Wednesday, October 31, 2018

S.E. CUPP: Dunham an unlikely choice to tell Syrian refugee tale, but at least she’s telling it

If you don’t think of Lena Dunham as the quintessential voice for Syrian refugees, you’re not alone.

After the announcement that Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams have tapped the over-sharing millennial irritant to write the adaptation of Melissa Fleming’s “A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea,” a haunting, moving and urgent telling of the unseen refugees fleeing the Syrian genocide, the confusion over the odd choice quickly turned to outrage.

USA Today published a compilation of the reactions on Twitter, which varied from “This will not go well” to “Please stop this while you’re ahead of a disaster” to “Oh, God. No, please, NO.”

But as someone who has relentlessly covered the Syrian genocide of more than half a million innocent people, 50,000 of them children, begging anyone who would listen to see, care and act, I think there’s room for optimism in this choice.

Here’s the (true) story told in the book: 19-year-old Doaa al Zamel could be a typical teenage girl, not unlike the girls Dunham has written into her work — except she isn’t at all, of course. A victim of Bashar al-Assad’s nine-year war on innocent civilians, she flees Syria only to be stranded with two toddlers on a small inflatable life ring.

The tale is heart-wrenching and poignant. It needs to be told.

Yes, Dunham is annoying, self-absorbed and often shockingly ill-informed. She is also a talented story-teller. And if someone of Dunham’s influence who is part of a generation that makes up more than a quarter of the U.S. population can amplify this story and engage millennials to care about a genocide, I am all for it.

Some of the criticism of Dunham centers on the fact that she is not Syrian. I think that’s short-sighted.

I’m endlessly grateful for the many compassionate and thoughtful writers of non-Syrian descent who have told the plight of Syrians, from the author of the book on which the movie will be based to American reporter Marie Colvin and photojournalist Paul Conroy, whose documentary “Under the Wire” tells the gruesome story of her murder in Homs.

If only Syrians cared about Syrians, if only Syrians told their stories, I fear we’d hear far fewer of them.

The issue of representation has haunted Dunham in the past.

Back in 2016, Dunham lamented the lack of voices of color on her hit HBO show, “Girls.” She contrasted her voice to “Insecure” actor and producer Issa Rae, saying, Rae’s “voice needs to be on television. It doesn’t need to be my voice telling the story of a black woman’s New York experience.”

That same year she also issued an apology for claiming football player Odell Beckham Jr. treated her misogynistically at the famed fashion orgy, the Met Gala, for being on his cell phone instead of engaging her brilliant conversational skills.

This is Dunham’s world: one of privilege and misapplied Oberlin gender studies lessons where she often apologizes for clumsily navigating the fraught high wire of progressive identity politics to which she so earnestly ascribes.

But if someone else had been tapped for this important story, I doubt we’d be talking about it at all. And that is the urgency of the Syrian war: that we are not talking about it enough. That it fades in and out of our consciousness without so much as a shrug. That we ignore it as just one of many outrages.

Yes, Lena Dunham is annoying. Perhaps we need to be annoyed about Syria, finally.

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