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When a “Muslim” Watches ‘Hereafter’

Contributed by Omar Shaukat

The film, Hereafter, ostensibly tells the stories of three characters variously affected by death – George, an American, is a psychic who can communicate with the dead, Marie, a Frenchwoman, becomes convinced of the reality of life beyond death after a near-death experience, and Marcus, an English boy, finds ways of communicating with his recently deceased brother. Due to their trauma, all three figures struggle to lead happy lives. But the film ends on a happy note when George helps Marcus understand that his brother wants him to be independent, and George and Marie are able to find some peace by falling in love.

Two approaches seem to dominate among the reviewers of Hereafter. While some focus on the possibility of afterlife or psychic communication, others have thought that the film is mainly about the yearning for companionship. However, I think the film is more fruitfully understood as pointing to a crisis in “the West,” specifically, its inability to deal with violence and death.

First off, I should acknowledge my place in this process of interpretation. As an American-Muslim, who was raised in an ex-British colony, I am often involved in discussions on the topic of  “Islam” vs. the “West.” Thus, I am probably predisposed to detect such categories quicker than others.

As for my reasons that are intrinsic to Hereafter, it is hard to miss that the protagonists come from countries that are regarded, not only as the principal agents of the “West,” but also as the most practical (Americans), skeptical (French), and scientific (British) of all the nations in the “West.” Also, the doctor who reassures Marie of the veracity of her experience is from Germany (“landofthinkersandpoets”). Additionally, the problems that the protagonists face in their home countries build on popular myths regarding these nations. George is beset with a greedy brother who hides under the guise of altruism (“capitalismandfreedom”), Marie is betrayed by her lover, after they experience the same tsunami that nearly led to her near death (“libertineFrance”), and Marcus’ mother is an addict (the British drug problem). Given how these characters have been constructed, it seems evident that Hereafter is commenting on the condition of the “West.”

But what exactly is it saying about the “West?” The characters’ inability to engage with the topic of ‘death’ in a sensitive manner is easily observable throughout the film. But this theme also works its way into the film with more subtlety. It depicts two instances of “massive violence”, the 2005 tsunami and the London Tube bombings. These are effective symbolizations of the most dominant anxieties of a contemporary “Western” audience, climate change and Islamic terrorism. And through the conspicuous lack of reflection on these events, the film reinforces the inability of its “Western” characters to talk about the threats to life.

Hereafter, like all Clint Eastwood films, is immensely rich in its details, and heavily introspective in its themes. But this time round, I am wondering whether the mainstream reviewers are sufficiently equipped to appreciate his critique, or whether some “outsiders” are needed to supplement their efforts?

Omar Shaukat is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

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