The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2002)
Director: John Gianvito.
Starring: Bonnie Chavez (Police Dispatcher), Sherri Goen, Thia Gonzalez, Carlos Moreno Jr. (Mike), Robert Perrea, Elizabeth Pilar, Dustin Scott, Carlos Stevens.
nationalistic fervor in New Mexico during the Gulf War helps lead to tragedy
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
The body of a dead girl floats in the Rio Grande River in New Mexico, USA. A man then throws the bloody body of a boy into the river. The fellow then takes off in a hurry in a blue pick-up truck. The dead bodies float down river.
There is a sign that says: 1990 Espanola Valley 1991/Desert Storm Memorial Parkway. Underneath the lettering are pictures of an American flag, a yellow ribbon and a flag of New Mexico. Down the road is another sign that says Welcome Home Desert Storm Troops.
Los Lunas, New Mexico. September 1990.
Hispanic mother Fernanda Hussein (separated from her Egyptian husband) walks home from the store with her two children, a girl and a younger boy. When they get home they see a bed sheet hanging over one of their windows and it says: "Arab Pigs Go Home!"
In a huge field the two Hussein children study the different cloud shapes and tell each other what the cloud formations look like. At night mother tucks the kids into bed.
The next evening a worried Fernanda calls Mrs. Clarke. She tells her that her children have not yet returned home from school.
Santa Fe, New Mexico. January 16, 1991.
On the TV is a map of Iraq with the surrounding countries. A son calls for his mother and father to come sees what's on television. The Gulf War has started. President Bush I is on TV. He says that sanctions have showed no sign of accomplishing their goals, so war was necessary. He says the the Iraqi leader Sadam Hussein raped and plundered neighboring Kuwait.
Fernanda leaves a note for her children and goes to look for them. At night she returns empty handed. She calls the police and tells them that her two children have been missing for five hours. The dispatcher suggests that she wait for two to three hours more and if the children have still not shown up, then se can file a report in person at the police station. They usually wait 24 hours before searching for children. Fernanda is very frustrated and hangs up the phone.
A high school fellow named Rafael hands out peace literature at school. One "patriot" knocks his fliers up into the air. One of the headlines of the day is that 950 women and children were killed in an American bombing. As regards the bombing, Naseer Shemma is an Iraqi musician and composer. In 1991 following the bombing of Al-Amiriyya shelter in Baghdad, he began working on a composition in memory of this event. The Iraqi musician plays the instrument in the film on several occasions.
Local boys, one wearing a Desert Storm baseball cap, play with their Desert Storm trading cards.
Fernanda is at the police station. Officer Comis will take her report. What he is most curious about, however, is her marital status. She is married, but separated. Her husband returned to Egypt some months ago. He had a hard time in the job market. The officer's attitude infuriates Fernanda, but she has to control herself. As she gets ready to leave, the officer gives her some unsolicited advice: Change your name back to Sanchez or Lopez or whatever it was before. (It will go easier for her that way.)
The local peace group holds a candle-light vigil. It's a silent vigil. They pray for peace silently.
Rafael's father goes to see his son's teacher. He tells the teacher not to fill his son's head with political ideas. The teacher is undermining his authority, says the man. He adds: "Leave my son alone." The teacher says that he is not going to change the curriculum and leaves. The father says mostly to himself: "Son of a bitch!"
Fernanda walks in the desert-like area calling out for her children. A fisherman on the banks of the Rio Grande see the two bodies floating down the river and does absolutely nothing literally. Mom continues searching for her children.
Students in white face hand out peace fliers, while children look at Desert Storm war toys. But the promotion of the war is not just limited to toys. There are all kinds of T-shirts celebrating the troops, as well as similar buttons. One T-shirt says "Rub out Hussein". As a protest Rafael attacks citizens in the local square hitting them with water balloons filled with a red substance simulating blood. A police woman grabs him, throws him to the ground, cuffs him and puts him in her police car. He is taken under arrest to the police station.
Rafael's father is at home working at his laptop computer at the breakfast table. He grabs a plate to find on it a picture of a completely charred-black Iraqi. Dad is furious and he demands that Rafael come downstairs. He tells his son that this "is going to stop!" His grades are slipping and he is alienating everyone around him. Rafael obviously has issues with his dad and mother. He bitterly tells them both that they automatically took the position of the police rather than side with him.
Fernanda keeps looking for her children. A friend accompanies her. We see the two bodies still floating in the Rio Grande. The friend is a psychic and she tries to conjure up images of the children, but comes up empty. Fernanda cries.
Rafael and two other students are smoking marijuana down by the river. One of the students asks Rafael: "What happened with you and your dad?" Rafael is now living on the streets. He leaves the fellows and heads toward the center of town. He see one lone woman holding vigil at the peace post in town. His father drives around town looking for him. He finds Rafael sitting on the sidewalk by a house. He tells his son that his mother wants him to come home. Rafael refuses. His dad says: "You're so damn stubborn." He then tells Rafael that the war ended last night.
Toward twilight a number of people participate in a candle-light vigil. They walk down by the river. There they see a man standing guard over the bodies of two dead children.
Part II. Orphans of the Storm.
A Desert Storm marine watches the landscape as he travels on a bus homeward bound. A number of troops return home. A band marches with them until the wives (and husbands probably) and children greet them with hugs and kisses. The Adjutant General of the State of New Mexico welcomes home the 812th. He says it's a great day to be an American and that he is proud of each and everyone of the returning soldiers. They have showed the world that not only is the United States the most powerful and strongest nation in the world, but also the most humanistic. Still on the bus Carlos looks at some pictures he has with him from Iraq.
Rafael hangs out drinking Jack Daniels whiskey. He has been living with a couple of fellows. One of them tells him that the rent is due. Rafael tells him that he will get the rent money somehow. The fellow doesn't believe Rafael and he threatens to throw him out on the streets.
Peos, New Mexico, June 1991.
Carlos walks the rest of the way home along a highway. He heads to a trailer park. On the side of the trailer is a sign saying: "Welcome Home Carlos!" He lets himself into the trailer. He opens the drapes and the windows, lays on his old bed, sleeps and has a vision of dead hand with ants on it that awakens him. Later Carlos attends a backyard barbecue. The most common question he gets is: "How many Iraqis did you kill?" He doesn't like the question and refuses to answer it when he is asked.
Rafaels hangs out under the bridge over the river drinking with an old bum. He leaves, walks around, hangs out.
Carlos goes to see his old employer. The fellow tells Carlos that he was gone too long. He couldn't keep the position open. He then tells the marine that it's only business, nothing personal. He advises him that Los Alamos may be hiring. Just before Carlos leaves, his old boss tells him: "You guys didn't finish the job." They should have taken Sadam out. He then asks Carlos: "How many sand niggers did you kill?" A disgusted Carlos just walks away.
Rafael checks garbage cans for food. He pulls out a lobster, but it stinks. He hands out with a street girl. They sit together on a locomotive engine. Rafael learns that the authorities have gotten their first lead on the murder of the two kids in the Rio Grande. A prison inmate gave them a tip about three men involved in the murders. The detective on the case says that the crime is a shameful act of anti-Arab racism. Fernanda was just released after two months in jail on suspicion that she killed her two children. They found that she was mentally unstable and was released for a total lack of evidence against her. Now she has disappeared. It is suggested that she may be living on the streets.
Carlos has sex with two prostitutes.
There is a parade in town. The soldiers from Desert Storm march down the street. There are children with war shirts on. There is also a small protest group talking about 200,000 dead. Four jets fly over the parade. Rafael continues wandering around town. He is bored and starts banging on a large steel container. An old woman named Ana sees him and talks with him. She recognizes him from the peace vigil. When she sees that he needs a bandage on his hand from his hitting the steel container she tells him to go into her house; it is open. Later she serves him some hot tea. They talk and she suggests that he come to some of the peace meetings. He says that he did come to some of the meetings but it didn't prove anything. Ana tells him that people have to make a statement for peace. She says it makes her feel better. Rafael responds: "I don't feel better at all." Ana says that the door is always open anytime he needs a place to hang out.
Carlos takes out a young woman who likes him a great deal. He talks to her about the war. He gets way too graphic and it upsets her. He mentions a group of Iraqis that were terrified to see the marines. The young girls asks: "Did you kill them?" Carlos replies: "I'm sick of that question." Then he starts talking to her about the Highway of Death. The military destroyed both ends of the highway and all the vehicles on the highway were trapped like sitting ducks. Then the military threw everything they had at the highway. They spent two days bombing the road and killed thousands of people stuck on the highway. Carlos says there were dead and burned bodies all over the place. He knows that because he was on clean-up. The young girl says: "This is horrible. Let's just forget it. Let's get out of here!" But a sadistic Carlos goes on. They cut off the head of an Iraqi P.O.W. and kicked it around like a soccer ball. Carlos says he kicked it too. But the young girl doesn't want to hear anymore. Then Carlos starts to rape her. He only stops when he hears some weird wailing noises.
Naseer Shemma plays the oud with just one hand in honor of the disabled in Iraq.
Fernanda's friend starts taking down her wash hanging on the clothes line. When she takes down a bed sheet she is shocked to see Fernanda standing there. She asks what made her come back. Fernanda says something in her just woke up. Her friend tells her that her husband called for her from Cairo, Egypt. They didn't know what to say to him so they told him she and the children were on vacation. Fernanda says: "I'll tell him about the kids. For now I just want to look."
Carlos is in an empty lot banging out rocks with a stick used as a baseball bat. He has flashbacks to a charred-black decapitated head. He stares at the sun too long and the pain incapacitates him for a while.
Fernanda, her friend and the friend's daughter Angelita sit on a blanket down by a small steam. The girl drops leaves into the water to see them float away.
At a get-together for The Green Party Rafael gets signatures from the entrants. Fernanda shows up and signs the petition (?). When he looks at her name he recognizes it as the poor mother whose two children were murdered in a hate crime. He stares after her as she walks farther away from him. Fernanda watches the festivities.
Good movie, but very slow. It takes nearly three hours for this not complex movie to unfold. The camera lingers over common everyday activities such as taking the wash down from the clothes line. I started fast forwarding through these slow parts. The movie is sort of an anti-war movie, but it's more of a critique of the way the USA promotes their wars like they were promoting some kind of big block-buster movie with toys, t-shirts, hats and buttons. Along with this promotion comes a rush of anti-enemy feeling, in this case, anti-Arab sentiment. Then hate crimes are committed in the name of the war that is being so heavily promoted. The USA also tends to make the soldiers their idols. They make every soldier a hero, which demeans that true meaning of a real hero -- a man or woman who does something life-threatening that is above and beyond the call of duty to help or save others. Actually the troops become a political tool in the hand of the ultra-right, the conservatives and rednecks in the country. This often irritates the liberals who don't like war being hyped and used as a political weapon to accuse liberals of being cowards and unpatriotic.
The movie tries to tells the story of three persons (Fernanda, Rafael and Carlos) and inter-relate them one to the other. But the inter-relations are very superficial ones, so it doesn't succeed all that well. Hey, but I still liked it. And the movie makes a good point about the hyping of war leading to ugly consequences. It also makes a pitch for peace as a better way of handling relations with the Arabs in the world.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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