Judge Joel Pearce says this flick is a slur against drug-dealing cab drivers.
The days of ignorance are gone…
Made on a shoestring budget of $750,000, Fatwa is a bit of a success story. Unfortunately, there isn't much difference for the audience between a small budget bad movie and a bad blockbuster. This film is a long way from being what it ought to be, even for such a cheap production.
Facts of the Case
If Americans are scared of anything these days, it's Middle Eastern terrorists who might show up anywhere at any time with their weapons of mass destruction. What conservative senator Maggie Davidson (Lauren Holly, Dumb and Dumber) doesn't know is that their arrival is imminent, and she is their target.
You see, Davidson is one of the biggest supporters of harsher anti-terrorist laws, and is in the middle of a re-election campaign so tough she barely has time for a weekend romp with her secret lover. Her conservative tirades have caught the attention of Samir Al-Faied (Roger Guenveur Smith, Summer of Sam), a potentially crazy Arab taxi driver who is going over the edge.
But her problems don't end there. A contract has also been put out on her life, which may or may not be a more pleasant way to go. Two eloquent but savage thugs (Angus "The Bruce" Macfadyen and Ryan Sands) have been hired to do the dirty deed. Either way, it will take a miracle for Maggie to survive the next few days.
When movies as small and ambitious as Fatwa come out, I like to be able to rave about them. I like to be an advocate for underdogs, for filmmakers who risk it all to compete with much larger productions.
Unfortunately, I can't do much raving about this little mess. After watching it once, I had no idea what it was trying to accomplish. Is it a cautionary tale about terrorists lurking in our neighborhoods? Is it an attempt to weave a timely issue into a trashy direct-to-video thriller? Listening to the commentary track by director John Carter and writer Scott Schafer, I learned that it is designed to be a snapshot of the conflict between American democracy and the Middle East. After watching Fatwa, we are supposed to come away thinking about why things have gotten to this point, as well as the fundamental ideological differences between the two cultures and why they are clashing so violently at the present time.
Ultimately, Fatwa emerges as a flawed portrait because none of the characters are believable, or typical of these cultures. Maggie Davidson is a conservative senator who is trying to be re-elected. Fair enough, but no senator would be stupid enough to stop off in the middle of a campaign for an illicit evening of kinky sex. In fact, that's probably the best way in American politics not to get yourself re-elected. By doing this, the audience gets no sense that she really cares about the issues she fights for. When her life falls into danger, we are neither surprised nor sympathetic.
Maggie's daughter becomes an important part of the film, but she is so out of place that I was confused for the first part of the film. Cassie (Rachel Miner, Bully) is a druggie and potentially bisexual high school student, but she looks and acts a lot more like a 30 year old porn starlet. A classroom scene at the beginning, featuring about 10 such late-twentysomethings, is too ridiculous for words. Is this supposed to be a snapshot of American teenage culture? It's been captured much better in the past, and this depiction is a lot more sleazy than thought-provoking.
As the film continues, its world becomes less and less like real North American culture. The Middle Eastern perspective is just as compromised, though, by our pair of terrorist characters. Although Roger Guenveur Smith's performance is probably the strongest in the film, his character has been written with little consistency. He is a cartoon cutout of a terrorist: an evil sociopath who is friendly with his suburban neighbors, while secretly building dirty bombs in his basement. He has a good job as a taxi driver, but also deals drugs on the side. Yes, you heard me right. He is a drug dealing fundamentalist Muslim. Just as bad is the woman who gives him orders. Nameless in the film, the terrorist spy (Noa Tishby) is a fundamentalist Muslim woman who dresses like a whore and seduces men to their deaths.
With characters so hopelessly muddled and absurd, I don't know how Fatwa takes itself seriously, let alone hopes that we will. Add to the above a dreadfully overwrought subplot featuring two hit men who would be a lot more comfortable in a Tarantino film, and we wind up with a movie that in no way resembles what the producers tried to deliver. It fails on virtually every level. Although the two opposing speeches at the beginning (one from George Bush and one from Osama Bin Laden) are fascinating, nothing after that scene manages to engage us on the same level.
At its worst, Fatwa actually manages to do exactly what it tries so hard to fight against. It is racist propaganda, creating offensive caricatures of both Western and Middle Eastern culture. Instead of breaking down the cultural barriers, it just adds yet another layer to the already impenetrable wall.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are a few strong points. Considering the production budget, Fatwa is a nice looking film. The cinematography is strong. Digital filming has allowed the crew to build a unique looking picture. The technical specifications on the disc are strong as well, with an anamorphic transfer taken directly from the digital source. The sound transfer is a bit flat and hard to understand for a Dolby 5.1 track, but it gets the job done.
The commentary with Carter and Schafer highlights the enormous gap between the film they tried to create and the finished product. If in their future collaborations they are able to deliver a clearer message and a more cohesive script, they just might be on to something.
Films like Fatwa have great potential, especially when large studios are struggling to make it financially. I would just as soon see a good film that cost less than a million than see a good film that cost 100 million to make, but the catch is that it must be just as entertaining and satisfying. This first attempt has failed in that regard, but the foundation is there for great productions in the future.
Ultimately, Fatwa is guilty on all accounts. Good intentions, as it turns out, do not always make good films.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Ventura Distribution
• Director and Writer Commentary
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