DALYA’S OTHER COUNTRY
When is the last time you watched a coming-of-age film about a Muslim girl from Syria? Considering that representations of Muslims and Arabs are sorely lacking and thoughtful representation is even rarer—for most of us, the answer is never. Fortunately, Jewish filmmaker Julia Meltzer recognized this problem and decided to do something about it. Her hour-long documentary Dalya’s Other Country premiered as part of PBS’S POV series in June.
In 2012, Dalya and her parents were asleep in their home in Aleppo, Syria, when a bomb exploded right outside; the war had come to their backyard. The family decided to flee the country and split up since Dalya’s
parents’ marriage was already unraveling. Dalya and her mother, Rudayna, went to Los Angeles, California, where Mustafa, Rudayna’s oldest son (and coproducer of the film), lived while her father went to Turkey. The documentary begins in 2013, shortly after their arrival in Los Angeles. Dalya has just begun attending an all-girls Catholic high school where she is the only Muslim and the only hijabi. The film traces her development through her teenage years and ends in 2016, right after Dalya’s high school graduation, as she protests Trump’s Muslim ban at the Los Angeles International Airport.
This film is a must-see for many reasons: It handles topics that are considered taboo without sensationalizing them, including Dalya’s experience of wearing a headscarf; her parents’ trials with infidelity and divorce; and what happens to families and a country as a result of war. Dalya’s family is middleclass and her mother is a U.S. citizen, so their experience is not that of most Syrian refugees. What I most appreciate about the film is that it uses that to its advantage. It doesn’t try to be the voice of Muslim girls, but shows the experience of one in particular. In doing so, it challenges the stereotypes that mainstream media offer and reminds people that there are many ways to be a Syrian Muslim woman.
Another refreshing perspective is how the narrative explores Dalya’s shifting identity. Sometimes she feels that she’ll never be at home in the United States and other times she’s able to embrace the relationships she has built with close friends and to appreciate her life here. This tension between one place and the other, which has been well-documented by hyphenated Americans and immigrant communities alike, is not often addressed onscreen. I love that the film allows the viewer to question, along with the protagonist, which country is Dalya’s “other country” after all. RATING: