Sunday, October 16, 2011

Not Without My Daughter

Director: Brian Gilbert
Writers: Betty Mahmoody (book), William Hoffer (book), David W. Rintels

Sally Field as Betty Mahmoody
Alfred Molina as Moody
Sheila Rosenthal as Mahtob

(This summary includes political observations mostly from the book. The movie leaves out many dramatic beats that help to understand the story's meaning and moral premise.)

NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER is the true story of Betty, an the American-Christian wife of the Americanized and trained Iranian doctor, Sayyed Bozorg Mahmoody, D.O. (Moody), who was born-in-and raised in a strict Islamic family in Iran.  Betty and Moody lived in Corpus Christi, TX and later Alpena, MI, where Moody was an anesthesiologist. They met when he treated her for back pain. When the American backed Shah of Iran (the last of 2,500  years of Persian monarchs) was deposed, allowing the Iranian Revolution on 11 February 1979 (and the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran), many Iranians longed to go back to Iran. The idea of a strict Islamic state (where men ruled with impunity -- a family level terrorism) is very attractive, in a demonic way, to the male ego.  Moody was one of them, and in the process of re-embracing his Islamic heritage, also embraced the Islamic revolution's anti-American ideology.

Virgins waiting in paradise for Islamic fundamentalist men.
[There is a fundamental anti-conscience aspect to radical Islam where rote ideology supports a culture where suppression of another person's conscience (the inner sense of what is right or wrong) is allowed and encouraged. This is done in order to bring about the outward observance of Islam, if not by free-will, by fear and oppression. It is a culture where the disposition of the heart is meaningless, i.e. the individual's right to determine moral right and wrong is suppressed.  It is a form of tyranny where a few control the lives of many through fear. In Nazi Germany the central figure was a man backed by a political machine. In radical Islam the central figure is a perversion of God's character and a religious machine.  Islam's version of paradise (for a man) promises the attention of virgins when he gets to heaven. This is hilariously parodied in the picture above.]

MOODY by Alfred  Molina
Thus, Moody manipulates Betty to take their daughter back for a 2-week visit to Iran to visit his family, but secretly he has no intention of leaving, or letting them leave the deeply misogynistic culture.  Betty realizes this, in part, because of Moody's involvement in pro-Iranian/anti-American student activism here in the U.S.. She knows Iran is not a pleasant place, especially if you are American and female. But she loves her husband and wants to please him. Upon arrival in Iran, it appears that her worst fears are realized: Moody declares that they will be living there from now on.

Why would Moody (an American trained doctor) stay in a culture that seems to have jumped backwards 1,000 years in terms of hygiene, medicine, science, human rights, freedoms, and basic knowledge about the human condition? Several reasons. (1) It's revealed that his political activities in the U.S. have resulted in his termination from two jobs, in two states, and two different hospital systems -- further resulting in the loss of his Green Card.

[Some may see this as racism here in the U.S. or cultural prejudice. But prejudice is an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand without knowledge, thought, or reason. And there is reason to not trust an overtly active, anti-American doctor, treating American patients, in the American Hospital system, like Moody.]

BETTY by Sally Fields
(2) The second reason Moody relapses to his upbringing is that (as Betty surmises in the book) there is an basic inability of the Islamic culture to think independently -- a trait ingrained by the educational system upon her daughter, where all learning is by rote repetition. There is no opportunity in the system for reasoning or independent thinking, or creativity. In other words the conscience is improperly formed. You are taught only to say and think what is spoon fed to you. This becomes evident in Moody's refusal to do anything his ego does not want him to do, and Moody's cousin who, when in America, refuses to take a entry level position in a bank as a teller. The only job the cousin is willing to consider is an offer to be president of a company. Being the CEO sounds like a creative, take-initiative position, until you realized that the cousin's demand is the product of a rote ideology ingrained culturally into the male ego. The culture, thus, only survives through severe autocracy of various kinds and at various levels.

Betty conscience tells her to return to America. When he finally allows her return he refuses to led their daughter, Mahtob, go back with Betty, insisting that Betty (under the pretense of attending her Father's funeral),  sell their extended American assets (homes and checking accounts) and send the money to Moody in Iran. Moody is desperate for money because his license to practice medicine in Iran has not been approved due to his American training. Nothing from America has any value to the government. And so, with some-half-efforts on the part of her female Iranian friends (who love intrigue, which is brought on by their suppression), Betty is determined to escape from Iran. But the obstacles to taking her daughter with her seem insurmountable.

MAHTOB by Sheila Rosenthal
I often think the book and movie are both good, although movie versions always show less. But in this case, the movie is sub-standard in terms of story telling and production value. Some of it is the director's decision (or budget requirement) to minimize the visuals-on-screen because the Iranian culture is visually minimal. (Shot in Israel.)  Everything is stark, gray, black, and sensual. In the book, even the food is bland and apparently unappetizing.  But the camera angles chosen, framing, lighting, and the "god-awful" music (more German classical than anything Persian or Iranian) was distracting and seemed like a cheap library afterthought. Indeed, some of  the scenes could have used music but were barren. "Barren" does depict the production values. But the acting was very good, especially little Rosenthal as Mahtob. How little kids get their timing and emotional arcs amazes me. Good direction, helps. The screenplays choiceof scenes seemed right, but left out major plot points that would have confused me had I not read the book. Being from Michigan, I was disappointing that Atlanta stood in for it.

Throughout the book, Betty reiterates that her father brought her up to believe: Where there's a will, there's a way. This engenders in Betty, a perseverance in the midst of persecution, that allows her achievement of the goal -- getting out of Iran with her daughter. And the odds and obstacles for the unlikely, common hero are immense -- natural structure for a successful movie.

Now, consider "Where there's a will, there's a way" in light of the cultural artifacts that I've discussed above, namely the autocratic Islamic culture of rote learning and behavior, -- or the training that dislodges a properly formed conscience from what it means to be fully human. In this story, Betty retains or embodies the practice of listening to her (properly formed) conscience (or will) while her antagonists (the autocratic Islamic culture, represented by Moody) embody a rote-mentality (or suppression of the will) and a willingness to live under tyranny.

Thus, this becomes the story's moral-physical premise statement (where "conscience" is understood as the natural, organic, true-to-natural law sense of right and wrong):

Suppression of the conscience leads to tyranny; but
Preservation of the conscience leads to freedom. 

or stated with words from Betty's father:

Suppression of an individuals will leads to tyranny; but
Preservation of an individual's will leads to freedom.

The paradox of all this occurs when one individual's will has the goal of suppressing another person's individual will.

Book Jacket: Mahtob and Betty
Reading the book (and watching the movie) was at the same time a fearful and hopeful experience, that reminded me of my own failings as a man, and the promise of being fully human. It was revealing, satisfying, and even a sacred time of reflection on our world and much redemption is needed.

It reinforces what I write at the end of The Moral Premise: 

Vanquish Fear, Bestow Hope


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