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Six Films That Bring Multiculturalism to the Table

If you were Muslim, first generation Asian American, or queer with Christian roots, and you were to imagine your life through film, you’d go from early twentieth-century films ridden with whitewashing and villianized misrepresentation, to early-aught films cast with attempts at supporting roles, albeit well-intentioned, likely in the form of hyperbolized sidekicks.

Today, you’d see yourself characterized as the retired drag queen helping the new kid one last time before hanging up her wig to the suburban bestie shedding wisdom (with a poorly aged blaccent) on navigating dating apps. For these characters, it seems like there is nothing else to their identity beyond their role serving the protagonist’s needs. They never go to church–voluntarily at least. They never seem to have a family. And usually their significant other is the same color.

For the course of western cinema, these supporting characters were written with a fourth wall just waiting to be broken. Instead, for the sake of continuity, identities are generalized, religion is non-existent, and relationships are safely homogenous. It’s no surprise that films about interfaith, East-meets-West cultural conflicts, or queer folks fully embracing Eucharist struggle their escape from obscurity.

Here are six films that break stigmatizations and challenge the religious status quo with a sledgehammer in hand.

Baraka (1992)
From a very close peek into Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, to watching pilgrims in Iran kissing the silver grails of the Imam Reza Shrine, Baraka is a non-verbal documentary capturing cinematic landscapes of everyday life across the world. This film colorfully depicts modern day multi-century rituals that humble and ground its practitioners, spanning over fourteen months in twenty-four countries in its production. Directed by Ron Fricke as a response to the photographically shot documentary Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1983), Baraka shares how diverse human activity molds the world. Its much darker sequel, Samsara (2011), shows the destruction of this world through globalization.
The Farewell (2019)
The Chinese title of this movie is 别告诉她 (bié gàosù tā) which literally translates to: Do not tell her. Going at great lengths to maintain a lie, The Farewell is an East-meets-West story of multicultural conflicts within a Chinese family. Starring Awkwafina as the headstrong New Yorker, Billi, she travels to China to see her terminally ill grandmother, much to the chagrin of her family, as her devastation is seen as a threat.

The catch: The entire family knows their grandmother, or as the family calls her Nai Nai, is dying except for the grandmother, the matriarch of the family. With every family member going out of their way to maintain this facade, even staging a wedding, Billi cannot bring herself to participate in the charade. Focused on the impending loss of her Nai Nai, she believes the truth is a human right to her grandmother. With contentious ethical and moral dilemmas at stake, The Farewell shows the challenges in the reconciliation of conflicting cultural and religious values. Based on actual events, director Lulu Wang even brought her real-life grandmother to the set and lied about the movie’s premise. Dealing with a universal theme of love for our familial roots, The Farewell is a testament of love to our grandparents–even if it means lying to them.

The Wedding Banquet (1993)
Also set in the premise of a drawn out family lie, The Wedding Banquet is one of Ang Lee’s most relatable films to multiculturalism and Confucianism in the twentieth century. Wai-Tung is a young Taiwanese immigrant happily coupled with his partner Simon in New York City. Unaware he is gay, his traditional parents wish to continue their family lineage and ask that he marries. In exchange for a green card and tax write-offs, Wai-Tung becomes engaged to a penniless artist named Wei-Wei, and they, along with Simon, begin the charade of a traditional Chinese wedding. Showing the irony of Confucian family values setting the expectation of an extravagant wedding versus the complacency of an East Village life of individuality, The Wedding Banquet shows that a modern family stemming from deeply-rooted cultural traditions is possible.
In Between (2016)
In this French-Israeli directorial debut by Maysaloun Hamoud, three Palestinian women in Tel Aviv live together as roommates in liminal spaces of their own. Two of the roommates are a part of the Muslim faith and one comes from a Christian family. Each roommate faces repression from societal norms, devoted religious family, and future spouses. Unavoidably compared to the untethered characters of Lena Dunham’s Girls, Hamoud shows her characters’ journeys through the female lens with a crisper focus. The film shows the cost of self expression, sexual orientation, and female friendship within what appears to be their Muslim and Christian roots, but what is actually deeper rooted in patriarchal standards. After the release of In Between, Hamoud even faced multiple fundamentalist fatwas for the corruption of Muslim women.

The Gospel of Eureka (2018)
In this documentary by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri, faith and civil rights come face-to-face in the sleepy town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Set in a town that is believed by Evangelical Christians to have springs of “healing waters,” The Gospel of Eureka documents the town’s queer constituency who practice and celebrate Christian faith–and the locals who oppose it. From the day-to-day of a devout Christian trans woman to the production of the town’s modern take on the passion play, all in the name of Jesus, audiences, both puritanical and just-passing-by, are challenged with the pointed clarification that “just because you are a Christian, doesn’t have really anything to do with who you’re fucking; it has to do with who you’re loving.”

Arranged (2007)
Directed by Diane Crespo and Stefan Schaefer, Arranged tells the story of friendship between an Orthodox Jewish woman and a Muslim woman. Both women, working in a New York high school, share their cultural experiences of being arranged for marriage. Holding a strong bond with one another, the two women’s experiences of arranged courtship within their faiths show how much can be shared between stereotypical contentions.

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