Can You Learn about Different Cultures by Watching Movies?

For a while, I was fine with the flicks that Netflix was 95-98% certain.I’d like They were wrong too often. So I decided to start selecting random films, including ones predicted to disappoint me.

After I watched “My Best Friend Anne Frank” and gave it a high rating, Netflix started presenting me with Holocaust films. Thumbs up to the “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and a documentary featuring German women who worked at Dachau during WWII. “3000 Nights,” was difficult but good — about a Palestinian woman who’s falsely accused and winds up in an Israeli high security women’s prison. And there was “Omar” a Palestinian man who scales the wall to court Nadia. He’s falsely accused of a terrorist act in Israel, goes to prison where he’s tortured. Will he see Nadia again?

“Ava Maria”, a surprise comedy, is a short Oscar-nominated film about orthodox Israeli settlers who crash their car outside a Palestinian convent. This happens on Shabbat and at a time when the nuns are observing a vow of silence. Another comedy, “Ali’s Wedding” , is based on the life of the star and screenwriter, an Iraqi living in Melbourne, Australia. It was fun seeing what other cultures find funny.

Some films were onerous.

The Moroccan “The Unknown Saint” started off funny. A robber looks for a desolate place to bury loot, driving into the barren wilderness until he runs out of gas near a hill topped by a scrawny tree. He climbs the hill, buries the loot, mounds up the soil and places rocks around it so it looks like a gravesite. The cops catch up and take him to prison. Fast forward to when he emerges years later. The tree has grown and the site now includes a shrine for the “unknown saint.” A town has bloomed and businesses have sprouted, selling souvenirs, I was filled with expectations. But the film droned on and on with long silences, dull subplots, inane exchanges until I quit. Don’t know if he got his loot.

A depressing film was about a depressed Iraqi single mother struggles with shortages of necessities and sets off to find gas for her stove. It seems like the film wants viewers to experience all the details of her getting lost, running out of gas, being shot at, sleeping on the ground, and walking and walking, knowing her son has gone home to an empty apartment. I curse the US decision to invade Iraq.

Another grim film featured a worn-out Afghan woman who’s surprised when her husband marries a second wife the same age as his high-school age daughter who has plans to continue her education. The husband is clearly a jerk, shows favoritism to the bride and neglects and abuses his first wife and their three children. Afghanistan doesn’t look better off either.

But talk about dragging! “Dear Son” takes the cake. We observe a middle-age Tunisian couple tenderly doting on their teenage son who is set to go off to university. We see long scenes of them eating breakfast, putting food in the cart at the supermarket, walking down streets. Has the filmmaker never heard of editing? Then when the father goes to look for the son who’s run off to Syria to join ISIS, we watch him stand in line at the station, sit on the train, at the Turkish border, meet the smuggler who’ll take him to Syria, and walk in the wilderness. At least I saw in detail what life is like over there.

The good thing is that seeing these films has brought these people andn places to life. And even the bad ones let you experience the universality of human struggles.

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