Recently, The Atlantic posted a short film produced by the Thomas Reuters Foundation (trust.org) about one Syrian woman’s new life, Starting Over in the Netherlands. It begins by showing a picturesque view of the city, Kessel-Eik, as the woman, Hanadi, bikes through it. As a tranquil melody plays, we see a church behind trees, a friendly exchange with an elderly jogger, and a playground in front of the house Hanadi and her family have lived in for the last three months. Less than a minute into the short film, we can read on the screen that 16 months have passed and “Hanadi and her husband are now divorced.” It is, like much of this short film, a brief interlude, quickly dismissed with Hanadi’s explanatory: “he is a good person but our relationship was not good.” We are also told that Islam, which allows for divorce, should not be blamed for this breakdown that Arab societies would make difficult. Hanadi goes on to moralize that: “we should learn from the positive things in European society to improve our lives.”
There are a number of problematic issues with this film, not the least of which is that this statement paints an essentialist view of nationhood that privileges the Western world’s social superiority – and that it does so through the words of who some might term the “native informant.” Alternatively, this film – more positively speaking – does, I think, try to capture Hanadi’s dilemma and her sadness despite her safety. We see her talking to her mother, still in Syria, helpless to help her. We see Hanadi struggle to learn a new language with other Muslim women; we are happy that her grades are good and sad when her benefits worker tells her that her knowledge of the Dutch language is still “not good enough.” Hanadi tells her benefits worker that she’d rather work in an office than a kitchen but is told that she should be “realistic.” We hear the reality that she and her grown son have suffered: the nostalgia for their destroyed homeland that seeps through their words; the consciousness that they are outsiders in the place that should now be called home for them.
When she admits to her Syrian friend that she is afraid something will happen to her mother and siblings before she can see them again or do anything to help them, Hanadi begins to cry and holds on to her son. Then her friend announces to Hanadi and son that they need to “marry her to a Dutch man.” Is it a joke or the most viable and hope-filled solution to Hanadi’s sadness? We aren’t sure but it certainly stops the tears and brings on a chuckle from Hanadi.
That this film is “framed” as it were with the representation of Hanadi in relation to husbands (the Arab one she divorces and the potential Dutch one she can hope for) is problematic. When I say “framed,” – I refer to the way in which the film seems to be bookended with these statements. In the beginning, we get the divorce from her Arab husband; in the end, we get the possible marriage to a Dutch one. Not only have the filmmakers demonstrated their sexism with this choice, they’ve also disregarded years of violent Dutch colonial history. Dutch men have not, historically speaking, saved people. Their legacy is a bloody one, to say the least. See here in relation to South Africa, or here, in relation to Indonesia. If trust.org’s mandate is, as their tagline reads, to: “inform, connect, empower,” and if the mandate for their sub group, Trust Women, is to: “empower women worldwide and to fight modern-day slavery,” then they’d be wise to question how much the film actually accomplishes these goals.
This is a short film (it clocks in at just under 9 min, including credits), but maybe that fact is what should subject it to closer critique. Communication students and writers will know that shorter lengths in transmission mediums generally mean that only what is deemed absolutely essential to the core message is retained (see, for instance: Kramer & Call’s nonfiction writers’ guide Telling True Stories). Everything else is edited out. So while the message in the film – that the Dutch (men) are saviours – cannot be decisively categorized as subliminal conditioning, it certainly points to the importance with which the film privileges that implication.