None of the characters in the film The Visitor have the dignity of citizen power. Certainly not the young Syrian musician being deported by the US immigration authorities, not his Senegalese wife, not his Palestinian mother, and surprisingly not the affluent American citizen who tries to help them. The visitor’s poetic and personal cinematic texture, often used in gently thoughtful films about mid-life crisis, conveys a strongly bitter public message to all Americans: politically we are now as powerless as non-citizens.
Walter Vale (played by Richard Jenkins) is a widowed middle-aged man bored with his job as a Connecticut college professor. During a visit to an apartment he owns in New York he discovers that a Syrian djembe drummer and his wife are squatting on the property. The couple had been conned into paying rent to a swindler pretending to be the apartment owner. Walter evicts them gently and politely, but later realizing they have nowhere else to go he allows them to stay until they find a place. It turns out that the couple has a much bigger eviction problem. They are in the country illegally and face deportation if discovered.
Soon a friendship grows as Tarek begins to teach Walter how to play the djembe. On their way back from a jam session, loaded with drumming equipment, Tarek innocently jumps a subway turnstile even though he had a paid ticket. While Tarek is being arrested, nothing Walter says can dissuade the police from going through with the arrest. The paid ticket and Walter’s testimony mean nothing to the to uniformed human machines of the police state. They books Tarek while sternly warning Walter to stay out of it.
To prevent Tarek’s deportation, Walter hires him an immigration lawyer who says he will do his utmost to make sure Tarek gets an appeal. It turns out that the law is just as powerless as the individual citizen in persuading authority. Walter’s money is no good to him, even when he uses it to purchase Tarek the protection of the law.
In one scene towards the end of the movie we watch a frustrated Walter yelling at a uniformed man behind a thick glass window. Why did you deport Tarek without due process, without waiting for his legal appeal, without even notifying his lawyer? The uniformed man simply threatens Walter with arrest, cautioning him to step away from the window.
On one level The Visitor addresses the anti-immigration sentiment in the US, but at a deeper level it speaks to the American sense of powerlessness as we watch our country drift towards a fascist state. In such a state, political decision power is not shared though wealth and comfort may exist for some-even many--citizens.
The Visitor was released in 2008. I was reminded of it after President Obama announced that photographic proof of Osama Bin Laden’s body would not be released to the public. A small circle of insiders who supposedly know what is best for the country made the decision. This elite circle tells us that lives may be lost to terrorism if the photos are made public. As though fewer lives are lost to terrorism when only the elite have access to information and make the decisions.
On a yet deeper level, The Visitor made me wonder if immigrating to the US is worth it anymore. Sure, the shopping is better, but the idea of freedom and the dignity of democratic citizenship are fading more and more into an illusion. And if I have to struggle against the tide of fascism, why not stay in Iran and fight for liberty in my own land of birth?
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