In her new monthly column LIFE IS SHORT, Naomi Alexander embarks on a worldly exploration through the lens of short films, weaving tapestries where life and art collide.
One of my favourite works of art is a poem written by Ukranian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky, which begins: “And when they bombed other people’s houses, we / protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough.”
Aptly titled We Lived Happily During the War, a screenshot of this poem surfaces on my Tumblr dashboard again and again in the wake of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani’s assassination, like an omen for what is about to come and what already has before this article’s publication.
In these moments, I, like so many others, pass it on, reblogging and reposting and sending a link to loved ones. The action feels almost sacred, as though I have become a witness to a tragedy I am too young to have witnessed. But, right then and there, as far removed as I am, being a witness is all I can commit to.
Even that becomes a burdensome position to fill sometimes. We live in a digital age, and while it is important to keep up with the global conversation, after a while it all begins to sound like senseless, relentless noise. In moments like these, it is important to retreat—so long as you resolve to return—and reconnect with stillness.
Three or four days after sharing Kaminsky’s poem, I found respite in a story about a war.
I know it sounds counter-intuitive but here’s the thing: Shako Mako (2019) is not your typical war film. Most refuse to even consider it as such. Running a mere total of 16 minutes, there isn’t an actual war at hand or lives at stake, but a US military base in California does serve as the backdrop for this comedic tale in which an aspiring actress dogs the heels of a potential big break. Way to defy the status quo.
The actress in question, a young Iraqi-American woman named Laila—played by the incomparable talent that is Alia Shawkat—acts as the film’s life force, her rebel heart and dreamer mind palpable in every frame. Shawkat is largely the reason why I was drawn to the film in the first place, and why I have consistently returned ever since discovering it last July. In the first two minutes alone, she puts on an impressive display of her prowess that sinks its teeth deep into your neck, every uneasy expression and every joyful and grief-stricken one as real as the explosion, blood and debris all around her. The frame freezes on Laila’s terrible scream, abruptly and jarringly rendered soundless, the words SHAKO MAKO in anglicized Arabic script materializing onscreen in eye-catching electric blue.
What follows next doesn’t so much as break the spell, but rather emboldens it. Director Hailey Gates’ intention becomes startlingly clear: this film will steal something from your soul that you will never replace.
As the seventeenth installment in fashion brand Miu Miu’s ongoing Women’s Tales series, not many expected Shako Mako to possess the nuance it does—at least, not any of the people I recommended it to since my first viewing. What they usually anticipate is spectacular clothes—of which there are plenty in every frame: beautiful dresses and enviable footwear and Islamic veils like the hijab and burqa in various hues.
But Shako Mako is deceptive in its presentation, which must be the reason why countless reviews I’ve read posit it as largely apolitical (as though art can ever be truly devoid of politics, but that’s a tired debate I’d rather not get into).
Born from research intended for a documentary about so-called role-players in makeshift Middle Eastern villages constructed for training purposes on American military bases, writer/director Gates explained her obsession with “stories of people acting but in real life and how that affects the psyche and […] emotional state”.
Shako Mako is a testament to that. We follow Laila’s journey towards the big screen, and though it is short-lived, we are shown just how disenchanting acting for others’ sake and never oneself can be, and how it leaves one wanting and ravenous. Laila is hungry for the chance to prove her skills to whoever is looking; it’s why she puts so much effort into her work. It has blinded her from the upsides of her own life, though we are entirely aware that there are worse circumstances in the world.
But this desire has not morphed her into something ugly—rather, quite the opposite. Laila is more human than any human could ever be: serious about her craft, earnest in her interactions with others; a horrible liar through and through. She’s saturated with charm even when awkwardly tone-deaf, shining at every turn both in and out of her perpetual role as a bread-selling civilian on the streets of a mock Iraqi village.
Her desire—both the driving force of her character and, in turn, Shako Mako—makes her undeniably real, and endlessly likable.
Because of her desire to be and be seen as more, we are introduced to characters who drive the central theme of identity home in a myriad of ways. For instance, Rafa (Cristian Valle) is an amputee and Laila’s partner-in-crime who cavalierly describes himself as “brown enough” for his role-playing job. He’s a placid observer even when getting his hands dirty, but beneath that steady disposition, there’s a wealth of compassion most notable when he assures Laila that she does have what it takes to realize her dreams. “No one dies like you,” he says. “I see it.” There’s so much humanity in Valle’s delivery that I can almost picture Rafa beyond the limits of his screen time.
As Iraqi immigrant Noor, Sara Boutine puts on an electrifying performance that ebbs and flows, careful not to drown the viewer in its depths. As the disillusioned Noor awaits a green card, she embodies a different struggle that polarizes Laila’s at all the right turns. There’s a specific scene in which the usually devoted duo unmistakably diverge; in it, Laila tries earnestly to persuade Noor into lightening up and enjoying the role she’s been given, but Noor, disinterested, eventually snaps. Effervescence cannons into rigid cynicism, resulting in a sense of disquietude so thick even the sharpest knife would dull against it.
Citing Noor’s ability to speak their mother tongue and memories of Iraq as more favourable than her shallow grasp at both the language and their home country, this exchange drives a single fact straight to the gut: no matter how apparent or clouded the truth may be, perspective controls the entirety of its narration. It’s not that Noor is hateful or pessimistic, or that Laila is shortsighted. It is that, at their cores, they simply perceive one truth as more valuable than the other. And the truth is always more or less favourable depending on the circumstances that come with it.
Oddly enough, this is what Shako Mako has come to represent to me. Often, the truth and how we tell it and how it is ultimately received are separate things that are rarely ever in tandem. They are messy and unyielding, or clean and irresolute. The ability to look at a film like this with such a blatant militaristic influence and call it apolitical, for example, is astounding to me. That one does not subsequently reflect on the effects of US intervention in the Global South in the face of such a narrative feels like a privilege, even if Gates’ intention for me as a viewer was not to come to such conclusions.
I think about Noor and my heart goes out to every Iraqi immigrant displaced by tragedies they had nothing to do with. Those who left for the sake of creating a better life but are instead blocked at almost every doorway due to vilification by self-serving politicians and the media—as if being a scapegoat for the actions of others was not enough.
I think about Laila and the image of a young woman out in the world leaps centerstage, filling my mind’s eye. I think about how worried that young woman must be at a time like this, where innocents are caught in the throes of retaliation between the US and Iranian government, on her way to audition for the titular role of a production. Or maybe she’s stuck in a soul-sucking situation—a job, a relationship, a commitment of some sort—and wondering if every risk she’s taken and is willing to take is truly worth it. I think about every person who has cherished dreams of what they could give to the world by becoming doctors, lawyers or artists, and been forced to trade their beautiful aspirations for the base hope of making it through the day unscathed.
I am neither Iraqi or American, or Iranian for that matter. I live on an island. I wake up and stretch. I go to work and sometimes, I instantly regret it.
But oftentimes, I am glad to be where I am even though sometimes it feels like I shouldn’t be. Every day, my heart finds new joys to spin gold from and new tragedies to hammer a shield into. Both are the smallest of mercies and the most precious of privileges.
I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I wish I did. But realistically, knowing every answer will not prevent every loss.
The truth is, I like Noor am angry. I’m angry and uncomfortable with the idea of power, even though what little power I possess extends only over my own life and my own choices.
Maybe you thought this piece would encourage you to head over to YouTube and watch a cool short film, or to support female creatives, and in a way, you are right. But more importantly, I want you to be a witness. If that’s all you can do, even when all you want to do is look away. Realize your privilege in being able to even consider looking away, because so many of those affected by these tragedies cannot.
Don’t look away, because one day, you might find yourself burdened with power and realize that if you are to bear this burden, the very least you can do is use it to alleviate someone else’s. I think that’s the most essentially human thing to do.