It’s suffocating: the type of film that fills a viewer’s lungs and leaves him or her short of breath. This is an anthem against systemized intolerance that permeates contemporary America — a world shaped by one’s own perception rather than reality and heavy with disconnections in communication.
Bigotry festers in “TORN.” A mall-bombing-declared-terrorist-attack renders the sons of both Pakistani Maryam (Mahnoor Baloch) and white domestic worker Lea (Dendrie Taylor) dead. In the wake of the attack, the two women meet at a police station and fall into an opportune friendship. Throughout the film, each son is implicated for the bombing, exposing stereotypes that are entrenched in America’s justice system. Here, each son’s identity is revealed as much to the audience as to his mother. And tensions boil over into prejudice, testing the bonds of the women’s relationship.
“TORN” is a drama, but it isn’t melodramatic. Rather, the film’s emotional component exists to connect the audience with larger issues that underlie the familial conflicts. It is true that whenever a story is meant to highlight ubiquitous themes, it needs to talk about the specific. The events are individual, but the take-home treads on common ground.
“The film … is really about how all of us are capable of being truly bound with other people,” said director and producer Jeremiah Birnbaum. “Yet there are so many outside forces. There’s so much fear and prejudice and doubt that’s just kind of pushed in on us. And that causes us to question these bonds that we know are real.”
In this light, the film is not about terrorism. Author Tim O’Brien made famous the notion that “a true war story is never about the war” in his book “The Things They Carried,” and “TORN” highlights this point. It is as much a story about hostile torment as it is of dreams and weakness — a story about a connection that’s broken.
The film indicates that the most important bonds are also the most susceptible to damage. That love is susceptible to fear. And what makes “TORN” relatable is that it does not sugarcoat the truth. It does not generalize one person’s truth simply to universalize its points.
“TORN” succeeds at unearthing the underlying prejudices that resonate with the American public in a post-9/11 world while adeptly avoiding histrionics. This is a noble task: juxtaposing themes of extremism against an even-keeled tone. But the general moderation is integral to the film’s believability.
“We wanted it raw. I mean the film is visual, and I think the film has beautiful moments,” Birnbaum said. “But it’s not pretty.”
Indeed, there’s nothing pretty about hatred. And extremism permeates the story. In an early scene, Maryam and her husband Ali (Faran Tahir) lie in bed discussing Lea’s husband.
“She told me her husband became an Evangelic,” Maryam says. “They couldn’t do the things that they used to.”
“We know all about that kind of fanatic,” Ali replies.
On extremism, Birnbaum said, “Certainly, we were trying to have any kind of extremist thought as dangerous. And it is limiting. So we wanted that to be one of the background themes there. And I think it feeds into the fear. It feeds into the prejudice.”
The filmmakers take care to approach irrational thought from different sides — a refreshing approach in a world where terrorism seems to encompass any view that is inconsistent with one’s own belief. Terrorism is a disagreeable term reserved for adversaries and is increasingly subjective. It introduces a widespread and often unjustified fear. “TORN,” though not necessarily about the nuances of radicalism, is absolutely about living in an environment where terrorism exists.
“How does living in that world affect us?” Birnbaum asked. “I mean, this is just the world that we live in, where it’s like you can be running a marathon and a bomb goes off. That’s the world that we live in. That’s what we wanted to get deeper into. That is our world.”
This intention is virtuous, but a myopic viewer might fail to grasp this as the film’s objective. It’s easy to write “TORN” off as incomplete for a lack of resolution. But what such a view fails to acknowledge is that blatant open-endedness is central to the film’s purpose. This work is neither meant to provide the answers nor solutions to any inquiries. “TORN” intends to spark conversation and questions. In this way, it functions as an expose.
“I’m very interested in making films where the audience has to work to figure things out,” Birnbaum said. “And my own feeling is that the audience sort of finishes the film … The goal of this film is that the audience is taken on this journey and their ideas are changing throughout. And hopefully, by the end, it makes them challenge themselves.”
Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected].