It’s not so grim up north

A new film about British Asians, Yasmin, is middle-class prejudice masquerading as social concern.

Munira Mirza

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Yasmin is a British film about the experiences of a young Muslim woman living in the Yorkshire town of Keighley, following 11 September 2001. Television reviewers have congratulated Channel Four for premiering the film as – despite opening in 2004 to widespread critical acclaim across Europe – the producers failed to secure a cinema distribution deal in Britain.

No doubt the film’s producers would like to blame its commercial failure on the fact that Yasmin was too shocking and disturbing for the British public’s sensibilities. Stuart Jeffries, in the Guardian, suggested that the ‘frivolity of the UK’s film-going culture’ couldn’t handle the gritty realism of Islamophobia in miserable industrial towns.

The truth, however, is that Yasmin has little of shock value in it. Instead, the film is laden with trite ‘grim up north’ clichés (white people are ignorant xenophobes; Muslims are hapless victims ready to turn terrorist at the first sight of the Union Jack). Don’t be fooled by the long photographic shots of rainy streets and the use of real-life people as extras. This film is about as authentic as a jar of Uncle Ben’s chicken tikka masala.

Some quibbles are purely technical. Archie Panjabi who plays the lead role is a fine actress, but her accent is off key. She has a northern lilt, it’s true – but hardly any of the Asian intonations that would make her character realistic. If this girl grew up in a predominantly Pakistani or Bangladeshi community (the film does not clearly specify which), then surely it would be clear from her voice.

But a bigger problem than Panjabi’s accent is the very poor script with which she is forced to work. Simon ‘The Full Monty’ Beaufoy is responsible for that. The dialogue is wooden and lacks any emotional depth. Indeed, the only poignant words spoken are in Urdu (which are not subtitled, so sadly their weight is lost on non-speakers). Arguments between father and daughter rely on tired phrases such as ‘You will bring shame on the famileeeee’, and fail to capture that strange intimacy we can sometimes have with our relatives. Indeed, what is most absent from the script is any humour or familiarity – indeed, any relationship – between the characters.

By failing to grasp what is intimate and loving in the family relationship, the film cannot make Yasmin’s – or British Muslims’ – dilemmas real or moving. We cannot see what keeps her in such a dire situation – oppressive father, oafish husband. Neither do we see any sense of community of which she might feel a part – only nosey neighbours and prying eyes. Community is something that really does exist around mosques, schools and workplaces, but this is one-sidedly portrayed as a space of oppression rather than comfort.

Similarly, we cannot see what she finds so compelling about leaving home when the world outside is filled with racist colleagues and strangers. In reality, those who have crossed the great cultural divide between the generations know that it is the warmth and love of family that can make it so hard to leave. At the same time, it is the friendship and love developed with people in the world that make the privacy of family life so oppressive.

Speaking at the film’s showing at the London Film Festival in 2004, the director Kenny Gleenan said he wanted to question why a British Muslim would feel so alienated that he would leave his country to fight a holy war. In the character of Nassir, Yasmin’s younger brother, Gleenan and Beaufoy attempt to show how easy it is to subvert the minds of the young when they feel excluded from British society. When the police raid the family home, we see the young man’s swift radicalisation against the forces of the West. He decides to change his drug-dealing ways and go and fight in Afghanistan. Again, by resorting to the extreme example, the film cannot grasp the common experience of alienation. Most young Muslims do not turn into Jihad warriors – rather, their alienation is experienced in diverse and more subtle ways.

Perhaps what is most galling about the film is its Manichean representation of ‘real’ people in the north. White people are shown to be ignorant, trigger-happy racists, scribbling nasty notes on Yasmin’s locker at work and making snide comments when she’s in the local pub after work. Such a representation of the white population is grossly unfair and inaccurate. Of course, there are racists and bigots, but to suggest that racism is practically in the water is nothing more than middle-class prejudice masquerading as social concern. Indeed, the most realistic and moving part of the film is a scene that the scriptwriters did not plan for.

In that scene, a lone Muslim woman is victimised by white youths in the town centre and Yasmin rushes up to help her. An elderly white woman, not seeing the cameras, also rushes up to help and apologises for the boys’ behaviour. The director decided to leave the scene in, thankfully – but it’s the only point at which you see any kind of solidarity or mutual concern between whites and Asians. In reality, people cross the colour lines all the time. It is usually in institutional settings such as schools, council offices, libraries, or police stations that they are reminded of their differences and need for protection from each other.

Yasmin has high ambitions to explain why Muslims feel alienated from British society. The question is important and needs serious consideration. But this film’s lazy reliance on contemporary prejudices results in too many easy answers about contemporary life for British Asians and the society they inhabit.

Munira Mirza is researching cultural policy at the University of Kent, and was brought up in Oldham. This is an edited version of an article published on Culture Wars.

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