Aimee Marcereau DeGalan
In a world of mounting tensions between the Middle East and the much of the West, Iranian-born architect, and video artist Shahram Entekhabi’s film “Happy Meal” (2004), presents a collision of cultures with a sympathetic eye. This is a collision of cultures Entekhabi knows first hand as someone who left his native country of Iran in 1978 for Italy, and never went back. With the change of regime in Iran, the ‘homeland’ he once knew no longer exists. Entekhabi now lives in Germany, a country with which he does not share a cultural tradition. Political reasons prevent him from returning to Iran, he is between cultures, caught in limbo. This feeling of ambivalence and displacement informs his work as an artist, and finds visual form in his film “Happy Meal.”
The film, shot in Berlin, features a young girl unabashedly eating and enjoying a “Happy Meal” from McDonalds, a metonym of Western culture. She is wearing a chador; a dark traditional garment worn by Muslim women that covers almost all of the head and body. Once considered an anti-Western symbol, it serves as metonym of the East. Although veiling can symbolize both resistance and allegiance, in the film, the point is made clear: East meets West somewhere in der Mitte. It is in this space that one realizes identity is not fixed, it is constantly changing. The film parallels the filmmaker’s own personal synthesis by placing two traditionally opposing viewpoints together with seemingly happy results.
Initially, however, the juxtaposition of the two such opposing metonyms is disconcerting, and probably creates an equal amount of discomfort for both Western and Eastern audiences. There is no dialogue in the film, and the sole sound is the music track of children singing Islamic songs in praise of Allah. In fact, the child is the only actor in Entekhabi’s film. By positioning the camera at his actor’s level, Entekhabi allows us to see the experience through the eyes of the child, rather than through the eyes of an adult. As the film progresses, the strangeness dissipates, and the combination of two opposing cultures becomes acceptable because we begin to see beyond the two metonyms, and realize that we are seeing a new combination.
When considering factors such as homeland, identity, ethnicity and nationality, the film carries a heavy charge. However, shot on the heels of American filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s documentary “Super Size Me” (2004), in which he presents a scathing indictment of the practices used by McDonalds to lure people, especially children, into eating fast food, “Happy Meal” (2004), could be seen through a similarly seamy lens. Yet, what is more interesting about Entekhabi’s work is that the viewer is presented with an opportunity to question his/her categorization of the world. What we forget in our often ill-guided attempts of understanding through categories or stereotypes is that these are merely a starting point. Here, regardless of the mission of McDonald’s to create wealth, we see that the child is truly enjoying herself. In other words, for whatever it is that one might find objectionable about McDonald’s there are things about it that we like. It is easy to define a corporation as evil without somehow admitting our own complicity. Similarly, the child’s chador, in the context of a McDonald’s happy meal, challenges us to reach beyond a rigid conception of Islam—challenges us to think of human beings, not ideologies. Entekhabi’s film invites us to reject our initial facile analysis of the world and instead to reserve judgment until we know what we are seeing.
In short, Entekhabi’s film makes one question the stereotypes of East and West, and encourages instead thinking about the happy accidents, if only for a moment, of the collision of cultures, and the possibility and excitement of new cultures being created through this intersection.