In Jawed Wassel's Fire Dancer, Baktash Zaher-Kadem plays an Afghan immigrant who's been living with relatives in New York City since his parents sent him out of the country one step ahead of the Soviets in 1979. He's a sculptor now, making art out of his homeland's troubles, and his life changes when he meets Yasmine Weiss, the progressive daughter of another, more conservative Afghan-American family. Zaher is impressed by Weiss, but she's been promised to Abdullah Jewayni, a thug whose idea of pitching woo entails comparing his love to a bombing campaign.
Metaphors abound in Fire Dancer, beginning with the main character's situation, which recalls the Superman myththe last hope of a civilization starting anew in a new world. The difference is that Wassel's Superman lands in a city full of Kryptonians, all filling the hero's ear with ideas about how he's supposed to live. Meanwhile, Weiss picks apart 1001 Arabian Nights, looking for evidence of how her female ancestors resisted systematic genocide, and her family watches its way of life disappear under Western influence.
An associate murdered writer-director-producer Wassel shortly after the completion of this film debut, and though Fire Dancer displays a lot of novice clumsiness, it also shows signs of a talent wasted. The amateur cast often lets awkward pauses hang between lines of dialogue, and Wassel fails to keep a consistent tone. One minute, his jarring music and camera moves make the movie play like a thriller, and the next, he's stretching realism for the sake of a cheap laughas when he shows an Afghan mother tricking her Westernized son into eating a sheep-brain sandwich by sticking it in a fast-food wrapper.
But for the most part, Fire Dancer presents an energetic mosaic of a displaced culture. The romantic melodrama and its intimations of violence frequently fall away so that Wassel can have his characters debate the paternalism of Afghan men who "jump from 'hello' to marriage" and see the subjugation of women as an unfortunate but necessary responsibility. At its best, the movie offers a tour of a cross-cultural shadowland, as Zaher seeks to quell his anxieties by finding out more about his people. His quest culminates in hypnotic dancing and deadly riddles.