The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001)



(director/writer: John Gianvito; cinematographer: Ulli Bonnekamp; editors: John Gianvito/Rob Todd; music: Igo Tkachenko, Johannes Ammon and Jakov Jakoulov; cast: Elizabeth Pilar (Pilar), Thia Gonzalez (Fernanda Hussein), Robert Perrea (Carlos Sandia), Dustin Scott (Raphæl Sinclair), Sherri Goen (Azhar Hussein), Carlos Stevens (Ameer Hussein), Bill Facker (Mr. Sinclair), Ann Dasburg (Anna); Runtime: 168; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: John Gianvito; ELF/Traveling Light Productions; 2003)

“It’s filled with the filmmaker’s rage and despair over the Persian Gulf war.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A very powerful war drama by indie American filmmaker John Gianvito, made before 9/11. It’s filled with the filmmaker’s rage and despair over the Persian Gulf war and its dire consequences in America and across the world. Gianvito, a resident of Cambridge, Mass. (where he is Associate Curator of the Harvard Film Archive), sets the film in New Mexico, in 1991, and mixes a fiction story with one of reality (using CNN clips of the Gulf War). It follows the lives of three powerless New Mexican characters, who all suffer greatly due to the events of the war.

Fernanda Hussein (Thia Gonzalez, the only professional actor in the cast, who is an NYU grad who majored in drama), the titled character, is a young Mexican-American woman who is separated from her Egyptian husband, who returned home because he couldn’t find work. She has a 14-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son. Because she has the last name of the Iraqi dictator, her house is vandalized (a sign says ‘Arab pigs go home’). When her two children fail to return from school one afternoon, the bigoted police are not helpful. Later, through a psychic (a real psychic), her children are found brutally knifed to death and dumped in the Rio Grande. The police have the audacity, without proof, to think she committed the crime and hold her in detention for a few months.

The second story involves Raphæl Sinclair (Dustin Scott), a high school student who is influenced by his radical teacher to become an activist against the war and is conflicted with his conservative pro-war father. Raphæl can’t take living at home anymore due to the lack of communication and joins the ranks of the homeless. He finds that his former comfortable middle-class existence is a thing of the past, as he joins the struggling artist and pacifist communities. In the film’s most optimistic moment, Raphæl is collecting signatures outside a local festival for the Green Party and some of the crowd is responding.

The last story tells of a Mexican-American returning marine from the war, Carlos Sandia (Robert Perea), who loses his factory job, has difficulty relating to his girlfriend (Elizabeth Pilar), and is haunted by the trauma of the killing fields and the senseless atrocities of the war. Carlos grows increasingly irritable and withdrawn, avoiding people, parades and victory celebrations. He also has an unusual rash that no one diagnoses, though we later learn about the Gulf War syndrome and its devastating effects on too many veterans.

There are many slow pan shots across the barren desert landscape and close-ups of the displaced Iraqi, Naseer Shemma, one of the world’s most distinguished musicians, playing very moving pieces on the oud (lute). In one piece he uses only one hand as an homage to those who lost their limbs. In another set, he pays tribute to those 400 or so innocents killed in Iraq when the Americans dropped cluster bombs on a shelter containing children and women. The film records at length the real peace activist group based in Santa Fe, called People for Peace (still active today), as they meet and earnestly discuss their aims. One member of that group, Ann Dasburg, is filmed reenacting her actual one-woman candle vigil in downtown Santa Fe on one of the coldest nights of the winter. The film ends at a fall outdoor festival called Zozobra. It’s a Spanish word that approximately translates as unease. Once a year, since the 1920s, a giant effigy is burned to start a three-day fiesta. The locals refer to him as “Old Man Gloom.” At the communal burning the audience taunts the gigantic ogre puppet at the stake, who is then lit up in flames with fireworks passing overhead and the frenzied crowd (with many of them drunk) chanting “Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!”. It’s a contemplative last shot aimed at exposing the daily hidden violence in this country that seems so banal but has a lingering effect on why we might be such a war-mongering nation.

This is one of the better indie films; it has a fresh, raw and incisive quality in depicting a history lesson that is necessary, provocative, relevant and thoughtful. The passion the filmmaker has for the cause burns deeply within the undistributed film, that is head and shoulders above most distributed films I saw in 2001. It’s ironical to see it after the almost universal feelings of the futility of W.’s follow-up Iraqi War and when some still think the first Persian Gulf War was a smashing victory except for not taking out Saddam Hussein. What this film intended, is for us to understand that the war was filled with all sorts of hypocrisy about doing it for democracy and the people. If that was true for Bush I’s war, I imagine it goes double for W.’s folly.