Towelhead: A Glimpse into the Mind of Alan Ball

Alan Ball is one of the best filmmakers in Hollywood. After seeing American Beauty, which was a film that strayed from the big blockbuster norm and surprised everyone by winning five Oscars, one awarded to Ball for best screenplay, he became someone I admired most, not only for his humble award winning speech about no longer having his family bother him to “get a real job” but for his ability to make true art and transform it onto the big screen. While there are some writers, directors and producers who create a movie for reasons that are obviously about hitting the right marks and bringing in big bucks, it’s very clear that Ball’s reasoning behind filmmaking is completely different. He thrives from it…that need to use artistic avenues as a form of self-expression and his films and cable series are a demonstration of that.

After American Beauty, Ball went on to write HBO’s Six Feet Under followed by a new sexy, racy, Vampire HIT, True Blood and on September 12, his adapted screenplay Towelhead, which he directed as well, hits theatres near you.

Is it a musical comedy? No. Will it make you run from the theatres crying in horror? No. However, is it controversial due to the subject matter? Yes. It is raw because it is based on truth. It is brilliant because it is the story of a girl named Jasira (played by Summer Bishil), who is sexually violated by her neighbor (played by Aaron Eckhart) and living in a dysfunctional family. However, she faces her confusing world head on and doesn’t die from it. In fact, she survives and although it will have some impact on her future, she will move forward in search of happiness. Nothing and no one will stop her. And nothing will stop Alan Ball from telling it the way he sees fit. He is a true artist and this is what he had to say about his latest feature, Towelhead.

We met at the Four Seasons Hotel and he greeted me with a warm smile. Confident, sweet and charming, you could tell that Ball knew who he was as an artist and person. He believed in his new film and the actors who worked alongside him.

It’s an honor! Thank you for meeting with me. I am very passionate about this particular topic – sexual abuse.

It’s a very, very ridiculously common experience for a lot of young women and men, for that matter. Towelhead isn’t a tale of victimhood. So often the only way we as a culture are comfortable at looking at child sexual assault is to paint the child as a total victim. No curiosity, completely victimized by a predatory subhuman monster. I agree the act is monstrous but both parties involved are human and I think seeing that doesn’t in any way justify adults who make that choice because when they do that they commit a huge crime, legally and spiritually.

But…it’s not quite as simple as we’d like to think. And I think the realities of it and the fact that it is so common makes us want to sweep it under the carpet. And I don’t think that really serves anybody. Especially in a culture that is so sexualized in which children are taught to think of themselves as sexual creatures, especially girls.

Yes, this film is controversial but truthful, too. Jasira is portrayed in a real way because she is thirteen, confused about what’s happening around her and trying to make sense of it all during her developmental years. She doesn’t run and tell everyone what she is going through because she, herself, doesn’t understand it. Also, just because she somehow finds a way to overcome the things she is enduring, I don’t believe you are trying to say that abuse is OK. You are not trying to say that all children who are abused will not be affected by it.

Oh, no…I think the neighbor did something really wrong. He ends up losing everything. He knows it. He realizes it. I think you make a mistake when…you can’t judge her by the same standards. She’s not an adult, she’s a child. She doesn’t have the same perspective.

I’m speaking of Jasira, specifically. She is imprisoned in a life devoid of any pleasure or sense of power. And as she discovers her own sexuality that feels good, and she realizes the power she has over this handsome, charming man…of course she’s going to explore it. And I don’t think she should be blamed for that. It’s very human to do something that feels good and to feel like you have some control over your own destiny. To feel special. To feel validated. But she is a child. She doesn’t have the perspective or knowledge to make the right decision.

He could have declined. He breaks the law. He does a monstrous thing. Granted, he’s a miserable man and he’s hungry for that same kind of validation and to be looked at the way she looks at him. It reminds him of when he was a young man and felt sort of excited about life as opposed to now where he’s trapped in this very sterile existence. But, he’s an adult. He knows better.

When I read the book, Towelhead, by Alicia Erian, it all felt so real to me. It felt like everybody was a complete character and the book refuses to judge anybody and allowed the reader to come to their own conclusions.

It’s very clear that what happens is wrong, terrible.

I think people expect a child to shriek at the top of their lungs, “He or She’s hurting me!” And if they don’t, or if the child has flirted with the adult in some way like Jasira has, they receive all the blame.

Or, if they witness the child voluntarily spending time with someone, they assume the child is lying if somehow the abuse makes its way to the surface (which tends to not always happen). I suppose they can’t understand why the child didn’t appear frightened of him/her. You see, I think people envision a pedophile as being some wife-beater-wearing alcoholic stranger on the streets.

YES, and most of the time it’s the coach, neighbor, someone the child knows and trusts… a member of the family.

It’s not a black and white topic. That’s why it’s hard for people to validate it.

Maybe. It’s not the kind of movie I expect everyone to get. It’s obviously an uncomfortable movie to sit through. And if someone watches it and they aren’t uncomfortable, there’s probably something wrong with them. Know what I mean?

It was an uncomfortable book to read but I felt like the story was important. For me, to read a story about a young girl involved in an inappropriate sexual interaction with an older man…usually when that story is told, at the end of it, the girl is sort of branded “victim” for life.

And what I loved about Towelhead, and what I felt and recognized from my own traumatic experience that I went through as a kid is that it doesn’t have to turn you into a victim. You can come out of it stronger. You can come out of it with more knowledge. You don’t have to let the experience destroy you.

You experienced that?

I’m speaking mainly of when I was thirteen years old, my sister was killed in a car accident and that was a huge traumatic experience.

Oh, gosh, I’m sorry.

But yeah, there was inappropriate stuff with me as a kid. It’s a theme that resonates with me in my work because I have first-hand experience with tragedy.

I believe that if Jasira had parents who validated her and gave her a sense of purpose and power and who weren’t so wrapped up in their own lives…who didn’t make her feel ashamed of anything…her blooming sexuality. If they would have helped her understand what that means and the responsible ways to incorporate that in her life as an adult, then none of this would have happened. She would have realized, ‘Hey, this is weird. I shouldn’t go there.’ But, her parents failed her tremendously. That’s not to say they are responsible for what happened because the neighbor is responsible.

Basically, you chose this topic because it means something to you, and showed it in a way that is based on how it was through Jasira’s eyes. Not the way people envision it to be or how they believe she should react to it all. Is that right?

I would say actually, Alicia [novelist] did all that. She told the story in the way it needed to be told. I saw the movie as I read the book. The book made me laugh out loud but at the same time I was horrified by what was happening. As I got closer to the end, I felt like this is not going to be good, I’m going to be so upset because you really start caring for this girl.

But when it turned out the way it turned out and she wasn’t a victim for life and came out in a better place, it was such a profound experience of relief and redemption. And it felt organic, not like a manufactured, happy ending. And I felt, well, you know, this isn’t a big movie. Most of it happens in three locations. It’s all about the acting and the characters. There are no special effects, there are no crowd scenes. I think I can do this.

You showed young children and adolescents who have been victimized that they can go on and have a real shot at a future, regardless of how others may react to them. Maybe they won’t all see themselves as cursed or branded for life.

I think as a culture, we have this idea that we are supposed to be happy all the time and nothing bad is supposed to happen to us. When something bad does happen, it’s so devastating where as…

We become paralyzed?

Yeah, we get disempowered by it. You know you can go to Nietzsche who said, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” I look at all the things that happened to me in my life that I thought would kill me at the time and they’ve made me much stronger. They’ve also made me much deeper, much richer.

Again, Towelhead is a remarkably told film and will be in theatres this weekend.