It is no secret that since the 9/11 attacks, Muslims have become the number one suspect every time disaster hits U.S. soil. Despite the fact that there is little support for terrorism among Muslim Americans, questioning them based on their religion or ethnicity is seen by some as perfectly acceptable. The immense psychological and physical impact these accusations have on the accused, whether warranted or not, is something those outside the Muslim community rarely consider. After all, if they are truly innocent, won't our justice system sort it out? Isn't it better to be safe than sorry?
Torn, a new independent film opening this weekend, tackles these heavy questions through the stories of two mothers whose sons are both killed by an explosion at the local mall. Maryam, a Pakistani Muslim, and Lea, who is from a white, working class background, meet at the police station where they are both summoned to collect the remains of their boys. The two become friends, relying on each other to help ease the pain they are experiencing from their heartbreaking loss.
Things quickly turn sour between them, however, when the police suspect that Maryam's son was involved in the blast. They base their suspicions on his Pakistani heritage and recent attendance of the community mosque, claiming he could be radicalized. Maryam's world turns upside down and she can't help but think back to the days when her husband, Ali, was wrongly accused of terrorism in the days after 9/11. To make matters more complicated, her real estate clients began to drop her and Ali expresses his desire to move back to Pakistan away from all the drama.
Lea soon receives some horrifying news as well. Her son was being bullied at school by some classmates who also happened to be victims of the mall attack, and the police suspect he could have set off the explosion as retribution. When Maryam hears of this, she can't help but lash out. "How does it feel now?" she cries. "How do you like everyone accusing you?"
The similarities between their situations provide an effective backdrop to further analyze this issue. Race and religion are the main difference between the two families affected by the tragedy, but the way in which society responds is starkly different. For non-Muslim viewers, this may be eye opening in the way they view the behavior of media, law enforcement, and society in such situations.
Out of all the characters in the film, we get to know Lea best. Dendrie Taylor does an excellent job of depicting the journey of a single mother struggling to make ends meet and then dealing with the loss of her son. However, we don't learn much about the life of Maryam, played by Mahnoor Baloch, before the tragedy and how it has influenced her enduring pro-American attitude, which stands in contrast to the critical views of her husband Ali, played by Farhan Tahir. Both are fine actors, but the script does not allow us to connect with them as we do with Lea.
Part of this has to do with the pace of the film, which moves quite slowly after the initial situation is laid out. Things pick up near the end and flashbacks help shed light on some questions posed earlier. More information earlier in the movie would have kept things moving and provided the audience with further insight into the other characters' lives and behaviors.
Toward the end of the movie, Maryam and Lea are visiting the mall's memorial and Lea asks, "Do you think we'll ever know what happened?" Her question is a poignant one and really drives the movie's message home. It emphasizes that even though no one had all the facts, these women went through what they did because of society's reaction to their preconceived notions about the mothers and their sons.
Let's hope that audiences will take Torn's message and begin viewing the world around them through a more self-aware lens. The fear of the unknown that can lead to Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racial profiling, etc. in our country comes not only from the media, but also from within. The first step in combating that fear is understanding how we comprehend and react to such situations, and Torn is a means to help accomplish just that.
Torn opens Friday, October 18th in NYC and October 25th in California. More information at Tornthefilm.com.