Short Film Review: I'm Not Your F**king Stereotype (2019)

Scandalous teenage experiences in TV shows and films are often a potent magnet for viewership. New stories from all over the world are continuously churned out to sustain the viewer’s interest, but all seem to depict the same issues revolving around conflicts with peers, friendships, sexuality, love, and identity. Religion hardly makes a presence.

In this respect, Thai debut filmmaker Hesome Chemamah’s short I’m Not Your F**king Stereotype stands out. It tells the story of Maryam – a daring Muslim Thai teen – navigating her religious identity, pulled taut by her conservative mother and Islamophobic schoolmates.

This situation is common in teen drama where both parents and peers are cast as antagonists. The mother – seen exclusively in a black hijab as opposed to Maryam’s white one – exasperates the teen with her micromanagement. The stringent religious moral code imposed by her mother doesn’t stop at saying prayers but also extends to how she should listen to music. Meanwhile, as she starts attending a primarily Buddhist school after moving away from her Muslim-populated hometown in the south, Maryam becomes the minority and an object of ridicule for her peers.

Here the film’s stylistic element of a constricting and expanding circular frame plays a pivotal narrative role. Arguably borrowed from I Am Not Madame Bovary (2016), the circular frame is akin to the Chinese round window that reveals a snapshot of the garden to the inhabitants of a traditional rural house. This summarises Maryam’s relationship with her mother: a constant feeling of being observed and monitored.

Interestingly, on the first day at her new school, Maryam’s confident strides past watching eyes are coupled with the circular frame expanding to fill the rectangular 16:9 aspect ratio. The effect is as if Maryam is closing the distance with the observer – her schoolmates. But as she responds to the classmates’ derisive remarks with a contrived smile, the circular frame soon returns, implying her recession away from the observer. The result is a strict separation between the majority Us observing the minority Other.

This antagonistic relationship is reinforced by the teens’ use of social media, illustrated by the online messages and Facebook posts that overlay and intercut with the film. On the one hand, they amplify the discrimination that Maryam gets from her schoolmates as the bullying takes place in both the real and virtual worlds. On the other, Maryam finds in social media a place to express her honest feelings. The meeting with her religion-study group, where her groupmates ask Maryam to pose with pork and eat it, sees her dismissively laugh at the requests. Yet the overlaid and intercut online posts reveal Maryam’s resentment. It is not clear if these confessional texts are meant to be public or private, but one thing is certain: they disclose Maryam’s internal conflict between her Muslim identity and the desire to blend in with the Buddhist friends.

Two events bring the conflict to its climax: her mother’s intolerance of Maryam exploring any religion other than Islam, and the schoolmates’ aggression at Maryam on her birthday that coincides with September 11. Two stereotypes are depicted here. One is the stereotype of a traditional Muslim girl devoted to Islam, as forced upon Maryam by her mother. The second is the stereotype of a terrorising Muslim – an image that Maryam’s schoolmates tag her with.

Maryam seems to only acknowledge the latter, judging from the fact that she resolves the internal conflict by trying to get rid of her Muslim identity. As she removes the hijab, the circular frame enlarges, possibly suggesting that Maryam can finally blend in and no longer feel all eyes constantly on her. While this is simple enough, changing any association she has with Islam isn’t so painless. Maryam being denied of altering the personal information on her identity card seems ironic at first, because her headstrong determination to discard of the Muslim identity is stopped short by a petty requirement of parental consent. However, the deeper implication dawns on her: it’s not so easy to just efface a facet of one’s identity, be it the name given by her parents, her date or birth, or her religion. The circular frame is reinstated.

Of course once she is of the age of consent, there wouldn’t be anything stopping her from completing this deed. Till then, she has ample time to mull things over, especially with regard to the officer’s question why she has to change everything. It acknowledges two things: a false dilemma that only in giving up her Muslim identity could she be at peace, and the stereotype of traditional Muslim devotion that in fact she needs not subscribe to. These would prove crucial to the navigation of her identity to an endpoint where she could find comfort in her own religious practice and the environment she lives in.

While largely a statement about Muslim teens’ struggle with their identity, the film has other far-reaching implications. It is a reminder that Islamophobia, in whatever shape and form, is very much alive as long as ignorance is present. The circumstances that configure the story also indicate that no longer can distinct religious and social groups exist in isolation; unavoidably we will come into contact, and the question of how to live harmoniously together is more pressing than ever.

The short film is perhaps not entirely original in any means. The story of a bold Muslim girl struggling with her religious identity and the depiction of social media as a vehicle for teenage drama are probably an import from the Norwegian web series Skam. The varying frame sizes and the use of a circular frame as narrative devices are arguably borrowed from The Grand Budapest Hotel and I Am Not Madame Bovary. Yet, the sincerity of Hesome Chemamah, a Muslim born in a southern province studying and living in Bangkok himself, is palpable. Not another Gossip Girl of Thailand, the film, despite the contextual specificity, depicts the same universal teenage experience of self-discovery that never fails to tug at the heartstrings.
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