camera and silent, have no contact with the Iraqi people, who go about their lives heedless of the tank.

Another scene from QARANTINA (dir. Oday Rasheed, Iraq)

Otherwise, Qarantina is the story of an impoverished and dysfunctional Iraqi family emotionally isolated on the ground floor of a dilapidated old house. A shady crime boss has given them lodging there on condition that they cater to the needs of a professional assassin who resides on the floor above them. Like a mysterious gunman in a spaghetti Western, he is a terse and solitary killer, regularly emerging from the house to execute victim after victim. The killings have no direct relationship to the war or sectarian religious strife, only to an agenda designed by the crime boss. The killer comes into conflict with the boss when the hired gunman becomes creative with that agenda. Conflict within the family arises over the adolescent daughter’s sudden refusal to eat or speak.

Ordinary People

The exterior of the gorgeous San Antonio Museum of Art

The audience in San Antonio was impressed with the bleak artistry of Qarantina, the efficient way that shots were lit and framed. The film is open-ended, challenging audiences to speculate on the future that awaits the mother, daughter, and son as they abandon the house that has been their refuge and prison. Much of our discussion focused on the motivations and ethics of the characters. At one point, the assassin visits his mother after an absence of seven years. “Mom,” he tells her, “your son is a good person.” Given the horrendous crimes we see him commit, how could he make that claim? The crime boss berates him for not following orders – fulfilling assignments in unexpected ways as well as killing people not on his list. “We have principles,” says the crime boss, whose principles are nonetheless abhorrent. “You are out of your mind,” he tells the assassin, who affirms the principle of anarchy in Iraq.

The audience was struck by the misogyny of many of the film’s characters, but also by how the women are able to carve out a modicum of freedom and power within a patriarchal structure that is bent on destroying itself. Also discussed was how the boy in the family, though forced by poverty to shine shoes rather than attend school, finds ways to sate his hunger for knowledge.

Qarantina begins and ends with a shot of debris littering a river. The river is the Tigris, the ancient fount of a rich civilization. Its distress commands our attention, even viewed with subtitles.

Steven G. Kellman is professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His books include Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, The Translingual Imagination, and The Self-Begetting Novel. Active as a reviewer of both films and books, Kellman is a long-time film critic for the San Antonio Current and serves as the vice president for membership of the National Book Critics Circle.

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