Revolution#131, June 1, 2008


The Visitor

A recent New York Times article by Nina Bernstein reported on the death of Boubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea. Here’s how the Times describes Mr. Bah’s treatment in the New Jersey detention center where he was being held for overstaying his tourist visa: “shackled and pinned to the floor of the medical unit as he moaned and vomited, then left in a disciplinary cell for more than 13 hours, despite repeated notations that he was unresponsive and intermittently foaming at the mouth.”

The Visitor, a new film by director/writer Thomas McCarthy, gives viewers a glimpse into the lives of some of the immigrants held in these horrific detention centers. But it is much more than that. The simple and moving film tells the story of four people whose lives become intertwined. There’s Walter, a 62-year-old white economics professor who is sort of going aimlessly through life, more dead than alive. Walter, sent by his college to deliver a paper at a conference in New York City, discovers that two immigrants, Tarek, a drummer from Syria, and Zainab, his Senegalese girlfriend who sells handmade jewelry at flea markets, are living in his apartment. As the film unfolds, the characters interact and bring into each other’s lives part of the picture of this world we live in, in ways that are surprising but also real. When a disaster happens, Walter is compelled to decide whether he will stand with Tarek, Zainab, and Tarek’s mother, Mouna; or look away from what is happening.

Along the way we get a view of one of the “detention centers,” a windowless warehouse-like building in Queens; walking by, one would never guess it houses hundreds of immigrants who have committed no crime other than being driven from their homelands to the U.S. by the economic and political workings of imperialism. Here immigrants are kept for months or even years, and people are transferred across the country with no warning to the immigrants and their families. Where prisoners, most of whom cannot afford lawyers, are kept in small cells, whose only exposure to light comes from a hole in the roof of a cell they are allowed into for brief periods. Where family is often unable to visit for fear that they too will be locked up.

McCarthy says that the idea for the film came to him when he visited Lebanon with his previous film, The Station Agent, and led an actors’ workshop. Many of the young artists he met became models for the character of Tarek. Returning to New York, he started making friends with people in the Middle Eastern community and started visiting people in detention centers. “All I can do is present it and I do know that all of these experiences are, for me, personal experiences. They’re not fictional experiences,” McCarthy said in an interview.

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