Thursday, 6 February 2014

Sam and Me (1991): Exposing the Silenced Issues of Multiculturalism



In 1988 Canada solidified Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s vision of harmonious ethnic diversity with The Canadian Multiculturalism Act, making combatting racism a national law. It’s purpose was to foster freedom and understanding among all Canadian people and to “increase all Canadians’ sense of belonging” (Moss and Sugars, 544). Although well intentioned, attempting to move Canada away from its colonial roots, it is often criticized for being idealistic and superficial (Moss and Sugars, 544). In a recent anthology of Canadian literature, editors Laura Moss and Carol Sugars argue that “forces of globalization, diasporic migration, and technological development” have all weeded out the concept of a singular Canadian identity, prompting an appreciation of heterogeneity (517), however many contemporary Canadian texts (and American ones) seem to question if this multiculturalism and heterogeneity actually works. The realities of racism are surfacing left and right in books, films, even the news; increasingly so since the “war on terror” began. The fact that these stories are so prominent, within the western world in particular, proves that people are taking an interest in these issues. 


When a Toronto-set film such as Sam and Me (directed by Deepa Mehta, and starring Ranjit Chowdhry) is released just a few years after the Multiculturalism Act is passed, it is impossible not to read it as a response and even as a criticism. Despite being a beautiful story about unlikely connections, it simultaneously refuses to idealize interracial interactions within multicultural societies. It unflinchingly exposes the shortcomings of multiculturalism by emphasizing the significance of the immigrant’s return and by forcing characters into inhabitable non-places, creating tense and unpleasant contact zones for characters of different races and cultures. As a film about migration and immigration, Sam and Me is, at the heart, a diasporic critique. According to Jigna Desai, author of Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film, this type of text has a responsibility to “dismantle nationalist constructions of belonging that link racialized and gendered bodies and space in seamless tales of bloodlines and family to the land” (18). The film is thus immediately inclined to analyze what the term “belonging” actually means for these migrant characters. Sam is an interesting character in this sense because while he feels he does not belong in Canada, exclaiming he wants to die at home (In Israel) he also does not have anything that belongs to him. His son makes this perfectly clear when he states “You don’t own a damn thing. Not here, not in Israel”. This overwhelming sense of lack makes it easy to sympathize with the old man. His only desire is to return. Though an immigrant, having lived in Canada for many years, he views himself still as a migrant refusing to settle in and create a new sense of home. Canada can never replace Sam’s homeland. This refusal to integrate, and even to fully relocate, is highlighted when Sam takes off all of his clothes and stands naked in the rain singing in Hebrew. Here, not only is Sam intentionally breaking the social code and law in Canada which insists that we wear clothes while in public, he is also refusing the official languages.

Canada’s multiculturalism policy may preach tolerance of other races, religions and customs however when it comes to the issue of language, the policy is quite demanding. It states that the government shall “preserve and enhance the use of languages other than English and French, while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada; and... advance multiculturalism throughout Canada in harmony with the national commitment to the official languages of Canada” (Moss and Sugars, 545). The phrasing of this section of the policy is problematic and confusing - it seems rather difficult to “enhance” the use of other languages while “strengthening the status” of English and French. The point to made here however is that immigrants are still expected to participate wholly in English and French. When Sam sings and speaks in Hebrew he is essentially identifying as not-Canadian. He is only Jewish. His intentions are never hidden, he wants to return to Israel. Unfortunately, this is an impossibility. He has run out of money even though he was once successful in Canada, and he is granted limited mobility by his son who has no desire to even entertain the idea of sending him home.

As is the mobility of many migrants and illegal immigrants, Sam’s movement is usually frantic, hurried and secretive. He is constantly surveilled and given strict limitations but, desperate for freedom, he always finds a way out. This recalls Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of second-world mobilities which are said to live in space rather than time because movement is controlled and dangerous (88); there is never any time to spare. This is definitely the feeling evoked by Sam’s urgent escapes. Although he is legal and in no real danger forcing him to move, the fact that, as an Other (and this is further complicated by his old age as well) who is controlled and watched, he is unable to move freely thus validating this vagabond-like characteristic. He is unhappy and un-free in his place of residence. It is obvious throughout the film that he will never be able to walk on “the promised land” again, but to make this explicit Sam is killed by a car in an attempt to find his friend and caretaker, Nik. Significantly, it is the first time Sam is mobile on his own for an extended period of time.

For Sam, Canada is a land of hope - until it becomes a prison. When asked why he ever came in the first place he responds by citing the immigrant’s typical ‘American dream’; peace, freedom, money. Having found that he can not obtain any of this, he is ready to go home. For Nik, Canada is a “reform school” (Nik) rather than a home. His less than perfect behavior has had him basically exiled from his home in India. Even so, he does have plans to bring his mother over suggesting that he intends to move away from the migrant role and become a permanent immigrant, against his uncle’s advice. In the opening of the film, we are introduced to Nik’s uncle, Chetan, having sex in his office. From the outset, he appears to be a successful doctor who has become quite accustomed to Canadian life. When he picks up Nik he gives the impression of a proud tourist guide excited to gloat about his host country but this notion of Canadian pride is abruptly dismissed when we learn of his five year plan to return to India. When he learns that Nik would like to move his mother to Canada he spits back: “For what? To clean toilets?...Don’t be like these fools who think they can come here and make it”. The film uses both Sam and Chetan to dispute the idea that immigrants are guaranteed a better life in Canada. Without reason to stay then, or even come in the first place, there is an underlying suggestion within the film that there no reason for a policy on multiculturalism at all. 

The importance of the return for Chetan is nostalgic at best considering he has likely been in Canada longer than his five year plan. Moreover, he has it pretty good. His excitement in welcoming Nik raises the question of whether there is a ‘point of no return’ that an integrating immigrant reaches. However, the film does show ways for immigrants to integrate without losing themselves completely to a whole new culture. The house Nik is placed in can be seen as a community within a community, a place where Nik can actually belong. It is a multi-racial space but more importantly it is a non-white space (as is the entire film). In this way, the film explores what Desai refers to as the “shadow of the color line” (72). This color line which refers to the many Other races within an otherwise white space allows for “near white model minorities” (Desai, 72) to exist and for hierarchies to arise within interracial contact zones. If all mention of judaism was to be eliminated from Sam and Me what would be left is what Kass Banning deems the “driving miss daisy” story. Sam’s light complexion allows for him to be a rather invisible minority. When thought of in line with colonial hierarchies which placed white people far above all darker people (black Africans falling lowest on the chain by this logic) then it becomes obvious that Sam and his family’s power over Nik’s is no coincidence. Both Nik and his uncle work for Sam’s son, a near-white rich man who craves and thrives off of his power over others. Without even being white he becomes the epitome of ‘whiteness’, that is, colonial power. Nik is hired by this colonial-like power and forced to be a care-taker for this old near-white man. He is forced into the role of a migrant worker (unskilled and even degrading work that does not abide by pay equity laws). This is furthered by Nik’s difficulty getting his earned money by the end. Much like a migrant worker, the money is intended to be used to reunite him with family (his mother in this case). 

Although Nik plans on staying in Canada, the final shot of him gazing out of the window completely hopeless, having been kicked out of India and disowned by his uncle, suggests Nik actually has nowhere to go. Sam is dead and Nik is lost. While the return may be a significant theme within the film, it is never realized, but it’s presence as a theme does help to construct Canada as a non-place which furthers the idea that multiculturalism has failed. Non-place is described by Marc Auge as a space that is not relational, not historical and not concerned with identity (77). This film is full of moments that visualize lack of home and/or place by this definition, but the most outstanding scene of this kind is when Sam and Nik sit on a couch on the side of the road. Couches are expected to be inside of homes but seeing as how there are no homes for these characters, they have to make themselves comfortable in the middle of nowhere and are in fact able to, suggesting this is a common theme in their lives. But much like the settlement of migrants and vagabonds, this can only be temporary and even becomes a place of transience when it is picked up by strangers and Sam and Nik continue to sit on it while riding in the back of the strangers’ truck. Even ‘hitching’ a ride is to be expected in a film about migrants. This couch scene illuminates the concept that these characters will never find stability so far away from home and that if home is somewhere else, then here can only be non-home. The present state of the existing Multiculturalism policies simply cannot fix this, especially when their main concern is integration as proven by Canada’s desire to stay committed to the official languages.

In refusing to allow these migrant characters any purely pleasant interracial experiences, Sam and Me argues that simply accepting or even condoning multiculturalism on paper does not have any true effect on the lived experience of multiculturalism. In its intentions of creating happier and healthier contact zones between races (and even religions) the policy is criticized heavily in these films for doing just the opposite. No one seems all that happy to be living in a multicultural society, which may very well only create more hierarchies. The lighter-skinned characters are generally shown as expecting more privilege, and racism is an ever present issue within and between communities (or rather ‘ghettos’). Conflicts within the films arise almost completely out of interracial encounters. These stories deny migrants a sense of home and their desire to return suggests a desire among all people to be only with others like them. Mehta thus seems to be saying that the failures of the multicultural nation is inevitable and that what needs to be addressed is not the mere acknowledgement of other cultures but the issues between them all as the world enters a new chapter of post-colonialism - globalization. Ultimately, this film portrays a very bleak reality about multiculturalism and the problems that can, and do, arise within it.