Monday, April 2, 2012

A Primer For Our Asylum Problem: Chasing Freedom

The Good: Informative for those who do not know the problem, Decent acting
The Bad: Obvious character arc, Obvious plotting, Idealistic in too many places.
The Basics: In a disappointing execution, Chasing Freedom raises the education of most viewers on the problems faced by refugees fleeing to the United States.

Recently, I read an article in The Nation (reviewed here!) about the appalling conditions that female refugees who flee to the United States are kept in by our government. Women who flee abusive marriages, rapes, assaults, religious persecutions, beatings and other violations often end up on U.S. soil through extraordinary circumstances and when they make it here without identification or authorization, they are detained. Many women are kept for years before being deported to their country of origin, despite the fact that Canada has a policy that would universally accept them. So, when I was offered the opportunity to watch the movie Chasing Freedom, I was excited and had a fairly good background knowledge of the subject.

Meena is an Afghan woman who ran an illegal school for girls when the Taliban took over. In early 2001, she fled the Taliban and landed in New York City where she requested political Asylum. Libby, a career-track lawyer, is assigned to do pro bono work and ends up taking Meena's case with great reluctance. After a rocky start wherein Libby is pressed for time and does not even want to get to know her client, Libby is forced to actually represent the refugee and learn about her story.

Thus, Libby learns of the appalling conditions Meena is kept in since arriving on U.S. soil and of the terrible conditions she fled. Libby - and the audience - learn a valuable lesson about the archaic state of the law as far as immigration is concerned and we watch as Meena suffers the imprisonment of an innocent woman simply trying to live free.

First, what is done right; for those who have not read anything on this problem, Chasing Freedom is a good primer, a good introduction to the terrible circumstances refugees face when coming to America to flee appalling circumstances. This is a good and potentially powerful tool to fight the ignorance most U.S. citizens face on this issue.

Second, the acting is decent. Brian Markinson who plays Eric Hoffman, the legal defender for the refugees is quite good. He establishes a sense of frustration early in the movie and manages to maintain the mood most of the audience feels without every devolving into hyperbole. His role is substantial and he plays it well.

Much of the movie focuses on Juliette Lewis as Libby. She is adequate for the role, emoting sufficiently at the right moments, making the audience believe in her character's transformation as much as is possible.

The acting talent of Layla Alizada as Meena is what sells most of the story. Alizada is strong when strength is warranted and vulnerable when needed, without ever appearing ridiculous or truly weak. She keeps the viewers watching her during her scenes and she evokes empathy quite well.

The problem is in the simplicity of the story and the characters. Juliette Lewis does what she can with Libby, but she does not have much to go with. The writer, Barbara Samuels, packs Chasing Freedom with obvious contrasts and metaphors, resulting in circumstances that are oversimplified. For example, Libby begins the movie as a reserved, time-crunched lawyer with her hair up all the time. As she becomes more invested in the case, she lets her hair down and seems to devote her entire self to the case, despite the fact that a partner-track lawyer is likely to have many cases on her plate at one time.

But it does not take long to establish this movie as one of those types of movies. Things are not veiled, things are overly obvious here. Meena is put through hell, but the resolution to her asylum hearing takes abrupt turns, like the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City, that affect her case. This is a movie with too many obvious "hail Mary" circumstances that move the plot. And Libby's ultimate character resolution is somewhat ridiculous and oversimplified, though not at all unpredictable for this type of movie.

This is a movie whose sole purpose works for raising the education on an issue that is pressing and important. It fails utterly in the area of plot and character. Indeed, one of the most compelling and terrible resolutions to this film could have still used the last shots of this movie. To say more might ruin the end for some people, but the truth is, this is a movie that lacks ambiguity and is afraid to leave the viewer truly unsettled.

In the United States right now, there are women detained who are in terrible circumstances. We should be unsettled by their predicament; they certainly are.

For other political movies, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Fahrenheit 9/11
Swing Vote
All The King's Men


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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