If you’ve been reading or listening to any of the analysis on the Charlie Hebdo shootings last month, you’ve come to realize it’s a very complicated and complex issue. The Kouachi brothers believed they were “defenders of the prophet” Muhammed, a reasoning they used to justify their actions against the cartoonists at the French satirical magazine.
“If someone offends the prophet then there is no problem, we can kill him,” Cherif Kouachi told French reporter Igor Sahiri. “We don’t kill women. We are not like you. You are the ones killing women and children in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. This isn’t us. We have an honor code in Islam.”
Kouachi’s warped worldview of Islam shows the immense schism between the East and West. Through our Western lens, hijabs and burkas are signs of oppression from men who want to cover up their women; however, some Muslim women may see head scarves as a sign of liberation, allowing men to see and hear them for what they say and think rather than what they look like.
Similarly, we see “Je suis Charlie” as a rallying cry for free speech while they see the same mantra as an attack on their religious beliefs. “Je suis Charlie” means that “I am Charlie” — that we stand with Charlie Hebdo. Most of us see Charlie Hebdo as a metaphor, supporting what Charlie Hebdo represents rather than the controversial content they publish. But if we’re the Peter Quills of the world, speaking in symbolism and metaphors, the radical jihadists are like the vengeful Draxes in “Guardians of the Galaxy” — questioning why he would want to put his finger on an enemy’s throat.
With all the negative press garnered by radical Islamist terrorists (from the Kouachi brothers to the Tsarnaevzs), it’s easy to forget that these world views don’t represent those of all Muslims. After all, jihadists are to Muslims as the Westboro Baptists are to Christians. Yet these Eastern cultures feel esoteric in our Western eyes.
Iranian-Swiss film director and screenwriter Talkhon Hamzavi reminds us that it’s possible to reach beyond the curtain of cultural misunderstandings. Her “universal mixtape” is the refreshing 25-minute Oscar-nominated short, “Parvaneh.” The film is about a young Afghani refuge in Switzerland.
When we first meet Parvaneh (Nissa Kashani), she’s talking to her mother on a pay phone. Her father’s hospitalized in Afghanistan and she promises to send money. So begins her trip from the cold and snowy Swiss apps (which looks like a scene from “Fargo”) to the bustling and equally hostile city of Zürich. When the Western Union bank refuses to send her money because she’s under 18, Parvaneh enlists and eventually bonds with a tough-looking blond (Cheryl Graf) with dyed pink hair, ripped leggings and a black leather jacket.
Parvaneh’s coming-of-age excursion is a short story rather than a novel, following the footsteps of Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron.” Filmed by Stefan Dux and edited by Hannes Rüttimann, “Parvaneh” conveys how vulnerable and lonely a girl can feel. Each shot highlights Parvaneh’s isolation: eating alone in the dining hall, refusing unwanted advances from men, walking along the expansive snowy backdrop with just a backpack and some drab-colored clothing.
When a sales girl approaches Parvaneh in a Zürich cosmetic shop, it’s startling. It feels as if we’ve spent a lifetime traveling with Parvaneh in silence that we, too, feel foreign in a cosmopolitan city.
Hamzavi’s unique short film allows us to re-examine how we see things. Through Parvaneh’s eyes, what we find familiar seems foreign. Yet this hajj is one we all should take. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, showing us the East and West isn’t that far apart after all.
“Parvaneh” was written and directed by Talkhon Hamzavi. The film was nominated in the 2015 Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short Film.