Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Abi Morgan's "The White Girl": the politics of looking back

Last Tuesday the Finnish YLE1 showed the prize-winning and according to some sources "controversial" TV drama, "The White Girl", written by Abi Morgan. The film took us directly to the Pakistani quarters of Bradford, where a white working class single parent family had been emergency housed after a violent marriage. It is a story of ethnic separatism, and of white "outsiders" who are no longer privileged in the eyes of the migrant community.

The film has been received with wildly mixed feelings. Morgan has been accused of political correctivism, social pornography, or a tendency to show the white working class life as more scum than it could possibly ever be, anywhere in Britain or even Europe. It does not transcend the class divide, her critics claim.

I don't read the film first and foremost as a commentary about the British working class in peril, but for me it worked as a powerful reminder of the politics of looking, the politics of gaze, and counter-gaze. In the film, the white family's eldest daughter Leah approaches Islam, and finds comfort in daily prayers, while her mother is focusing on destroying herself through alcohol, drugs and a violent on-and-off relationship with her ex. The film shows clearly the rationality of a person's search for spirituality in a turbulent life situation. It could be any religion, but in this case it is Islam. Leah's choice to start imitating the daily acts of her classmates and neighbours has not been exoticized, but it is shown as the most likely and most intelligent choice a minority child can do. I understand that in the UK there are several Muslim-majority public schools, in which the curriculum has been Islamicized in the way Morgan portrays. In such a school, a white girl is an exotic bird.

It is true that Islam in the film is idealized, and shown in the most poetic, aesthetic form. All the Muslims in the film were sympathetic characters. Not all adult whites were bad, but morally ambivalent and weak in willpower. Very cleverly, Leah's mother was portrayed, amongst all other deviant characteristics, as illiterate (shaking the myth of the illiterate Muslim housewife). And the film's aesthetics bordered on ghettoization and third worldization. It showed the everyday life of a part of Britain that has for long been underprivileged and at the same time contains many other worlds.

To the film's critics I would like to pose a counter-question: if the film's perspective was so upsetting or irritating, isn't that a sign of something happening in the minds of the viewer? And isn't that what filmmakers are supposed to do, to choose a point of view and stick to it? I at least enjoyed to travel with Leah into the local mosque and experience with her the first steps of practicing a new faith. I enjoyed the acting, the dialogues, the dramaturgy, and the details of the settings, and the camera technique. I have never been to Bradford, and have not quite seen similar "third-worldization" of European housing areas in my own eyes. I have for many years wanted to travel to Bradford. Now this film caused in me a strong impulse to fulfill this idea.

But even more importantly, the film succeeds in showing, not only through the white family members' perspective, but also from the perspective of the local Muslim community, what the white working class neighbours' life might look like. In Finland, all the so called multicultural novels and films focus on the migrant experience as minority experience, and the emphasis is on how to integrate in the clean, punctual and orderly Nordic society. This film does something else, it turns around all the questions and shows us the possible future faces of Europe. I have rarely seen a film that manages to condense a social and political conjuncture, a turning point, a knot of signs in such a powerful package.

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