Taba Productions, 2023
📷 : Used with permission, Ashley Tabatabai
Movies/shows with heavy subjects
Hamdardi uses the backdrop of the controversial 2017 U.S. travel ban for its compelling story. The short film takes us into the tug of war between Ethan Reynolds, a U.S. immigration officer, and his superior, Hank Henson. When two siblings from Iran, 18-year-old Reza and 9-year-old Parvaneh, are detained at the border, Ethan struggles with whether or not to grant them admission into the U.S. to be reunited with their ill father. Hank, Ethan’s rules-oriented boss, exhibits impatience with the siblings due to the language barrier. Rather than seeking to accommodate them, Hank arranges a flight to send them back to their homeland, as he does with multiple other detainees. As Ethan is currently experiencing separation anxiety, being denied visitation rights to his own daughter, he shows more compassion than Hank and teeter-totters between following orders and rebelling. A voice in one of Ethan’s ears is Carol, a bilingual lawyer pressing Ethan to stand up to his boss. In his other ear is Hank, using his by-the-book approach to influence Ethan.
Set in early 2017, writer/director Ashley Tabatabai’s enthralling short highlights the conflicting emotions that many immigration officers likely feel. Though Hank is the antagonist of the story, his mindset reflects that of most people in the middle of a chain of command. “I don’t make the rules” is a familiar refrain for anyone who does not have the freedom to make unilateral decisions. Many use the concepts of just doing their job and following orders to shed any guilt that they feel about a task that is inherently immoral or dispassionate. The act of separating families as part of law enforcement most likely does not sit well with everyone who carries out the task, but they do it nonetheless because they have been trained to obey marching orders and question nothing.
Ethan, on the other hand, looks at Parvaneh and sees his daughter. He cannot maintain the emotional distance to simply abide by his boss’s wishes. His inability to disassociate is egged on by Carol, and after a game of Tic-Tac-Toe with Parvaneh, he calls the mother of his child and leaves a voicemail begging her to let him see his daughter. Drawing from his own pain, Ethan not only shows more compassion than Hank but also seeks out any path to reuniting Reza and Parvaneh with their parents.
What Hamdardi adeptly highlights is how the inability to communicate can generate impatience and mistrust. Once it is clear that Reza does not speak English, Hank’s attitude becomes more and more hostile. While this could simply be written off as xenophobia, it can also be interpreted as Hank attempting to exhibit more control over a situation than he actually has. Rather than bridging the gap in communication, which would take more time and understanding, he resorts to intimidation by raising his voice and speaking sharply, a common tactic of people in positions of authority. For someone like Reza, who does not speak the language and is playing the role of protector for his younger sister, this elicits resentment and a lack of trust. All he knows is that he is being yelled at. Ethan takes a softer tone and makes more direct eye contact, highlighting how Hank’s approach is unnecessary but serves as an additional way to maintain emotional distance.
The story of Hamdardi likely still resonates with anyone who follows the news and remembers this time of uncertainty. While it has a much heavier subject matter, the film reminded me of the early 2000s one-location comedy The Terminal. Tom Hanks plays an eastern European traveler stuck in the JFK airport for an extended period of time. He too encounters a language barrier with the employees of the airport, and despite the disconnect, must learn how to coexist and communicate with them until he can be on his way. Both films accentuate the importance of showing patience, making effort and demonstrating compassion with people from other cultures, as well as taking a personal risk to do right by others.