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Talking Movies: Finding America at Hardacre

Meet the Patels
Meet the Patels

Meet the Patels explores India’s dating culture through a comedic lens.

17th Annual Hardacre Film Festival

Tipton High School Auditorium — Saturday, Aug. 2

This year the Hardacre Film Festival will not be located in the lovely Hardacre Theater, which is currently undergoing renovation. Instead, three feature-length docs and various shorts will play on Aug. 2 at a one-day event in the newly renovated Tipton High School auditorium.

Though the Hardacre Theater has always been a big part of the festival’s draw, the movies showing this year are too good to pass up. Like the theater itself, the documentaries are lovely pieces of Americana, especially The Overnighters, a wrenching tragedy about a fracking boom town in North Dakota, and Meet the Patels, a sharp comedy about Indian-American dating.

Jesse Moss, who directed and shot The Overnighters, could have focused on any number of things about Williston, one of the small North Dakota towns radically transformed by fracking: the environmental devastation, the wild-west sideshows of prostitution, the conflicted emotions of long-time residents, the new money, the sudden sprawl. Instead, Moss zeroes in on what turns out to be an absolutely fascinating character at the margin of all these transformations, pastor of Williston’s Lutheran church.

Though many in the town are fearful of the drifters who come in search of work, Pastor Reinke welcomes these “overnighters” and offers them the church floor and parking lot as places to sleep. As much as you warm to Reinke’s authentic Christian spirit of serving the poor, you worry from the outset if the church and the town can hold up against the ceaseless flood of the unemployed.

Karl Marx famously calls religion “the opium of the people.” You could forgive Marxists for criticizing Reinke’s charitable mission as simply enabling the injustices of our economic system, which exploits not only those who search in vain for gainful employment but those who find it. Marx, in the same passage, also calls religion “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of a soulless situation.” Reinke’s open-hearted—at times more than open-hearted—embrace of the unemployed and homeless, even if it does tamp down the discontents of exploitation, reinvests Williston with something other than selfishness, something that glimmers with the same love that Jesus used to perform miracles on the broken.

When it comes out that some of the drifters sheltered at the church are not just felons but registered sex offenders, the already-skeptical community starts to turn against Reinke. As the tensions mount, Reinke’s seemingly admirable character frays. The Overnighters ends with a horrendous surprise, though one that makes complete sense in retrospect. The pastor’s character takes on tragic proportions, and you’ll be left desolate and yet strangely renewed in your sense of humanity.

If The Overnighters unlocks the darkest energies of our economy and our morality, Meet the Patels reminds us of the American dream’s fresh possibilities for a happy ending. Ravi Patel, the main character and co-director with his sister Geeta Patel, blends animation and real-life documentation to tell the hilarious story of how he broke up with his American girlfriend (whom he was embarrassed to introduce to his traditionalist family) and decided to put his dating in the hands of his Indian-born parents, who still believe in arranged marriages.

It turns out that Indian-Americans have an entire network for arranging marriages. The process begins with “bio-data,” a picture coupled with important facts, like the precise darkness of your skin and the caste of your family. After careful perusals with his parents, the 29-year-old Ravi travels across the country in search of the perfect mate.

The best thing about Meet the Patels is Ravi’s interactions with his charming, exasperating parents. His sleek mom and frog-faced dad berate him lovingly and love him beratingly. They don’t see why he’s so picky about things like looks and personality. You want to fault them, but their own happy arranged marriage, to say nothing of their sharp wisdom, eats into your convictions about the value of 20-something-year-olds choosing a lifetime mate for themselves.

Meet the Patels brims and spills over with the humor of those who grow up in two very different cultures. People like Ravi and his sister often have the ability to see the total absurdity of humanity, for they’ve had to shuttle constantly between mutually opposed, yet equally workable ways of living. My favorite scenes are simply of Ravi’s face, blending horror and fascination, love and disdain, as his father lectures him about some crucial aspect of Indian tradition. But even when the sibling team shows alternating clips from Indian and American romantic movies, you can’t help but see through their eyes the hilarity of both cultures’ rituals. Dirty Dancing will never be the same again.

Though Meet the Patels explores the weird subculture of Indian dating with bounciness and jokiness, it’s more than a fluffy rom-com. It’s often a moving exploration of American identity. Ravi’s journey to find a wife turns into the universal pursuit of happiness, one that simultaneously breaks with and recuperates age-old traditions.

Watching Meet the Patels and The Overnighters on the same day is a marvelously disorienting experience. You feel not only the confidence and despair of the American dream but the sense that its beauty and tragedy are inextricable.

And where better to find America in all its strange glory than in the Tipton High School Auditorium at Iowa’s oldest film fest?

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