What is Night of Henna?
And why is it in Toledo?
Fair questions, those.
Night of Henna lucked out and landed a handful of bookings around the country on the promise of its subject and origin. It's billed as "America's First Pakistani-American Film." I will have to take their word on that. It has the stiff tentativeness of student filmmaking but never feels less than sincere; you never question whether the people who made it know what they're talking about. It taps into a growing Pakistani and Indian population in this country and tells a familiar culture clash of East meeting West.
What it shares with movies like Monsoon Wedding and East is East is that no matter how schematic the writing or predictable the plot, the food in these films always looks more compelling. Night of Henna opens with a Pakistani woman (Pooja Kumar, billed as "former Miss India U.S.A.") on the night of her unhappy arranged marriage.
Hava (Kumar) grew up in Pakistan. Immigrant tales tend to be about the tension between staying true to your roots while assimilating into a new home, and Hava doesn't reinvent the wheel. She comes to America and wants to attend college and work in a coffee shop. She is wide-eyed the way only extra-terrestrials in movies tend to be: She is astonished that the university, for instance, has like an activities board and everything.
Hava also falls for Justin (Craig Marker). He is not a Pakistani. He plays guitar and wears mock turtlenecks when he's not attending parties that look more appropriate for a 12-year-old than a guy in his 20s living in San Francisco. Night of Henna plays like an educational film with minor bits of naughtiness thrown in to provide a little "edge." And yet that amateur-hour feel is tempered by my admiration that it was made - which is more than most aspiring directors manage.
When Night of Henna was added to the schedule Monday, I called the film's tiny distributor and the CEO answered her own phone. Brunella Lisi is very nice. Later that day, I received a call from Hassan Zee, the writer-director. He is 34. He grew up in Pakistan and arrived in San Francisco five years ago with $50 and a medical degree. He decided instead to make movies, received a small grant to shoot a local film, and now he has national distribution. That film, I'd want to see.