THE DAY after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sally Potter started writing. She wanted to respond, somehow, to the demonization on both sides, from the East and West.
The result: "Yes" (see review on Page 27), a romance between an American woman of Irish heritage who's a microbiologist and whose troubled marriage in London prompts her to respond to a Lebanese chef. He's really a surgeon and a political refugee from his country. Although there is the stigma of their extramarital affair, their relationship yields even bigger issues -- the political divisions that separate their respective worlds.
"I think the demonization from the West towards the East," Potter says, "is a lumping together of all aspects of Islam with the notion that any Muslim is inherently an enemy of the West and Christianity and is a potential bomber. As an extension of that, anyone with a dark skin is 'one of them' and a potential bomber. . . . That's been brought home terribly strongly here in the last week, with the innocent Brazilian man who was shot [in the London Underground], presumably because he had a somewhat dark skin and was acting suspiciously. The floodgates have opened, based on fear and our collective lack of understanding about the East."
On the reverse side, she continues, the East's demonization of the West contends that "the United States, with the U.K. as a satellite to that bigger power, is one mass of Christian fundamentalists intent on destroying their land, warmongering imperialists who are ready to drop bombs on innocent citizens at the drop of a hat, with a lust for profit and no respect for human life. But they don't know how deeply divided and complex the people of the Western world are. On both sides we have these fundamentalist stereotypes."
Did we mention the whole movie is spoken in verse? Potter, a gentle-voiced filmmaker whose best-known work is 1992's gender-shifting "Orlando," has her characters speaking in rhymed couplets, much of which are in iambic pentameter. Potter, 55, directed her actors, including Joan Allen, Simon Akbarian and Sam Neill, to perform them without being conscious of the rhyme; as if there were none. It's as if the movie represents everyone's deepest thoughts writ large, or perhaps rhymed large.
This approach "was about finding the complexity and variety of individual voices within the film. And the voices are a very cosmopolitan cross section of voices you'd find in London -- not just in speech patterns but in the ideas they carry."
The verse, she continues, "allowed for flowing conversations between those voices, but it also allows us to experience the continuous inner voice that each of us carries inside our head. Strangely or paradoxically, the apparent artifice of the verse form allows for a more natural expression of the river of human thought. There's an inherent playfulness and sensuality in language, the way it sounds or feels in the mouth, as well as the meanings it carries and embodies."
With the recent bomb attacks in London's Underground and public buses, it seems, the war against terrorism has finally hit home -- Potter's very birthplace. Do these developments resonate with her?
"It [the film] feels ever more necessary, ever more pertinent." She cites a British newspaper whose front page headlines blared the question: These bombers were asylum seekers and this is what they do for gratitude? The sentiment, she says, eerily echoes comments made by one of her bigoted characters in a scene in a restaurant kitchen.
"The need for conversation between both sides rather than retreating into enmity is more acute than ever."
-- Desson Thomson