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NEWS ARTICLE

Roundtable: <em>Towelhead</em>

In his directorial debut, Alan Ball uses hot-button topics to tell the story of a 13-year-old's adolescence.
TH Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball's directorial debut, Towelhead, based on the novel by Alicia Erian, takes on myriad hot button topics: racism, the first Gulf War, pedophilia, menstruation, masturbation, child abuse, and teenage sexuality. Unflinching and darkly comic in its approach, it's ultimately a moving film. And it isn't, as you would imagine, another riff on suburbia like Ball's Oscar-winning screenplay, American Beauty; rather, it's the story of a girl, a tough world, and how she survives and thrives within it.

 

13-year-old Arab-American Jasira (played by wonderful newcomer Summer Bishil) moves to the Houston suburbs with her strict father Rifat (Peter Macdissi) and deals with her father's rage, the inappropiate attentions of the creepy dad-next-door Mr. Vuouso (Aaron Eckhart), racism, and her own blossoming desires. While Jasira may be attacked on all sides, watching the character grow in strength and pride gives the film a gravity and weight that few Hollywood products share.

 

Thanks to its controversial topics and provocative tone, Towelhead (originally titled Nothing is Private) has had a long road to release, premiering at Toronto '07 and this year's Sundance. Ball, currently in the middle of work on his new HBO show True Blood, the 20-year-old Bishil, and Madcissi were in New York this week to talk to reporters about the film. [Elisabeth Donnelly]

 

So first, the title. It was changed back to Towelhead, and that's been controversial...

 

SB: I'm glad that it's called Towelhead. I understand why there was alarm about it, and there's been open dialogue [as a result]. It's showing how damaging racism can be to a person.

 

AB: Certainly Towelhead is a very incendiary word, that's the point. Racism is such a hot-button issue, I'm not surprised that people had that reaction. [The Council on American-Islam Relations protested the title.] To forbid the use of language in that context just gives it more power.

 

Peter, how could you be so mean to this lovely girl?

 

PM: I don't think Rifat is mean. He does mean things but he cares for her. At the end he makes the ultimate sacrifice for his daughter. His dad was mean to him before and he hit him. That's the only way of communication he knows.

 

But isn't his behavior a result of his culture, as a Middle Eastern man?

 

PM: No, because he's only one person. He's one character from Lebanon. I'm from Lebanon and that's not my background at all. The film's talking about his trauma, his fears, his mid-life crisis living in America. He's not some random Middle Easterner. That's why they're from Lebanon first and Christians second.

 

Did the book help you with the characters?

 

SB: Oh god, yeah. I studied that thing.

 

PM: I sent her [Erian] a ton of emails, saying I just need to know about this character, what music does he listen to, what does he eat, what does he wear, tell me everything. She sent me a picture, I can't say who, of a man and that helped me.

 

Alan, what's the difference between adapting a novel and working on your own screenplay?

AB: Alicia's world and characters are very similar in sensibility to my own so it wasn't difficult. She did all the heavy lifting with the characters and world. A screenplay is a blueprint. I'm very instinctive, and as long as I'm in the story and can see those images... I needed to see that movie while I was writing the blueprint. It was so vivid, so dramatic, and so compelling.

Did Erian have any input into the movie?

She's a total badass. I sent her my script, she said I love it, and I miss the scene where the girls go to the mall and get their pictures taken. So I put it back in.

 

THAlan, do you actively court controversy?

 

AB: When I read the book, it was such a pivotal moment and so important emotionally. As a character, Jasira was curious, experiencing sensations that are pleasurable, and she's getting intimacy that she doesn't get in her life. We're getting this profound moment in a life that is devoid of profound moments.

 

Did you think it was exploitative?

 

AB: I trust my instincts. It didn't feel exploitative.

 

How did you prepare for your role, Summer? In particular, the difficult scenes with Aaron Eckhart?

 

SB: I would do all this work for every scene. I wrote an essay of thoughts, for every thought that I [as Jasira] would have in a scene, so I did all of this prep work. I changed my voice and my posture. [Referring to a particular scene with Eckhart] I just knew what to feel, I just knew what was happening, because physically I was going through it, I was there.

 

There are so many films out there where female characters are punished for having sex and for liking sex. It's remarkable that this film features a character that goes through hell and still emerges as a girl who is a sexual being and unashamed. How did you get away with that? It's remarkably sex positive.

 

AB: (laughing) It's just like in Where the Boys Are where Melanie goes all the way and then gets hit by a bus! [switching gears] Well, it was in the book, and it was written by a woman. This experience does not turn her into a victim. It was so refreshing that a woman wasn't punished for liking sex. There's a big disconnect in society. Women are judged by their sexuality but they can't enjoy sex.

 

The film's had a long road to release. Were there any changes made from the festival version?

 

AB: When Warner Independent purchased the film it was twenty minutes longer. So we tightened the movie so it got to the end quicker. We didn't cut out any of the controversial content. We made the relationship with Jasira and Thomas [her high school boyfriend] nicer. We butted heads on [Warner's] notes and there were some things that I wasn't changing. Ultimately, it led to a stronger version of the movie.

 

What's the similarity between the swamps of Louisiana and the swamps of Houston's suburbs?

AB: They are both metaphors for the swamp of the human soul. No, I don't see them as the same thing.

Summer and Peter, what are you doing next?

 

SB: I finished a film called Crossing Over a year ago. I think it's being released in December.

 

PM: Just to say, to match Towelhead, I've been reading these scripts and thinking, "Oh my god, I'm going to go from this, to that?" The scripts I'm getting!

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