City Lights: Documentary provides change from American obsession

When I saw the ads for "American Hustle," the new Jennifer Lawrence movie that's fast racking up Oscar buzz, I realized I had reached a breaking point of sorts.

It's easy, after all, for a tried-and-true property to cross the line into media saturation. I can only see the same image on movie posters and magazine covers so many times. No doubt it's in Hollywood's nature to beat a brand name into the ground, but it's high time we moved on to the next marketable commodity.

Do you think I'm talking about Lawrence? Not at all — I'm talking about that blasted word "American" in the title. Has any country in the last hundred years had such an obsession with branding itself at the local multiplex? (Most likely the Roman Empire would have insisted on sticking "Roman" on every other movie poster, but D.W. Griffith hadn't come along yet.)

Yes, I'm sure "American Hustle" is a wonderful film and I plan to see it as the Oscar season rolls out. I wonder, though, how an American hustle differs from simply a regular hustle. And I had more or less the same question regarding "American Beauty," "American Pie," "American Gigolo," "American Graffiti," "American Psycho," "American Outlaws," "American Dream," "American Movie," "American History X," "American Pop," "American Me," "American Pimp," "American Gangster," "American Splendor" and probably about 36 others that I've forgotten.

Sometimes, when studios pin the word "American" on titles, it has an ironic subtext (we watch Kevin Spacey stumble through suburban ennui and think dolefully, "This is what passes for beauty in America"). Other times, it has a jingoistic tone ("These aren't just outlaws — they're American outlaws!") or a signal to hang our heads ("It's American history, whether we like it or not"). Regardless, I've often wondered whether filmmakers in other countries do the same thing. "Scottish Psycho"? "Czech Splendor"? "Bolivian Pie"?

Maybe there's a deeper reason, though, for our "American" film obsession — it's because we're so used to American films in general. And I hope viewers will keep that in mind when they see "Karama Has No Walls," the short documentary by Sara Ishaq that will play in January at the Irvine International Film Festival.

Ishaq, who was born in Scotland and grew up in Yemen, responded to a lighthearted email I sent to multiple festival entrants regarding the phenomenon of nation-themed titles. She explained that she refrained from sticking "Yemeni" before nouns "simply because it states the obvious and sounds cliched and pretentious, to be completely honest."

I agree. But if Ishaq decided to construct a title that way, it might have a poignant undertone, considering how meager Yemen's contributions to film have been. Wikipedia declares on its "Cinema of Yemen" page that the country has produced four films as of 2013. A November article in the Yemen Times notes that, for the most part, "there is no Yemeni cinema," although it lists Ishaq's work among the anomalies.

For those who need briefing, Yemen is a slim Middle Eastern country that borders Saudi Arabia to the north and resides across the Indian Ocean from Somalia. The CIA's World Factbook ranks it 187th among countries for per-capita GDP. Its median age is 18.5 years, less than half of the United States'.

Growing up in those circumstances, Ishaq had limited access to films. Before cable TV became available in the mid-1990s, she relied on her mother to smuggle in VHS tapes from visits to the UK. With cable allowing her freer rein, Ishaq grew enamored of Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, "Gone with the Wind." Any viewings, though, were confined to the small screen — she had no local theaters to attend.

After graduating from university in 2007, Ishaq got a job as a translator and researcher with the BBC, working on a documentary series about women in the Arab world. Since then, she's branched out as a nonfiction filmmaker, visiting prisons and protests and interviewing survivors of a massacre. According to Ishaq, none of her films has gotten distribution yet in Yemen, except for a couple of screenings of "Karama" on TV.

Right now, that film is on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Short Subject; the nominations will come out Jan. 16. Will Ishaq be a pioneer if her movie gets that far?

"This is the first time a Yemeni film has come anywhere near the Oscars, so there is a lot of excitement about the prospect of a nomination," she said.

If the film gets one, it will deserve it. "Karama" follows the massacre that took place March 18, 2011, in Yemen's capital, where pro-government forces slew dozens of protesters who called for an end to the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The 25-minute documentary, which uses footage shot by young cameramen on the scene, has already screened at the United Nations Assn. Film Festival and Arab Film Festival, among elsewhere.

Perhaps, with an Oscar boost, Ishaq's documentary will find a wider audience. Would "Yemeni Walls" work as an alternate title? No, I don't think so. The word "Karama," as the film shows, translates to "dignity" — and that concept, just like splendor, beauty, hustle and so many others, goes beyond any national origin.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

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