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'Beyond Honor': An Egyptian Immigrant Story

ED GORDON, host:

Nearly half of all Americans have a negative view of Islam, according to a Washington Post ABC News Poll published earlier this month. A new film titled Beyond Honor touches on the stereotypes that feed this perception. The movie focuses on a young Egyptian-American woman whose attempts to embrace New World culture are met with harsh consequences.

NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with filmmaker Varun Khanna about tensions between old and new traditions within some immigrant households.

Mr. VARUN KHANNA (Filmmaker): The relationship that children have in relation to their parents, especially in the immigrant community, in the changing cultural landscape of America, of course a lot has been written about it, a lot has been filmed about it. Yet nobody really wants to get into the actual truth of the struggle that happens, especially between the cultural import, if you will, that immigrants have into the country, and trying to retain that, hold on to that, and that of their children, who actually want to experience Americana.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Let's just hear a little bit of Sahira's interaction with her father.

(Soundbite of movie Beyond Honor)

Unidentified Man: (As Muhammad) Sahira, your mother is talking about night rounds to complete your course work. I need to know details.

Unidentified Woman: (As Sahira) Details...

Unidentified Man: (As Muhammad) The night rounds, I will drop you off and I will pick you up.

Unidentified Woman: (As Sahira) Muhammad, I think...

Unidentified Man: (As Muhammad) What do you think?

Unidentified Woman: (As Sahira) Well, father, I will let you no more once I get some more information.

CHIDEYA: With your main character you have someone who is a medical student and which is, you know, of course such an exalted position here in the States in terms of privilege. Did you deliberately choose to have someone who was in a position of privilege and independence, and then have her in a home context that was disempowering?

Mr. KHANNA: Absolutely. You know, I mean, we -- the idea is that Sahira is this amazing, has a promising future, is brilliant. She is at the prime of her youth. She wants to experience. She wants to enjoy. She wants to celebrate Americana. And then in one night, in a moment, everything is taken away from her, and that is in contrast really, in stark contrast, and that's what, is the reason why I did that.

CHIDEYA: In this film specifically you explore the issue of female genital mutilation or female circumcision. There is a scene which Sahira is in her room; her mother is standing outside the door and these men are about to come in.

(Soundbite of Beyond Honor)

CHIDEYA: What did you think of that mother character that you invented?

Mr. KHANNA: Well, you know, the character of Nor(ph), you know, she is actually a Caucasian American born and raised in the United States, married to an Egyptian immigrant. You know, we want to keep saying that all these problems of women being battered just happen to be on the shores of people that happen to be quote-unquote "tribal". But again, the battered woman syndrome is all around us. The character that Laura Melagrano plays so bravely is one of an American woman, and she again epitomizes, again, the element of beyond is there, over there, too.

She epitomizes a woman that obviously her background is such where she comes from a battered family. Again, violence begets violence.

CHIDEYA: I want to ask you about the brother. He is someone who -- if you talk about beyond, he is very beyond, very strange. Tell us about him and why you felt it was important to have this character in the film?

Mr. KHANNA: Well, for one, you know, there are societies where the man's son is everything. The female is nothing. I mean, beyond a second class citizen, she is nothing. And clearly the father is fully invested in the son. And of course, you know, the repression has affected not just Sahira but also the brother. He is at an age where the repression manifests itself in ways that are quite unhealthy really.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk a little bit about your background. How has your own personal journey affected the journey that you took to make this film?

Mr. KHANNA: I was raised in India and came over to the United States. I am affected about what is going on around us as a filmmaker, as a person, because culture interest me, people interest me, and the people that I've met, especially in the last 17 years of living in the United States, have affected me deeply. And I think that we are at a time in the history of this country where we need to address culture. We need to not live these lives that we are living in separate little pockets. We're more of a salad bowl than a melting pot.

And of course, with this cultural import, there's going to be good, there's going to be bad. And in this film, we're addressing the bad. So culture certainly interests me, and I hope to continue to write for people of different cultures.

CHIDEYA: Varun Khanna is writer and director of Beyond Honor, which open is Los Angeles March 31. Thank you for joining us here.

Mr. KHANNA: Thank you for having me.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.