2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: If you delve into the various sections of the Toronto International Film Festival this year, you’ll find a number of films which explore issues surrounding religion and morality. In Special Presentations, you’ll find Fernando Meirelles’ “The Two Popes“, which examines the tensions between the worldviews of a traditionalist and a more modern pope. In the Masters’ section, Terrence Malick continues his career-long interest in spirituality with “A Hidden Life“, about a conscientious objector to the Nazi cause.
Established auteurs aren’t the only ones intrigued by these themes, however, as evidenced by Jorunn Myklebust Syversen‘s sophomore outing “Disco,” and Minhal Baig‘s debut feature “Hala“.
“Disco” opens on an image of a young woman face down in a lake, which acts as a portentous metaphor for what’s to come. We soon learn that she is Mirjam (Josefine Frida), a teenager living in Norway. A champion dancer, she balances her time between her competitive aspirations and her devotion to serving Jesus Christ, as demanded by her family’s strong ties to her church. But as she puts on a brave face to live up to expectations, Mirjam begins to feel like she’s drowning under the pressure. As her faith and dance performances start to falter, she becomes desperate for help.
A subsequent search for guidance is unfortunately futile, as she is repeatedly advised to simply “keep the faith” and let God solve her problems. In a more sympathetic Christian film, Mirjam would indeed find redemption through this “one size fits all” solution. But Jorunn Myklebust Syversen smartly breaks down this facade. While effectively capturing the inspirational appeal of the impassioned sermons, she also illuminates the difficult private lives of those in Miriam’s household, thereby exposing the illusion of perfection.
Syversen largely accomplishes this through her evocative, visual storytelling. By cutting between scenes of the dance stage and the church pulpit, she takes a not-so-subtle jab at the gaudy showmanship of some new-age churches. Featuring a pastor clad in jeans and a t-shirt, worship songs in the style of rock anthems and flashy neon light shows, the energy and visual schemes in both settings are nearly identical. Contrasted with the more solemn images depicted of a rival, conventional church—including a shot reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”—”Disco” is a great showcase for cinematographer Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen.
Yet the script ultimately falls short of its visual power, presenting schematic characters and scenarios which limit a deeper understanding of Mirjam’s struggle. Despite numerous admonitions against worldly temptations, she hardly faces any such distractions. Audiences may be left wondering about her interactions in such common settings as school or other public spaces. Considering the severity of her declining physical and mental state, the film lacks a more nuanced depiction of the challenges of being a young, puritanical Christian in modern society (especially as a beautiful young blonde).
As the film eventually veers into horror territory, there’s a sense that Marius Syversen is preaching to the converted, or perhaps more appropriately, the unconverted. “Disco” seeks to interrogate whether being a “good Christian” is synonymous with being a good human being. But its conclusions are too obvious. Viewers who are similarly grappling with their own personal faith may find it hard to relate to the radical extremes facing its tortured protagonist.
That lacking sense of relatability in “Disco” is conversely in abundant supply in Minhal Baig’s “Hala,” about a Muslim teenager’s struggle with her identity. Its titular protagonist is a first generation American born to Pakistani immigrants, whose daily life is a tug of war between the conservative expectations of her household and the modern, free-thinking Western attitudes she has assimilated into with her peers.
Observing the prayer rituals, modest dress code and dietary restrictions of her family’s religion, Hala also enjoys skateboarding and the attention of boys at school. Like many of her classmates, however, Hala secretly rebels while maintaining her obedient image at home. But things begin to fall apart over the course of her senior year in high school, as revelations about Hala and her parents threaten their stable home.
Gentle and unassuming, there’s an ordinary quality to the first half of “Hala” that masks the subversive nature of its narrative and characters. Played with impressive maturity by Geraldine Viswanathan, Hala’s liberal curiosity about sex and tomboy-ish hobbies will feel intimately familiar to American audiences. Though Hala may seem like your average American teen, her behavior is quietly revolutionary.
Indeed, Baig instills a complexity to the film’s basic “coming of age” premise through the specificity of its characters. Apart from the obvious signifiers of Hala’s hijab, Baig adds a further layer of authenticity through the film’s bilingualism (Urdu is spoken in the home) and the complicated perspectives of Hala’s parents. Loving yet overprotective, the script’s fascinating exploration of their characters—a westernized but patriarchal father and a traditionalist but understanding mother—is one of the highlights.
Accompanied by a delicate score, “Hala” initially underplays the tensions, making for a sweetly pleasurable viewing experience. Sympathetically portraying the strict parenting from a place of genuine love and concern, Baig gives us a reprieve from the stereotypes of extremist Muslim oppression. Still, the director astutely recognizes the inevitably precarious nature of this harmonious existence, maintained largely by respectability politics rather than individual desires.
Indeed, it only takes a few late-breaking bombshells to betray the performative nature of their piety. Requiring a few uncharacteristic tonal shifts, the subsequent melodrama admittedly results in some “on the nose” line readings which deliberately declare the film’s themes. But overall, “Hala” is ultimately an insightful, touching character study that forces us to reconsider what it means to be female, Muslim and American.