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I can’t remember the first time I saw that classic "falling in love abroad" movie plot unfold: girl travels to beautiful location in search of herself and falls in love with a sexy, “exotic” stranger as he takes off his shirt in slow motion to go for a swim during the world’s most beautiful sunset. I don’t remember the first time I saw it, but I know I’ve seen it many times since.
Over the summer, my husband took his first trip to Turkey without me, and while I was at home getting over a summertime flu and missing him, I watched as many movies as I could find that were set in Turkey or even its next-door neighbor Greece. This is what both reminded me of that tired trope I’ve already mentioned and also inspired me to rewatch and celebrate some of the intercultural love stories I’ve seen that have defied all odds to be relatable and authentic.
The first movies I started with were both of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” movies. Almost the exact scene from the first paragraph happens in the first of these movies, as Alexis Bledel’s character falls in love with a Greek hottie. I remember watching and liking this movie as a younger person, and it’s a good mental exercise to suspend my inner critic enough to enjoy it. One humorous indicator that this movie hasn’t stood the test of time is the idea that Santorini is an undiscovered gem. I haven’t been there myself, but a quick scroll through Instagram suggests that if this movie were set today, the island would be crawling in influencers.
In the second of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” movies, Blake Lively’s character travels to Turkey. There may be an increasing awareness in Hollywood of the need to at least attempt accuracy in our depictions of countries, but in 2008, it seems to me that not a lot of people were traveling to Turkey. Vaguely Middle Eastern music and brown-skinned actors was our go-to as a society to show that the story was happening in an exotic locale and make us all feel all that much more like Blake Lively’s character’s life was out of our reach. Now, hearing music and accents that are decidedly not Turkish (while trying to be passed off as authentic) is disappointing. [Disappointing but not surprising, as it turns out that these scenes were actually filmed in Greece.] It’s my hope for the future that our movie producers will increasingly share the spotlight with actors, musicians, and writers from the culture they’re trying to depict, rather than relying on the firsthand account of an outsider who may have visited that place.
From there, I watched “Mamma Mia.” I don’t want to trash everything I watched, so let me start with the good. Of course, the music is so much fun, the characters are charming, and the setting is absolutely gorgeous. That said, I can’t remember any Greek characters in the movie who had names or lines – in fact, in a few of the song and dance numbers, they were essentially treated as background props. Again, I realize awareness is shifting at such a rate that media from just a few years ago might seem horribly out of date or problematic. Heck, there’s a reason I’m not going back farther than my high school days. But it’s hopeful to me that we can start to do better as we start to know better.
A few movies that I’ve seen in the last year have handled culture in truly inspiring ways. “Crazy, Rich Asians” was an impressive endeavor with it’s financial success and all Asian cast. The depiction here of a first generation Chinese American trying to fit in with her boyfriend’s family in Singapore is important. Too often Asian culture is depicted as homogeneous, communicating the idea that a racial identity is more significant than anything else, including the culture in which you’ve been raised. I thought this was handled well, and importantly, the movie did a great job of not falling back on tropes and stereotypical expressions. That’s what happens when both the movie (and the book upon which it was based) are driven by people with an insider’s understanding of the cultures being depicted.
Finally, my favorite movie to date that depicts an intercultural love story is “The Big Sick.” It left me shocked and awed in the theater, and upon rewatching it this year, I felt a renewed appreciation for the care with which this story was told. It’s important to note that Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani wrote their story together – what better way to represent both of their views, cultures, and experiences than to make it a truly collaborate effort? Kumail’s Pakistani family and their struggle to accept his relationship with American Emily is presented with the care and tenderness of someone who has seen this firsthand – how much differently would that have been shown if only Emily’s perspective were presented? Yet, often that’s what happens. Arranged marriage is shown from an outsider’s perspective who doesn’t understand it and expect the audience to immediately be in on the joke about how weird and outdated the tradition is. This movie didn’t resort to cheap laughs about stereotypes, and it delivered some of the most genuine laugh out loud moments I’ve had in a movie theater, along with a great deal of heart.