This Teacher


Sign of the times.

 (2019) Thriller (Breaking GlassHafsia Herzi, Sarah Kazemy, Kevin Kane, Lucy Walters, Gabe Fazio, Lev Gorn, Lawrence Novak, Rebekah Del Rio. Directed by Mark Jackson

 

We don’t always get to choose how we are defined. We may see ourselves one way,  but the world insists on putting its labels and prejudices on us. A beautiful French Muslim girl, therefore, is looked at as a hijab-wearing potential terrorist despite the fact wshe doesn’t wear a hijab nor does she seem interested in detonating bombs.

Hafsia (Herzi) has taken up her friend Zarah’s (Kazemy) offer to visit her in New York, paying for Hafsia’s plane ticket. Zarah is now an actress, living with Heath, a much older rich white man (Fazio) and essentially turning her back on her past, drinking, wearing revealing dresses and Westernizing her name to Sarah. Hafsia, for her part, has remained provincial, a cashier in a bakery who, as Zarah tells her partner late one night, smells bad, like the world Zarah fled. Zarah is unaware that Hafsia can hear her.

With the reunion between the two childhood friends going catastrophically, Hafsia arranges to rent a cabin in upstate New York, taking Zarah’s identity as well, professing to be a nurse (the profession Zarah was in before she came to America) and living the rustic life in the woods, with no electricity and an outhouse in the back. Her mental state, always fragile, begins to unravel. She meets a couple – teacher Rose (Walters) and cop Darren (Kane) – in an adjacent property and is cajoled into drinking with them. Thus she begins an education into what being a Muslim in America in the third decade of the 21st century entails.

Herzi gives a marvelous performance; sometimes she seems so withdrawn that her physical body language makes it appear as if she’s scrunched into herself. Other times, she is shrieking in fury. Never do her actions feel forced, but there are times, particularly during the third act when she is let down by a script that is too strident by half.

Jackson clearly has a bone to pick with the attitudes of Americans at this time in history (not that I blame him), so when Hafsia attends a party that Zarah and Heath throw, she encounters the kind of subtle, condescending racism that is most often displayed by people who probably don’t think of themselves as racist at all. It’s what you might call “white liberal rednecks” in action.

There’s some lovely cinematography and the score is pretty decent; the problem here is that third act when the movie loses the good will it’s built up and instead of making points that resonate, turns into essentially a diatribe against white Christian privilege and while I don’t have an issue with that – there’s an awful lot of that going around lately – I found it literally to be oppressive in a different way. There is a point when if someone screams at you long enough, you just stop listening and it all becomes background noise. I fear that this film has reached that point.

REASONS TO SEE: A gripping performance by Herzi.
REASONS TO AVOID: The last half hour is just off the rails.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexual situations and frank sexual discussions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Executive producer Reed Morano, best known for his work producing A Handmaid’s Tale, was Director of Photography on Jackson’s last film War Story.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Woman Under the Influence
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Sharkwater Extinction

Saudi Women’s Driving School


The world’s scariest profession: driving instructor.

(2019) Documentary (HBOSarah Saleh, Shahad al-Humaizi, Amjad al-Amri, Laijad al-Hathioul, Prof. Madawi al-Rasheed, Amal al-Jaber, Manal al-Sharif, Aziza al-Yousef, Fadia al-Amri, Adel al-Jubeii.  Directed by Erica Gornall

 

Saudi Arabia is a country that many have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it has been one of the staunchest allies of the United States in the Middle East. On the other hand, the 9/11 terrorists all hailed from there. On the negative side, women have been subjugated to a large degree. On the positive side, there are signs that this could be easing.

For years it was illegal for women to drive an automobile in Saudi Arabia. To get where they wanted or needed to go, they had to rely on male family members, taxis or Uber drivers. One woman describes the fear she felt; her husband was frequently away on business and they had a daughter who suffered from Type 1 diabetes and for whom severe medical issues were a real possibility. However, that ban was lifted in 2017 by order of King Salman, taking effect in June of 2018.

The effect of the lifting of the band was just about immediate. Young Sarah Saleh, who worked at a Ford dealership in the capital city of Riyadh, was immediately moved to the sales floor, the male managers feeling that she would better understand the needs of women who would come to the dealership to buy their own car. She decided to get a license herself and to do that she enrolled at the Saudi Women’s Driving School. There is an unintentionally hilarious moment when Saleh admits that her dream car is a Ford Taurus.

The school is one of the largest of its kind in the world; over 700 female instructors utilizing a fleet of 250 cars are trying to get through the backlog of women who are clamoring to qualify for a license of their own. Gornall often uses drone cameras to show overhead shots of the complex which is massive.

Gornall mainly focuses on three women whose lives are profoundly affected by the new-found freedom. In addition to Saleh, we meet Amjad al-Amri, an aspiring race car driver as well as Shahad al-Humaizi, an Uber driver who often picks up male clients who have varying reactions to being driven by a female driver. Some are clearly uncomfortable; Saudi society has largely been segregated for decades and some men feel that’s the way things should be. Amal, an instructor at the driving school, sits quietly alongside her husband as he speaks for the both of them; it is something he is clearly used to and takes for granted. She just as clearly doesn’t agree with his pronouncements and the moment is a little awkward.

Gornall was given unprecedented access to the driving school in Riyadh as well as to a variety of women (and men) commenting on the new changes. Many men are unhappy with it but resigned to accept it because the King has decreed it. One police officer in an audio-only interview flat out states that he won’t allow his wife to drive, essentially because he doesn’t want other men looking at her, although in full burka and hijab there really isn’t a whole lot to see.

I also couldn’t shake the feeling that in this attempt at transparency that there was more than a little spin control going on here. Following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Kingdom could use some good press and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an effort to distract from that black eye to the Saudi reputation

Gornall also notes that several activists who had been pushing for restoring the right of Saudi women to drive were abruptly arrested just weeks before the ban was lifted; they all remain jailed with reports that some of them have been tortured. All were recently branded as traitors by the Saudi government, which feels a bit excessive considering all they were doing was advocating for a change that was already going to take effect – or at least, that’s how it’s presented. We don’t get any comment from a representative of the Kingdom on the matter.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of value here, particularly in seeing how this one thing we take for granted has such an extraordinary effect on the lives and self-images of these women. Yes, they have a very long way to go (the film spends a bit of time on the repressive Guardianship laws, in which women cannot marry, travel or attend school without the permission of a guardian, usually a family member and always male and despite continued calls for the laws to be repealed, there’s no sign that’s going to happen anytime soon. While I get the sense that the Saudi government allowed a certain amount of questioning of policy, I don’t think the filmmakers got as deep into the subject as they would have liked to.

REASONS TO SEE: A look at Saudi Arabia few ever get to see.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a little bit like spin control.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nothing here you couldn’t show to the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Saudi Arabia is a monarchy with absolute power invested in the king; it was King Salman who made the decision to rescind the ban on driving for women in 2017.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Soufra
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Badland