By Rajashree Ghosh
I recently picked up a copy of the film, “The Visitor” and joined the millions of others who had watched before I did. Somehow I rethink each time I pick up these subjects – hard to explain but it feels like it may hit me closer than I think. Although having been a trailing spouse, the burden of immigration never fell on me but explaining my position always was my responsibility and it was tiresome.
As Indian immigrants, we have been sticklers for the rule and we live, work, travel, shop, pay, earn like others do as law abiding people. The film however talked about undocumented immigrants. Do you see how quick I am to add that here!
The film let me stray and even guided me to deeper conversations in my mind that I would like to share. Many readers are probably more familiar or have been so longer than I have but for those who don’t here is a synopsis.
Walter Vale, an academic from Connecticut is carrying on with his life, having lost his passion for teaching and writing, there is an emptiness that is portrayed beautifully by the actor Richard Jenkins. Walter travels to Manhattan for an academic conference, arrives at his scarcely used New York apartment, and discovers that the flat is being used by people – people he did not know. The couple Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician, and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) were as shocked to see him there.
Rather than report the intruders (as he found out they're the innocent victims of a rental scam), the professor asks them to stay on till they found an alternate place.
After initial awkwardness Walter willingly embarks on a journey with Tarek - a journey of exuberant rhythms of the world of jazz clubs, music fairs and drummers circles in Central Park.
As the friendship develops the differences in age, culture, temperament fade away. Things would have led to an “American dream” scenario but that was not to be. Tarek is arrested as an undocumented immigrant and is held for deportation. Walter finds himself intensely involved in helping his new friend with such zeal that he had not experienced in a while. When Tarek’s mother Mouna arrives in search of her son, Walter’s commitment to bring Tarek back reaches another level as he develops closeness for her.
There are many narratives that weave through the text of the film that are discerning. Visitors from “another culture” inhabiting the home have many connotations. It finds manifestations in immigration policy by which relationships are somehow codified in law. It is a specific kind of law that is not always shared and very few even care to know or question because it has to do with people from another country. In effect it is “their” problem. The “they” and “us” are significant metaphors that mark populations. As the lawyer working to free Tarek said, “You either belong or you don’t.” So if you did belong, this was not your problem.
Volunteering with a fair trade organization close to a decade ago, I was asked why I did not have a job. I explained that as a spouse of an IT professional I was not allowed by law to be gainfully employed. My coordinator came close and asked me “are you illegal?” Well of course not, I said loudly but could not bring myself to explain very well my “dependent” status – that was bestowed on me by the US immigration laws. It made my entry legitimate and my stay valid in the eyes of the law. I assumed that everyone knew the laws of their country. That is obviously not the case and more often than not I have left it un-discussed. I probably have vented in other forums.
I am immediately reminded of when Zainab refuses to drink wine without explaining why she does not drink. Tarek pitches in and says “she is a good Muslim.” I am not sure if Walter realized his mistake in offering wine to a woman who practices a faith that prohibits consumption of alcoholic drinks. From his point of view, he was being polite and hospitable. In another instance one of Zainab’s customers asks her where she was from and when she said Senegal, the woman said she had been to Cape Town. Senegal and South Africa are two separate countries. And yet, Zainab did not correct her.
The film is not for me a necessarily jabbing instrument at immigration policies. I am heartened by the issues that were brought up. Walter, who follows up Tarek’s case and reaches the detention center only to be told he had been moved to another facility from where he is to be deported. In an unexpected outburst he says, “You can’t just take people away! He was a good man!” His initial confidence in bringing back his friend had been shorn and in its place a complete sense of loss consumed him. For a character with inadequate expressiveness, this was a cry against the political sanctions that separated “us.” It did not take long into the film when “their” problem became “mine.”Awakened as he was to a new set of responsibilities that offered meaning to his life, letting go was unacceptable. Even as he bid farewell to Mouna, we see him take to “their” drums playing “their” rhythms that were introduced by people visiting his apartment and awakened the artist in him.
I am appreciative of people and forums that allow for conversations and film has certainly been one of those for me. And there are times when such dialogues are possible where “we” have a collective say as visitors and inhabitants. That time is any moment we want it to be.
To see more of Ghosh's work, visit indianewengland.com.
Rajashree Ghosh is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.