The Towelhead Statements

When I first screened Alan Ball‘s directorial debut at the Tonroto International Film Festival last year, it was titled Nothing is Private. In my review, I wondered why Ball had decided to change the title from that of the book it was based on – Towelhead. The obvious answer is political correctness. And a few months ago when it was announced that the film would be released under the same title of the book, I commended the Warner Bros for having the guts to be non-PC. But truth is, the name of the movie (and the book, for that matter) is so tightly connected to the story, and the struggle of the main character. If the story were to be released under any other name (Nothing is Private for instance), it just wouldn’t make sense.

The film is being released in September, and the Council on American-Islam Relations (CAIR) has asked that Warner Bros. and Warner Independent Pictures to change the name of the film. Warner Bros is not backing down, and has announced that they have no plans to change the title. The studio has asked that Alicia Erian (author, Towelhead) and Alan Ball (writer/director, Towelhead) explain the reasoning behind their decisions to give the novel and film its name. You can find these statements below.

ALICIA ERIAN – Author of Towelhead

As an Arab-American woman, I am of course aware that the title of my book is an ethnic slur. Indeed, I selected the title to highlight one of the novel’s major themes: racism. In the tradition of Dick Gregory’s autobiography Nigger, the Jewish magazine Heeb, or the feminist magazine Bitch, the title is rude and shocking, but it is not gratuitous. Besides the fact that the main character must endure taunting about her ethnicity (including being called a towelhead), so much of the novel’s plot is fueled by the characters’ attitudes toward race.

I was not contacted by any organization or group when my novel was released in 2005. I don’t know if this was because no one had heard about my book, or because they didn’t feel it would have as much of an impact as a film. Having lived in a world in which my book has existed without protest for the past three years, however, I feel I have at least some view onto what to expect from the public in terms of a response. The bottom line is, never once have I encountered anyone who didn’t understand the seriousness of the word “towelhead” and all its implications.

This is not to say that I don’t find these concerns legitimate — I absolutely do. We live in a racist society, one in which people continue to use ethnic slurs to delineate those who are different than they are. Realistically speaking, though, these people are neither the audience for my book, nor for the film. They will continue to use whatever language they wish whether or not a movie called “Towelhead” is released. For this reason, I am pleased that Warner Bros. is standing by the title.

Towelhead, like its many cousins — nigger, spic, gook, etc. — is an ugly word. The job of the artist, however, has been, and always will be, to highlight that which is ugly in the hopes of finding something beautiful. This charge, by necessity, will at times put the artist at odds with admirable groups such as CAIR. The solution, it seems to me, is not to force the artist to alter his or her work, but instead to use the occasion of that work as an entry point for meaningful debate and discussion

ALAN BALL – “Towelhead” is written for the screen and directed by Alan Ball, Academy Award-winning writer of “American Beauty, ” and creator of “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood.”

As a gay man, I know how it feels to be called hateful names simply because of who I am. Therefore, I felt it was important to retain the title of Alicia Erian’s novel, in which she so effectively dramatizes the pain inflicted by such language, something many people of non-minority descent never have to face. I believe one of the unintended consequences of forbidding such words to be spoken is imbuing those words with more power than they should ever have, and helping create the illusion that the bigotry and racism expressed by such cruel epithets is less prevalent than it actually is, which we all know is sadly not the case.

WARNER INDEPENDENT PICTURES

One of the ideas conveyed in the film is that we all make assumptions about each other, without knowing, based on racial stereotypes. It was our goal in releasing “Towelhead” to help make this point.

Some of our past releases, like “Paradise Now, ” were extremely controversial and elicited demands that the film not be released; “Good Night, and Good Luck.” drew criticism from some as well. Warner Bros. supported the release of these films then, as they do now of “Towelhead,” as a medium to create dialogue and support the expression of ideas, as controversial or as unpopular as they may be. We apologize for any offense that is caused by this title but support Alan Ball and Alicia Erian in this effort.

Dr. William Blizek, Founding Editor, Journal of Religion and Film; Professor of Philosophy and Religion, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Dr. Amir Hussain, Associate Professor of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles; Author of Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God (2006)
Dr. John Lyden, Professor and Chair of Religion, Dana College; Chair of the Religion, Film, and Visual Culture Group of the American Academy of Religion; Author of Film as Religion: Myth, Morals, Rituals (2003)
Dr. Rubina Ramji, Film Editor, Journal of Religion and Film; Professor of Religious Studies (Islam and media), Cape Breton University
Rev. Danny Fisher, Doctoral Candidate, University of the West

The concept of cinema can be described as ‘the cultural transmission of symbolic forms’ which include actions, utterances, images and texts and are embedded in structured social contexts which involve relations of power. These forms are produced by subjects and are recognized as meaningful constructs. As a form of entertainment, it also plays ‘a leading role in shaping attitudes and ideas, including political ideas’. In-depth studies of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood films over the past eighty years have found that out of the nine hundred films examined, only five percent of all the movies (approximately fifty movies) debunked the barbaric image of Islam.

There are very few films that show Islam in a positive light. Dr. Rubina Ramji, Film Editor for the Journal of Religion and Film, is one the scholars who has researched the images of Islam in Hollywood films. Dr. Ramji screened Towelhead at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and found that this film is indeed one of those few that promote different faiths and the challenges faced by these groups in America, while offering a much more balanced representation. Using the derogatory term “towelhead” as the film’s title, in the context of this film, provides a different meaning to the term, one that encourages viewers to observe these challenges first-hand and to better understand how Muslim characters have been stereotypically displayed in previous films.

By bringing forth the racist attitudes which have arisen about Muslims living in America, Towelhead openly reveals projected fears about difference and offers a constructive, yet difficult, approach to bring forth understanding. We, the undersigned scholars, have spent years researching and understanding the impact that cinema has had and continues to have on various religious groups in American culture. We hope that the true intentions of the semi-autobiographical novel, written by Alicia Erian, who has encountered such racism as an Arab-American, will continue to be accurately reflected in the film Towelhead, by leaving the title as is – a thought-provoking and difficult term that needs to be deconstructed.

*** The above statements represent the personal views of the signatories and are not attributable to any particular organization.

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