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Towelhead

by DeAnn Welker December 29, 2008 9:14 am
Towelhead

If you haven't seen Towelhead yet -- and even if you have, actually -- you should watch the DVD. No, nothing is different from the theatrical release. And, no, it's not the best film in history, or even of the year. And finally, no, there aren't many special features on the disc. But there are two special features that make this worth watching -- scratch that, they make this important viewing. For everyone. No matter your take on any of the issues and controversy surrounding the film's title -- or the film itself.

It would have been so easy for Alan Ball and Company to just churn out your run-of-the-mill special features: deleted scenes, featurettes, gag reel. But we get none of that. What we get instead is "Towelhead: A Community Discussion." This consists of two separate townhall-style discussions hosted by Alan Ball about the movie, its controversies, and larger controversies about Arab-Americans. They are insightful and poignant, made more so by the fact that there aren't other special features on the DVD. It makes this disc feel meaningful instead of commercial, which is so rare even for the best DVD releases (which are often just second releases of a disc that had a sparse scattering of extras the first time around). That's not what Towelhead is. This is all we're getting, purposefully.

The first panel discussion consists of Ball, the film's principal actors Peter Macdissi (Jasira's father) and Summer Bishil (Jasira), and Hussam Ayloush of all of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Apparently, CAIR, as the council's called, was not happy about the film's title. Instead of ignoring that, Ball and Warner Bros. invited them to participate in this panel. It has an intro saying that the language might be offensive, it's not a reflection on Warner Bros., etc. Which seems silly, since this would reflect positively on Warner Bros. Instead, Ball gets the positive reflection. He introduces it by saying that they are all going to put aside their disagreement to discuss this, because this is what they all want: a dialogue about the racial issues. He says that the author of the original novel felt the title served as a way in to discussion, and he obviously agrees. He goes on to then say the word is a slur, and the author (Alicia Erian) is Arab-American, and she chose the word because of the novel's theme of racism. He also explains that he originally changed the title, thinking no one would buy it; but when Warner Independent bought the movie on the festival circuit, they told him to change the title back. The first five minutes of this nearly half-hour panel deals almost exclusively with the ramifications of the movie's title. It's fascinating, enlightening and hopeful. If only more people would watch this than just the few people who will buy or rent this DVD (which, let's face it, probably isn't that many people). There is a lot of substance about real, human issues that our world is so embroiled with right now -- Hussam Ayloush explaining why the word "towelhead" is so hurtful and brings up bad memories, and why he and others found the title to be so offensive that they contacted Warner Bros.; discussion of using this word inside the community versus outside of the community; how using the title on a book is different than with a movie that's advertised in newspapers, on TV, etc.; the actors talking about having been called "towelhead" and other slurs in their own lives -- but this also serves somewhat as a making-of, with insights into how the title came to be, how the actors felt taking the roles in the film, their experiences making the film, and how people reacted to them after it was made.

The second panel consists of Ball (on hosting duty again), Erian, the author of the novel, and Rajdeep Singh Jolly from the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, also known as SALDEF. This is similar to the first one, with an intro that's pretty much the same (both the worded intro from Warner and Ball's welcome intro to his panel). This one is a little longer (almost 50 minutes), and has much less about the making of the movie, but more about the novel and the real issues at hand. Ball starts out by asking Jolly what a Sikh is and what the SALDEF does. We start off getting some background education before they jump into the discussion. This one gets a little more heated, with Jolly making the point that no one would ever think of calling a book or a movie "the n-word" because of the huge outcry it would generate. Which, while a good point, is not accurate when you consider that there was a book with that title several years ago, and even a Boston Public episode about it. Ball disagrees strongly with Jolly; he himself is part of a minority as a gay man, and he doesn't want people who would say hateful things silenced, because that gives those words too much power. Erian talks about why she chose the word, and compares it to why Jolly wears a turban -- not to assimilate in this country. But she admits it is also helpful in selling a book or a movie. It's an interesting debate that's important to have, even if they don't ultimately come to any conclusions or resolutions. I do have to agree with Ball that taking the power from those words is important. And I do think that making the title Towelhead has taken away some of the power from that word. Some of this is repetitive, because Ball tells a few of the same stories he told in the first panel. But it's all organic, unrehearsed, and necessary.

While the sound on these panels -- particularly the first one -- is sometimes not great, which can be annoying, these panels are among the very best special features I've ever seen on a DVD, not just because they are so unexpected, but also because they're so much more than simply DVD extras.

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