June 25 2004

‘TERMINAL’ BLUES: SPIELBERG FILM MISSES TRUE IMMIGRANT STORY

By Behrouz Saba
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

Iranian-born Mehran Karimi-Nasseri, 54, is a man without a country. Since 1988, when he faced a tangle of immigration problems, he has called a bench home at France’s Charles de Gaulle airport near the Lufthansa counter. His predicament mirrors those of millions of others immigrants around the world who may go to sleep in their own beds but live in a limbo of expired documents and steely bureaucracies.

Yet Steven Spielberg, who bought Karimi-Nasseri’s story, decided to make “The Terminal” with Tom Hanks as a fake immigrant with a fake accent from a fake country, sugarcoating and trivializing a growing, global immigration problem.

Not for a moment does Hanks show the paralyzing fear that foreigners without proper documents experience when they face immigration authorities. And, as it turns out later in the film, Hanks’ character is not even an immigrant, but has come to New York for a brief, sentimental visit.

Karimi-Nasseri’s story is entirely different. Born of an Iranian father and a British mother, he attended college in England and was expelled from Iran due to his anti-Shah activities upon his return in 1977. After nearly a decade of living on temporary permits throughout Europe, he arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport on his way to London, where he hoped to apply for residence as a refugee. Discovering that his travel documents were lost, he surrendered to French authorities, who refused him admission into France. He was also denied re-entry into Belgium, where he had been originally given European refugee status.

And so at the airport he remained.

Karimi-Nasseri is rich, now that Spielberg has paid him six figures for his story. In recent years, both Belgium and France granted him entry permits. But he continues to live at the airport on food vouchers, washes in the bathroom at night, sleeps on his bench and spends most of his days reading books from a nearby store.

Perhaps he is profoundly hurt and insulted for having been rejected so cruelly, for so long. Maybe he is staging a kind of permanent sit-in to protest silently the callousness with which vulnerable refugees are treated the world over. In all likelihood he is too traumatized to face reality outside the airport.

But Spielberg has turned Karimi-Nasseri’s wrenching story into essentially a one-joke film.

Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, who gets stuck at the airport after he travels from imaginary Krakozhia to New York, only to find his passport invalid due to a coup d’etat in his homeland. For the next interminable 128 minutes, Navorski wanders around the terminal in a series of increasingly improbable plot complications while making positive impacts on the lives of those around him. He’s not unlike Spielberg’s earlier lovable alien, ET.

Hollywood’s history of being relevant to current events is not a proud one. During Hitler’s rise, and even into the early 1940s, most major studios refused to criticize the Nazis in their films. They feared losing the German market and alienating anti-Semitic audiences in the rest of Europe and the United States.

Objecting to anti-Nazi scenes during the making of “Mrs. Miniver,” released in 1942, MGM head Louis B. Mayer chastised director William Wyler. “We have theaters all over the world, including a couple in Berlin,” Mayer said. “We don’t make hate pictures. We don’t hate anybody. We’re not at war.”

Spielberg made “Schindler’s List,” the first Hollywood film exclusively about the Nazi death camps, half a century after the fact. A more prompt response by his predecessors might have helped curtail the Holocaust by focusing attention on it at a time when Hollywood was at the height of its power in shaping international opinion.

“The Terminal,” however, shelters its audience from the world in a way that echoes many Americans’ parochialism. The airport for Hanks becomes a wonderland. He eats at Burger King, browses at Borders bookstore and buys a suit at Hugo Boss in the most shameless examples of product placement ever seen.

For now, audiences seeking films that comment on contemporary issues can turn to a new spate of non-fiction films such as Jehane Noujaim’s “Control Room,” about al-Jazeera’s coverage of Iraq, or Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which was too hot for Disney to handle. But “The Terminal,” uniquely positioned to comment on an era when immigration poses complex issues from the California coast to a unified Europe, keeps its eyes closed to the world.

Behrouz Saba. A native of Iran, Saba (behrouzsa@aol.com) writes on American and Middle Eastern political, social and cultural issues. He is a graduate of USC with a Ph.D. in communications with an emphasis on film history and criticism.

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