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Monday, June 2, 2008

Cowboys, Indians and Palestinians

Would Palestinian children understand an essentially American allegory as told by a Syrian-American filmmaker? In the Fiction 6-11 category, we just screened “Kemo Sabe,” a short independent film made in California under American Film Institute grants in the US, and aired on Al Quds TV in Ramallah.

Little Yussef (about 9 years old) is desperate to join the cowboy team in his neighborhood Cowboys and Indians games. The “captain” of the cowboys has said he needs jeans and a belt to be a cowboy, so he borrows his big brother’s jeans and acquires a belt with a big state of Texas buckle. Now, he’s got the goods, but finds the team reluctant to take him on. They finally do, but we notice as the two teams huddle up that Yussef is now the only non-white face on a wary-looking cowboy team, and all the disdainful-expressioned Indians are children of color. The captain of the cowboys says, “it’s going to be hard to know who’s who if you start mixing things up.”

The film closes with a quote from James Baldwin, “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5,6 or 7…to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians and, although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”

A colleague from Syria says he is working to acquire the film for his channel, but doubts children there will understand the American cultural essence of the parable. In any case, it seems like a strange and defeatist message to deliver to young children – you can’t escape your pre-determined lot. There’s also a not-very-hidden message about collaboration.

In the formal discussion groups (the one I attended, at least), the broad feeling was that this was made for adults, not children. Many thought any audience would understand the “cowboys and Indians” metaphor, given the global distribution of western films, but that children in particular would never make the association to the Middle East conflict (perhaps fortunately, per some?).

Others noted that the story was missing an essential conflict of a children’s story, because Yussef acquires the trappings of the cowboys, since he takes his brother’s jeans and his father buys him a belt (when his mother has said “no”). Would his transition (and subsequent disappointment) have been more meaningful had he had to work harder to make the transition?

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