By Guest Contributor Neelanjana Banerjee
Soon-to-be-made indie film Farah Goes Bang, co-written by Laura Goode and Meera Menon, follows three friends in their twenties–one Persian, one Indian, and one white–who hit the road to campaign for John Kerry in 2004. One of them is also on a quest to lose her long-lingering virginity along the way. The writers describe the film as “a valentine to contemporary feminism, youth in revolt, and the passionate politics of idealism,” but most of all it represents the pair’s common “bottom line” in storytelling, one not very popular in mainstream media today: to represent women in art as women see themselves in life.
Despite their common interests, Meera and Laura hail from very different backgrounds and artistic points of view. A filmmaker born and raised in New Jersey, Meera is a first-generation Indian American of Malayali descent; her father, Vijayan Menon, is a prominent film producer in her family’s home state of Kerala. Laura, a novelist, poet, essayist, and dramatist of primarily Italian and Irish descent, grew up outside Minneapolis, MN; her 2011 young-adult novel Sister Mischief, examines, among other things, this white-dominated suburban setting.
Here they discuss their different approaches to representation and how the script for Farah Goes Bang tries to build bridges, and how you can help make this film a reality.
Laura: Meera, I feel like you and I have had a lot of interesting conversations about how many independent films released in the last few years tend to align themselves with a specific cultural point of view. So many mainstream and even independent films still work with all-white, or almost all-white, casts and crews. So few films present an image of friendship that isn’t either completely whitewashed or doesn’t have the tokenized Black Best Friend (BBF) as a toothless nod to 90s constructions of “diversity.”
It seems like the reaction we’re seeing against these under-representations and misrepresentations are independent films that examine and interrogate a specific racial point of view. Films like Medicine for Melancholy and Precious are examining the black experience, Mosquita Y Mari and La Mission are examining the Latino experience, Children of Invention the Asian experience, Circumstance the Middle Eastern experience, and so on. These are such amazing and necessary films, but they also achieve something different than what you and I are doing with Farah. This isn’t a film about a black or Latino or Asian experience—it’s a film that takes on the much more ambitious task of examining the combustions of all of those experiences. How would you characterize how we’re different and new and necessary?
Meera: I feel really strongly about the types of cultural narratives that you mentioned, films that involve that sense of separateness as part of a whole, or rather, as the next step in the development of a cultural narrative. What happens, say, when the ABCD (American-born confused desi) is no longer confused? I think that is what you so eloquently pointed out as “the combustion of experience.” I trust our audience enough to understand Farah’s cultural circumstance without our being beholden to explain it to them, and that certainly is a type of progress that owes a great debt to a film culture that has totally focused on ethnic experience. You and I have also discussed how problematic it is to characterize films as “white” or “ethnic” both in terms of those characterizations themselves and in terms of the insufficiency of words like “ethnic.”
I also didn’t grow up with someone like Mindy Kaling on the best sitcom on television. I grew up in a completely white suburban neighborhood, and media (television, movies) was really the only place I could turn to try and see something that related to who I was. Twenty-something angst was emblematized by six white characters on Friends, or four white characters in Reality Bites.
Very few films and TV shows I saw represented otherwise, so I turned to shows like A Different World or The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. I think both of those shows made incredibly necessary steps that led us to where we are now, which is why I also don’t necessarily hate on 90s constructions of diversity. My sense of self would have been very different if the landscape that exists now existed then and, in that way, I think our film is a natural product of a change that has been ongoing for the past ten years. Fresh Prince is a great example, actually. Race was dealt with very nominally on that show—and when it was, it was poignant – but shows like Fresh Prince were doing something perhaps even more challenging: integrating the black experience into a total American experience , with all of the pratfalls and heartache of the highly developed upper-middle-class narrative of the 90s (a decade that started, mind you, with Rodney King).
So for every reason that is obvious and I could go on about, the narratives I seek are making up for something my brown face crowded in a sea of white needed to see–that being Indian was not going to be the definitive and controlling point of difference in my life, but rather, would turn out to be a deep and rich part of a total experience that engaged with all facets of an American life. And that the world was already in the process of changing to accommodate that. I would actually be interested, Laura, in hearing more about where your stake in this sort of representation comes from and how that voice was a part of creating the film. You wrote an article about your novel Sister Mischief, “A Skin Not Your Own,” about the complexities of writing outside your own experience, and I’d be interested in hearing more about that perspective as it relates to this project.
Laura: I think constantly about what my stake in this sort of representation is, and as a white person, it’s obviously a complex one. To put it bluntly, my stake in this is that I think too much of white America has forgotten or been willing to forget: that all of my community’s (if I even have a community, the complications of which are a conversation unto themselves) fathers and grandfathers came here on boats and planes just like yours did and that immigration is the single most central aspect of the American experience. So much is forgotten in just one generation: both of my parents are first-generation children of immigrant families, but they would never call themselves that. So in a sense, my stake in all this is rooted in an anger that more white people aren’t staked in it, a frustration with the brevity of our collective memory.
As I wrote in “A Skin Not Your Own,” my stake in this is also a desire to move past white guilt as the endpoint of white perspectives on race relations. White guilt angers me because it’s so passive and insufficient: it’s a statement of what we’ve failed to do, rather than an advancement of what we do. I think there’s a massive misconception in white America that it’s somehow the job of people of color to educate us about non-white experiences. I value so much what you’ve been generous enough to share with me about your personal and cultural history, Meera, but I regard that as a gift you’ve given me, not a debt you owe me. Making this film with you is a statement of what I do to make a stand against white privilege, and I’m committed to it.
Also, I think that my stake in this relates in a bottom-line way to just wanting to make great American movies. Great storytelling blends experiences, incites combustion between people, dares to raise questions outside our comfort zones. Filmmaking by definition is an ensemble endeavor, and I think it’s tremendously lazy–even irresponsible–to create monochromatic ensembles. My own American history is inextricably linked to yours, period, and it’s my responsibility as a storyteller to examine that intersection thoughtfully. Meera, you write so beautifully about what Fresh Prince and Cosby and the concept of being an ABCD meant to you growing up, and I agree that the 90s are far too critical to be dismissed in this discussion. In addition to what you state about what shows and films like these have meant to you personally, what do you think their capacity is to build bridges between disparate experiences? How do you think the story of Farah Goes Bang seeks to build bridges?
Meera: Well, I think there are several spaces and gaps to be bridged. One is the immigrant story, of which you speak, that theoretically no single citizen of this country can deny being a part of (except, of course, Native Americans, which is their foundational truth and one that we continue to obscure and may never be forgiven for). That being said, the layers of complexity in the immigrant identity are what makes this country great but are also what continually alienates us from one another. We are constantly seeking the ways in which to categorize one another, so that we can manage to digest the 300 million facts and histories and anecdotes that comprises the great citizenship of this country.
Another gap to be bridged is this: exercises in representation, the great cinematographic enterprise, are necessarily evaluated by that which is visible. Whatever the reason and the nature of her contract, I was still somewhat stung to see the beautifully dark-skinned, regally boned Janet Hubert Whitten be replaced by the equally lovely, but very light skinned face of Daphne Maxwell-Reid as Aunt Viv on Fresh Prince. While characters of color and racial difference are rare to populate our media, it feels even more rare to see really, truly dark-skinned actors.
Last week we saw the Indian commercial for the product “Clean and Dry Intimate Wash,” a fairness cream for your lady bits, go viral. Fairness is not just an ideal in India (and most parts of the world); it is a virtue. It is a principle of beauty that speaks not just to a bullshit aesthetic harmony but to a perverse social harmony in which women are not belabored and are hidden from the sun. As a woman of dark skin tone, I know it is a ridiculous form of cultural poison, and it can be fought with one principle only: to cast more women and men of dark skin tone in our cultural and photographic landscape, and revel in the beauty and power of such choices. It is literally a cinematographic problem to have a fair-skinned person and a dark skinned person in a scene together, which I believe to be a metaphor that speaks volumes. The cinematographic exercise and the social exercise we are enacting with Farah Goes Bang are nearly one and the same. This film will present a world of scenes that speak to the truth of a country organized by its borders, groupings, and social combustions. Our three girls, and the people they meet along the road, hope to bridge these gaps between experience and representation, all presented in the same light, or at least, given the chance to be perfectly lit. Anything else to add, Laura?
Laura: Before we can make any of these ideas an onscreen reality, though, we’ve got a big mountain to climb in the next week. We’ve got only a few days left in our Kickstarter campaign to raise $75,000 for the film, and we’re not there yet. We’re hoping so much that people who share our values around fair representation will realize how important a truly multicultural film like this is and throw their support behind us. We’re all about collaboration, and with Kickstarter, we’re aiming to build a community that will continue all the complexity of this discussion!