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International Poster for Traitor

‘I’m a free man?  This doesn’t feel like freedom to me …’

In what is easily the most surprising piece of cinematic news I’ve heard in a while, and the most comforting (especially given that James Cameron has just won the Golden Globe for Best Picture for the racist Orientalist manifesto Avatar), I’ve just stumbled on Traitor, an American film from 2008 that treats Islam, Muslims, and political violence with sympathy and a  remarkable level of respect for moral ambiguity and religious difference.  Not only is the film a taut, decent little thriller, but it manages also to give a morally nuanced and complex portrayal of a Muslim protagonist.  This in itself is, sadly, still extremely rare, as Muslims are still dominantly represented as violent, backwards, and misogynist Arabs (though only 20% of the world’s Muslims are Arabs).

That the film manages to do this in a narrative that grapples with violence, patriotism, economic oppression, and serious questions about the ethics of sacrifice in the modern world is nothing short of revolutionary.  In the film, the viewer gets to see Islam as a part of everyday life for people in all walks of life in many parts of the world, not as a monolithic and misguided irrationalism held over from the Middle Ages (incidentally, this persistent stereotype about Islam ignores the crucial role that Muslim scholars played in helping Europe itself escape from the religious and cultural torpor of its medieval period).  More importantly, the film addresses the often-ignored fact that there are many different kinds of Islam, that not all Muslims believe the same things about their faith and what it demands of them as moral agents.

It’s a shame that the film was given a fairly modest release and limited advertising in 2008 (did this ever play in Dunedin?), as opposed to the gigantic wave of publicity that accompanies bottom-feeding dreck like 2012, but tonight I’ll take solace in the simple fact that Traitor exists in the first place.  So, cheers to writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, Paramount Vantage – the short-lived ‘independent’ arm of Paramount Studios – and anyone else who got this film made.

In the film, a devout Sudanese-born American Muslim named Samir – beautifully played by Don Cheadle – plays a dangerous game with a group of Islamist extremists.  Other than that, I will say nothing else about the film so as not to spoil it.  So, strike a blow for intelligent cinema and for more reasonable representations of Islam and track down a copy of Traitor.  And while you’re down at the video shop, strike another blow for sense and steal or destroy a copy of Navy Seals, True Lies, or any of the countless Hollywood films that perpetuate anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes.

At the end of Traitor, we even get to see that Samir is wrestling with the consequences of his own actions, and wrestling with them honestly from within the structure of his own complex understanding of his faith.  As Zamir and an American FBI agent part at the very end of the film, the agent wishes Zamir salaam and Zamir delivers what is possibly the best last line in recent cinematic memory, one that many people still need to hear:

‘And you shouldstart the conversation with that’.

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