Saturday, January 01, 2011

In Contention: The Black Tulip

It is a New Year—a time for new beginnings. Hopefully that will be especially true in Afghanistan. One new film vividly represents such aspirations. Despite reports to the contrary, Sonia Nassery Cole’s The Black Tulip (trailer here) is in contention as Afghanistan’s official submission for the best foreign language Academy Award. It also boasts two of the forty-one qualifying best original song candidates. An important film in several ways, Tulip’s limited Oscar qualifying engagement is now underway in Los Angeles.

Hadar and Farishta Masouri are the sort of Afghans the media never shows—the educated middle class. Hardly immune to trouble, they have survived many grim days in refugee camps. However, following the American toppling of the Taliban regime, they have returned to Kabul to rebuild their lives and their society.

Believing Afghanistan is ready for change, they open Poet’s Corner, restaurant-coffeehouse featuring an open mic night for any interested poets and singers. This forum for free expression is embraced by the neighborhood, but the local Taliban cell is not amused. To shut down Poet’s Corner, they launch a campaign of terror against the Masouri family.

Indeed, Tulip is truly fearless in its portrayal of the Taliban’s savagery. Even more controversially, it depicts the American military as a positive presence in Afghanistan, forging links of friendship with average citizens. Yet, the most valuable aspect of Tulip is the window it opens into a moderate yet devoutly Muslim Afghan middle class most Americans probably assume does not exist. Tulip shows audiences not all Afghans are toothless mujahedeen with a Koran in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other. Rather, there are many people like Masouris, who simply want to work hard and raise their families in peace. Yet, it harbors no illusions about the nature of Afghanistan’s social problems. Frankly, Tulip clearly suggests there is only one way to deal effectively with terrorism and it has nothing to do with sensitivity or welfare programs.

Cole displays a real talent for pacing and shot composition, with credit due to cinematographer Dave McFarland as well, who gives the film a slickly polished look. Cole was also forced to step in as a last minute substitution when the Taliban reportedly hacked off the feet of the woman she had originally cast as Farishta. Unfortunately, this improvised casting shows from time to time, even though Cole’s show-must-go-on spirit is admirable. However, the film’s greatest revelation is the consistent quality of the Afghan cast, particularly Haji Ghul Aser as her husband Hadar. American audiences will also be pleasantly surprised by Jack Scalia (no stranger to soap opera sets) taking an impressive supporting turn as U.S. commander and Corner regular Colonel Williams.

Yet, Tulip features its biggest star power on its original soundtrack recorded by Natalie Cole (no relation, who looked incredible when performing after a special screening of Tulip in Manhattan three weeks ago). While “Forever One Love” is the sort of the soul ballad that should please her fans, the stirring Farsi anthem “Freedom Song” is a phenomenal world music collaboration that well deserves a nomination.

In truth, Tulip is quite a good film, especially when considering the difficult circumstances of its production. It is an important first step for a country literally rebuilding its culture from the rubble of the Soviet invasion and the subsequent period of Taliban misrule. A good way to start the New Year, Tulip deserves support while screening at the Laemmle Sunset, now through Wednesday (1/5).