Is America possible? Nusrat Durrani's powerful new documentary seeks answers

·6-min read
Poster of Nusrat Durrani's new documentary 'An American Prayer'
Poster of Nusrat Durrani's new documentary 'An American Prayer'

By Suvir Saran

New Delhi [India], December 31 (ANI): The "American Dream," a hallucination of an idyllic and prosperous life in the most hyped country on the planet, has for at least a hundred years been part of the popular imagination, a global touchstone of achievement and glorious arrival. Filmmaker, media icon and founder of MTV World, Nusrat Durrani's very personal documentary and feature directorial debut 'An American Prayer' presents a revelatory chimera of the haunting vision of the so-called land of opportunity you have never seen.

'An American Prayer' is an incendiary 86-minute film shot in six cities at the height of the pandemic, Trumpian madness, and racial uprising, when thousands died every day and streets were aflame with protests. Given the risk of infection and violence, it's remarkable the film was even completed.

According to the director, the film is a "savage act of art" made while he mourned the death of his mother to COVID in India, and as his Brooklyn neighbourhood heaved in protests. These circumstances lend the film rare poignancy and rawness.

It has haunted me for months now since I received an online link to it in May of 2021. Few artistic works have such clarity of expression, a deep resonance to the times being lived and observed, such lasting power, and such a way of connecting to the viewer. I am thrilled and honoured to be putting my pen to rest for 2021 with this review.

'An American Prayer' is an abrasion - a true patriot's bruised love song to the leader of the free world. A kaleidoscope of desire, heartbreak, and ultimately, a gossamer transcendence that somehow manages to keep the dream alive. It features the true icons of a republic whose anti-egalitarian Marvel Universe superheroes seem trite and laughable in light of America's current somber realities. Or perhaps, the influential American hype machine has cast a spell on the world to divert from the country's stunning contradictions and inequalities.

The most affluent nation on earth breeds billionaires who pay no taxes, but will not shelter its homeless or provide a safety net for its poor and sick. Worse, this current time has turned Lady Liberty into a heartless statue with no welcome or room for the hapless, ill-starred refugees and migrants searching for home. The beacon of equality and freedom is also apparently a hothouse of brutal oppression of its Black, indigenous, and minority communities, rampant with white supremacy.

Recent political events provide an appropriate context for this film: a madman President who brought the country to the brink of civil war; the ignoble exit from Afghanistan leaving thousands of local allies at the mercy of the Taliban; and the ravages of a pandemic whose early scenes in New York were reminiscent of the "shithole countries" Trump once mocked.

But this isn't a condemnation of everything American. If anything, Durrani's poetic interrogation of his adopted nation features six diverse protagonists representing an authentic slice of the American demographic who are colliding with destiny and conjuring a deeply stirring alternative vision of the country many of us have lusted for.

The director's own journey from India to the US is woven into the film's luminous tapestry, and the metaphoric use of archival material spliced into original footage connects the tumultuous past to the turbulent present of the work-in-progress that is America.

Trammy is an Ivy-league-educated young Asian-American woman estranged from her Vietnamese refugee parents because she supports the Black Lives Matter movement. The intense and angry Simon, a Columbia University journalism graduate, is of Native American descent, relentlessly pursuing justice for his people.

The viewer experiences the trauma and angst of the country's original inhabitants through him, hidden from the history books and national discourse. Garrison, an African-American in a wheelchair, is a Paralympics powerlifter, whose courage and resilience in the face of naked discrimination and a stray bullet is the kind of story the world needs to hear.

Cian, a white Army veteran who once guided drones that killed civilians in Afghanistan, is suffering from PTSD and remorse and seeking retribution by helping refugees on the U.S. Mexican border. The "debt of the American Dream" and its fragility are embodied in Lexi, a Latin-American woman who overcame poverty and alcoholism to achieve a measure of success only to feel she is "one paycheck away" from being on food stamps.

Adeeba, a covered young Pakistani-American poet, is perhaps the most exciting distillation of American identity in the film. Equally inspired by Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Allen Ginsberg, she is savagely bullied in school for her appearance and reviled after 9/11. But the kind of insidious Islamophobia propagated in Netflix series like 'The Girl' from Oslo and 'Fauda' is not the only thing Adeeba is struggling with. She is bi-polar, at odds with her conservative parents, and in love with the country that brings her joy and torment. This aphrodisiacal obsession fuels her rise to a renowned writer whose poem "America" provides the film's surreal, stream-of-consciousness conclusion.

In contrast to these portrayals of anguish, redemption, and achievement, the film also features Liam and Rowan, two precocious and earnest white pre-teens from New York's Upper West Side, who exist in a make-believe world and whose optimistically jingoistic vision of their country is one of endless possibility.

'An American Prayer', which recently had its international premiere at the prestigious Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, is remarkable for many reasons. As a self-examination of the US, it makes the point that "the American Dream belongs to every dreamer in the world" and portrays those re-evaluating the ideals of their own country doing so as an act of love. It is also a global project.

Its producer, Catherine Ignatenko, is Russian; the film was partly shot in Mexico, post-produced in Europe, and references an array of international languages and cultures. Ultimately, it rejoices in and grieves that great Land of Opportunity many of us have projected our fantasies upon and searches for the country within we often forsake in pursuit of the shining City on the Hill.

Honoured by President Obama for a series called Rebel Music, which was screened at the White House and subsequently led to an invitation to meet the president, Durrani has lived the American Dream himself. This makes his movie even more compelling and a truly noteworthy argument for working hard and with every effort made towards the inclusion of all who reside in the nation, so as to make America a welcoming home for all.

The past two years have challenged the world in unprecedented ways: pandemic, great loss of life, climate change, inequality, oppression, and racial injustice. But as we turn the corner into 2022, with sobriety, new wisdom, and cautious optimism, we have fresh opportunities to reflect, reframe, and rethink what is real.

'An American Prayer' brilliantly re-negotiates the larger-than-life narrative of the world's most desired country by peeling away false illusions of a mythic America and revealing the resilience and true beauty of its people. In some ways, this is an even more potent, relatable, and inspiring version of the American Dream--one that brings hope and light.

Disclaimer: The author of this opinion article is Suvir Saran, who is a Chef, Author, World Traveller. (ANI)

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