Out-of-Date Message Movies

I haven’t seen Philomena but I’ve noticed it’s been getting a lot of attention: many TV ads, awards nominations, numerous interviews with the stars, with the book’s author, and with the real-life Philomena Lee.

Then I read some reviews of the film and realized why the media was giving it so much play. It’s about an unwed teenager who gave birth to a boy in a Catholic convent in Ireland some sixty-one years ago. When the boy was three, he was put up for adoption by the nuns and “sold” to an American couple. The rest of the film concerns Philomena’s efforts to find the son she had lost.

I’m not suggesting that the anti-Catholic element is the only reason for the hype surrounding the film. By most accounts, it’s a well-made film with first-rate acting, and it’s based, moreover, on a heart-wrenching true story.

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The larger problem with the film is that it is seriously dated. More often than not, movies that deal with the recent past are meant to be relevant to the present. But just how relevant is Philomena? Like many other movies of its kind, Philomena aims to teach us a lesson, but, as with so many other recent movies, the lesson it teaches is one we all learned decades ago. In short, the message has passed its sell-by date. The problems depicted in such movies are yesterday’s problems. Rarely does the film industry address the problems of today.

philomenaFor instance, one of the “lessons” imparted by Philomena concerns the harmful consequences of attaching social stigma to unwed pregnancies. Because of the moralistic climate in Ireland circa 1955, Philomena was pressured to give up her baby—an act she regretted for the rest of her life. That’s fine if you’re addressing your message to the conscience of a 1955 audience, but the filmmakers don’t seem to have caught up with the fact that we live in a changed world. Many of the problems we face today stem from the fact that there is practically no social stigma attached to illegitimacy. Indeed, there are numerous social incentives for unwed mothers to remain unwed. As a result, the incidence of out-of-wedlock births has skyrocketed and, along with it, rates of poverty, crime, drug abuse, child abuse, child neglect, and abortion. What followed in the wake of the new non-judgmental morality was a seemingly endless cycle of husbandless mothers and fatherless children. Moreover, the number of children forcibly separated from their mothers by court order far exceeds anything seen in previous eras. If the filmmakers were really serious about addressing the issues of the day, the blight caused by the sexual revolution would be one of their top priorities.

There should be no objection to a well-made movie that has a message to convey. But it would be refreshing for a change to hear a message that bore some relevance to the world we now live in, rather than to the world of sixty years ago. Consider the main event in Philomena: a child is taken away from its mother. That’s something that happens every day in the Muslim world. Islamic law and custom tend to favor males in cases of custody dispute, especially if the wife is non-Muslim. Is Philomena meant to be a veiled comment on Islamic practices? Not likely. The last time Hollywood dealt with the subject of Islam and abduction was the 1991 film Not Without My Daughter. Since then, however, the forces of political correctness have tightened their control on what can and cannot be said about Islam.

Betty Mahmoody (the real-life mother on whom the movie is based) is not the only American to undergo this experience. Last year, a Pennsylvania mother rescued her twelve-year-old son who had been kidnapped twenty months earlier by her Muslim husband while they were on a trip to Egypt. Kalli Atteya hired an agency to track down her husband, made several trips to Egypt and, finally, disguised in a niqab, grabbed her son as he got off a school bus in Alexandria, led him to a waiting car, and eventually escaped with him back to the U.S.

So, here is a true story about a stolen child, and his loving mother’s desperate search for him—a story not unlike that of Philomena. The story has plenty of drama, plenty of action, several twists and turns, and loads of human interest. The Daily Mail’s coverage of the story alone has sufficient detail to provide a good screenwriter with enough plot elements to start crafting an absorbing screenplay. Will the movie be made? Probably not. It might be considered offensive to the sensibilities of Egyptians and Muslims. And that, in the current scheme of things, counts far more heavily than the sensitivities of Irish Catholics.

There is nothing wrong per se with stories that remind us of the sins and imperfections of the past. Moreover, many films of the Philomena genre are worthwhile in themselves simply on the level of storytelling. Taken as a whole, however, they display an obvious selectivity. They concentrate on certain sins and avoid others. Every year, for example, Hollywood treats us to at least a few new anti-Nazi movies (Valkyrie, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), but very seldom do we see films about the crimes of communism. Is this simply because the Nazis had more stylish uniforms than the Soviets? Or does the reluctance to criticize communism stem from a deeper bias—such as the general sympathy for the left that pervades the film industry?

Likewise, while Hollywood never tires of reminding us of the evils of slavery (Django Unchained, Twelve Years a Slave), its focus is entirely on slavery in the West. The Arab slave trade, which lasted centuries longer and resulted in the loss of many more lives, is passed over in silence. Moreover, the fact that slavery is still practiced in several places in the Muslim world does not seem to excite the imagination of the movie execs.

Discrimination? We have The Butler, The Help, and dozens of similar films to remind us of just how bad it was for American blacks in the pre-civil rights era, but where are the films about the blatant discrimination that currently exists in the Muslim world—discrimination that is becoming more and more pronounced. Where is the major motion picture dealing with the legalized oppression of women in Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia? How about the socially sanctioned discrimination against Christians? In Pakistan, for instance, the slang world “chuhru” or “street-sweeper” is almost synonymous with “Christian” because that is one of the few jobs available to Christians.

It’s unrealistic to expect that Hollywood (or British) filmmakers will drop everything and rush their film crews to Pakistan. In any event, they won’t have to, because, in a very real sense Pakistan is coming to the West. In fact, the mores and prejudices of the Islamic world have already arrived in parts of the West. Enforced wearing of the burqa, forced marriages, polygamy, female genital mutilation—practices that would have been unthinkable mere decades ago—are now common in Britain and on the continent.

For many young people, the entertainment world is their sole window on the real world, and most of them have little awareness that the Hollywood worldview is a dangerously distorted one. Obsessively focused on the past sins of the West, the Hollywood gatekeepers have seriously neglected the present dangers that Western cultures face. In short, they don’t seem to have noticed that the world has changed profoundly since the 1950s. Events are now unfolding that will affect our future far more profoundly than any events that took place in an Irish convent sixty years ago.

According to Open Doors USA’s 2014 World Watch List, Muslim persecution of Christians has now spread to forty-one nations. Part of that persecution consists in the abduction and/or kidnapping of Christian children on a wide scale. If you want to do a contemporary story about children being separated from their mothers by religious zealots, the Muslim world would be the place to look. Here are a few recent headlines which the movie makers could mine for material:

American Woman, Abducted as a Child by Her Muslim Father wants to Start Foundation to Help Victims of International Abduction.

Pakistan: Christian Children Kidnapped by Muslim Father.

Islamists Kidnap, Rape Egypt’s Christian Children.

Irish Mum Reunited with Daughter Who Was Abducted by Muslim Father.

What’s that? An Irish Mum? A stolen child? Circa 2011? Which top-rated British actress will get the lead role? When will the movie version be released? Don’t hold your breath. There were no Catholic nuns involved.

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