Review of Three Documentary Films from First Run/Icarus Films: Caught in the Crossfire: Arab Americans in Wartime; Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story; and CultureJam: Hijacking Commercial Culture
As each examines a facet of contemporary life in the United States, and in the case of Culturejam, in Canada as well, these three almost-one-hour documentaries are interesting investigations of several off-the-radar aspects of turn-of-the-century North American culture. Although each is well made, and all are strikingly similar in their relatively conservative, nearly formulaic approach to documentary filmmaking, some are more compelling and rewarding than others. Each uses frequent intercutting among numerous interviews with "talking head" subjects and commentators, footage of subjects involved in work and family life, and newsreel and TV news footage to convey its story and make its point. Although earnest, and despite its potentially volatile subject matter, Caught in the Crossfire is the least controversial and least compelling of the three; Culturejam, the only film to deal explicitly with the issue of culture per se, is both the edgiest and the most entertaining.
Caught in the Crossfire delves into the lives of three Arab Americans in New York City six months after 9/11 to make the simple point that Arab Americans and the Arab American community are also victims of "the incident"-in their personal reactions to it and via the backlash harassment to which they are subject-and that they, like other Americans, are immigrants who love their adopted country -while retaining strong attachments to their countries of origin. However, this documentary is extraordinarily tame in presenting its worthwhile but limited message while avoiding any direct consideration of either the contentious political issues (some of which are raised) surrounding 9/11 or any examination of extremist viewpoints. Interviews with the three Arab Americans featured in this documentary-Ahmed Nasser, a New York City police officer who emigrated from Yemen in 1986; Khader ElYateem, Christian pastor of the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church who emigrated from the Palestinian Territories in 1992 because he was reassigned by his bishop; and Raghida Dergham, a female journalist and CNN commentator who emigrated from Lebanon in 1970 - are intercut with Arabic-language and American-network coverage of 9/11 and subsequent news from the Middle East, shots of life in NYC's Arab American neighborhoods, and footage of the subjects at work and with their families. Much of the documentary, including Arabic-language TV news clips, is in Arabic with English subtitles.
El-Yateem, who was detained without charges and tortured for fifty-five days by Israeli secret police in 1989, discusses 9/11 with parishioners who feel that "the incident . . . took from all of us, especially our kids . . . the sense of security"; with members of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge who are concerned that visiting Arabs holding visas are being detained and deported without any opportunity to contact Arab Americans; and with his visiting parents. An element of personal drama enlivens El-Yateem's segments: he does not want his parents to return to the Palestinian Territories where they "can't do anything," but they finally decide to return home even though "there's nothing left." Dergham, who is shown interviewing British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, attempting unsuccessfully to secure an interview with Yasser Arafat, and reporting on Fox News, sees herself as a journalist who "tries my best to see both sides" and to "put it in perspective" by explaining what took place on 9/11 on Arabic-language TV, while also explaining the mindset of people in the Middle East to the American public on CNN and Fox. An immigrant at seventeen because she felt "the United States was the key that would bring about my freedom, my independence, the life I imagined I would lead," she addresses the conundrum of Arabs who are against terrorism yet champion the right of "people under occupation [the Palestinians]" to "organize resistance. …