Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Thanks, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Yes, in fact, I did enjoy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

I just read a scathing review of the movie on Buzzfeed. The review is full of all the proper fashionable chastisement and outrage about the inappropriate portrayal of Afghans and war and career women and blah blah blah. I'm sure there are lots of other, similar reviews, attacking the film for various cultural oversights and its insensitivity to this or that.

Well, here's my perspective:

Spoiler alert: it's not a documentary. It's a fictionalized account of a memoir of one American woman's perspective. It comes with all of the limitations of that one woman's perspective. Just like what I write.

I lived in Kabul, Afghanistan for six months, in 2007, which would have been a year after Tina Fey's character leaves the country. My experience there was, very often, just as absurd as what you see in the movie. I was just as absurd in my reactions to what happened around me, at least at times. I watched the movie and gasped at how many scenes and experiences portrayed in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot were things I witnessed or experienced in Kabul - right down to egg boy and one of my co-workers watching donkey porn.

No, the movie doesn't explore the consequences of war on the people of Afghanistan. But, did anyone else realize it's not meant to? The movie provides only glimpses into the life of people in Afghanistan and the consequences of war, and this is probably because that's not the story the filmmakers wanted to tell, probably because they in no way felt they had the background or knowledge to produce such a story. I certainly don't have the background or knowledge to produce such a story. The movie doesn't fully illustrate the beauty and nuance of the Afghan people, and has no Afghan female characters? Correct! And it's not meant to! Because that's a movie for someone else to make - preferably, someone who is actually from Afghanistan.

That "over-the-top" performance of the Afghan government minister, as the BuzzFeed reviewer described it? Wow - what a shame when I faced something VERY similar, from a Pakistani co-worker, I didn't say, "Oh, silly man, you're being over-the-top, you're acting like a caricature, you can't possibly really feel this way, it's so disappointing, so please stop with the romantic/inappropriate advances and be your not-outrageous, respectful self that you really are." I'm sure that would have changed everything.

So many things in the movie were exactly my experiences as well: the freak out on the first night, finding out my first week that Friday was my only day off, looking over and seeing a blood-soaked sidewalk outside a butcher shop, having to pee so badly I was in tears - but couldn't go because there was no where to do so, at least not for a Western woman, a translator purposely mistranslating conversations in order to keep everyone in the room, hearing "dog washer" as one of the worst insults that could be said to someone...

Yes, the ex pat parties really could be that crazy in some guest houses as the movie shows. Aid workers, like journalists, often drown their stress and anxiety in post-conflict zones using lots and lots of alcohol. In case you're wondering, no, I wasn't a party girl. I went to university in the 80s, that was enough for me, thanks. I went to a few not-so-crazy parties, even L' Atmo, but on Thursday nights, the start of my one-day weekend, I preferred watching pirated movies in my room with Kabul kitty and some Afghan Fried Chicken (AFC) or having a quiet dinner with friends.

In praising the book by Kim Barker on which the movie is based, the BuzzFeed reviewer notes "Every page, every description, is another opportunity for Barker to come off as clueless, privileged, or quietly prejudiced." She's praising the book for that. But then claiming the movie doesn't do that, or maybe criticizing the movie for the same thing - it's hard to tell. I thought Fey brought to life a character every bit as clueless, privileged, prejudiced as I was when I was in Afghanistan, and that's why I found her, and the movie, so endearing.

The BuzzFeed reviewer even criticizes the movie for "brownface", because the Afghan minister isn't portrayed by an Afghan. Oh how I cringed at that statement, as the Afghans and Pakistanis I have known do NOT consider themselves "brown." In fact, I am calling them Afghans and Pakistanis, but they call themselves Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, Baloch, Pashai, Nuristani, Gujjar, and other tribal names. They consider those tribes their ethnicities. When they check their ethnicity on a Western form demanding they identify with a racial group, they choose "white" - at least the Afghans I know and talked with about it. Want to truly outrage an Afghan? Have a Pashtun character played by a Tajik, or vice versa.

The movie provides only a fleeting, absurd look at Afghanistan - and that fleeting, absurd look is all I got when I was there in 2007. I got much, much more time with Afghan women than the character in the movie, and it was time that I relished and I cherish. It was my absolutely favorite part of being in the country. One of my favorite moments was when I got to go on a field visit in Panjshir, and got to sit in a room and share a meal with a group of local women, women who had been covered in burkas up to that point. That's something my male co-workers never got to experience.

I guess I'm going to be accused of cultural appropriation for wearing clothes I bought in India sometimes while working in Kabul. It was, in fact, culturally appropriate - finding things that were appropriate for the Afghan workplace was a struggle for me when I first got there. THAT is my only criticism of the movie - that Fey's character didn't have a butt cover.

The reviewer has a particular problem with the protaganist having an affair in the movie, saying that that story line suggests "in a not-so-vaguely insulting way, that the only way to make people interested in a serious subject is if there’s a love story mapped on top of it." Bollocks. I found the movie's acknowledgement, without apology, of a woman's longing for sex refreshing. The words love or romance are never mentioned in the movie. And I loved that the protaganist wasn't even sure how she felt about the guy she kept sleeping with - because that's often the reality, not love and marriage, but, "Is this going somewhere? And do I want it to?"

Um... this is probably the point I should note that I'm happily married, and I was a nun in Kabul. Sometimes a drunken nun on Thursday night, but a nun none-the-less.

It's not a great film, but I found it a very enjoyable one. And I want to thank my husband for comforting as I bawled afterward, thinking of all my brave Afghan fixers and drivers and co-workers, like the fixer portrayed in the movie, who faced unbelievable dangers and provided amazing care for me while I lived there. The fixer in the movie got me - I knew half a dozen of him. I'd love to see just his movie.

If you didn't enjoy the movie, that's fine too. If you worked in Afghanistan, and didn't find the movie at all relatable, that's fine too. But to imply that your perspective is the ONLY one about a place or an experience - yeah, that's privilege.

I hope other films come along, out of Afghanistan itself, that explore the violence between tribes, the violence against children, the plight of women, the beauty of Afghan music, the tragic power and fear of gossip among Afghans, the bravery of so many Afghans, the grace and courage of so many fixers (which the film does touch on), and on and on. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was never meant to do that, and has nothing to apologize for.

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