P.O.V. No.25 - T-SHIRT

The depth and universal span of a short fiction film

Lisbeth Overgaard Nielsen

The humorous and well-acted short fiction film T-Shirt, by Hossein Martin Fazeli, is a fine example of the potential that the short fiction film holds. Despite its short format, it unfolds a story which achieves great depth and scope.

In the film we see an American man entering a small store in Slovakia. He is happy to find an American flag in the store and a shopkeeper who is not only a baseball fan but also wears an open shirt with a T-shirt underneath that reads "God Is." Their common interest brings about a mutual sympathy until the shopkeeper's shirt slides open and shows all the words on his T-shirt: "God Is… Dead. Nietzsche". This revelation brings the customer (who is from Houston, but was born in Slovakia) to accuse the shopkeeper of blasphemy. The accusation results in the following dialogue:

Don't get me wrong, but you can't stand under
the American flag with a shirt like that.

Why not?

Because most Americans believe in God and
the flag at the same time.

This is not America.

Look, I have nothing against your shirt… and I
wouldn't, if you were not standing under the flag.

Then maybe I should get rid of the flag?

Maybe you should do that, so people like me
wouldn't feel insulted when they come to your store.

Or maybe I should post a sign on the door that says:
"Intolerant People Do Not Enter!"
People who mix up flags with God and God
with their opinions are called fanatics. We had them in
Afghanistan. They were called the Taliban.

Are you saying I'm like the Taliban?

Yes…but you're not Afghan. You're American.

The dialog results in the customer pointing a gun at the shopkeeper, commanding him to take down the flag. When another customer enters the shop, the American, still pointing at the clerk with his gun, verbally points out that "this is not a robbery. We're just having a discussion." When the clerk gets the chance, he knocks down the American with a baseball bat. He then calls an ambulance and walks out, leaving the unconscious, bleeding man, who therefore never got to see the words on the back of the clerk's T-shirt: "No, Nietzsche Is Dead. God".

Political associations
The scene with the above-quoted dialogue carries many associations to political topics and current conflicts around the world (the conflict over the Danish Mohammed cartoons, the conflict in the Balkans, international terrorism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). However, whether this is a political film nor not depends on the eye of the beholder. There are no specific statements or actions which can be directly applied to political conflicts; therefore, the film can be characterized as an open work in the sense used by Umberto Eco.[1] However, the film actually directs its viewer down certain paths while dealing with topics like faith, God, the question of intolerance, national allegiance and misunderstandings. These topics are part of, or central to, many current and ongoing conflicts between fellow citizens or across national boundaries. The crisis in the film isn't based on a specific existing conflict, and it arises between two men who seemingly have a lot in common. They are from Slovakia (the customer has moved to Houston, Texas) and both obviously like America, so their conflict isn't sparked due to differing opinions on citizenship, but to basic differences in their way of dealing with life. These different outlooks on life, combined with misunderstandings and intolerance, are universally known seeds of conflict existing at many different levels, whether local conflicts arising from two men meeting in a store, or national or international conflicts, kept alive by political, historical/national and/or economic interests.

The presentation of the meeting and the conflict between two opposing outlooks on life is thus not nationally rooted - it is universal. People meet, do not understand each other, will not understand each other, misunderstand each other, and a conflict arises. It happens all over the world, at all times, and in many forms. And when the gospel singer who accompanies the film asks, "Will peace ever be possible in this world?", the rather pessimistic answer from the film must be "probably not". At least as long as humans think they know all there is to know - and they think they have seen all there is to see.

It would, however, be reductive to confine the film to being a political film. In Richard Raskin's interview with Hossein Martin Fazeli in this issue of POV , the director says that he thinks there is a political layer in the film, but it's a secondary layer. He points out that first and foremost it's a humoristic film about the absurdity of human conflict. The humoristic tone is primarily a result of precisely those absurd situations which are both recognisable from everyday life and extremely grotesque, because the dialogue is allowed a kind of "Erasmus Montanus logic,"[2] which interrupts the dialogue, time after time. The dialogue follows an illogical structure which changes the threatening situation to a humoristic story - in spite of the violent moments. Had the film told its story without humour, the result would have been a dark and frightening film with a pessimistic outlook. With humour as the foundation for the story and dialog, the film achieves a humane look at the tragic situation. The seriousness of the film is still present, but by means of humour the situation is made comical and the film points out the, at times, absurd aspects of human behaviour. The humour loosens the grip of politics on the film and lets it deal with something more generally human.

Compact Stories
The concentrated form of the short fiction film creates a different type of narrative than the one known from feature films. In the short fiction film there is no time for narrative detours or idle stories. It is this economical storytelling Richard Raskin describes in one of his seven parameters for story design in the short fiction film. But even though "the ideal short fiction film is ruthlessly economical in its storytelling […] at the same time, the film is experienced by the viewer as a complete and entire whole, teeming with life and richly textured". It can be compared to poetry and its ability to create stories with great volume in a concentrated expression. In this way the short form is an artistic means and a potential rather than a limitation. In T-Shirt, the economical filmic articulation and aesthetics do not offer the viewer a poetic, free response; rather the humour and the absurdity of the film open its world and let the viewer reflect the film's political overtones as well as the universal span of human experience.

1 Due to such different effects as non-transparent narration, suppressed information or the poetic visuality of the pictures, a work can appear open. This openness gives the viewer 'exceptional freedom' for individual readings, which is why particular understandings and perceptions of an open work can be very different. Cf. Eco (1989).

2 What I call "Erasmus Montanus logic" is a logic used in Ludvig Holberg's play Erasmus Montanus (1723). This logic is not logic at all, but concludes in a satirical manner without any connections between argumentation and logic. Raskin (2002), p. 170.


Eco, Umberto: The Open Work (1989), Harvard University Press, Massachusetts.

Raskin, Richard: The Art of the Short Fiction Film (2002), McFarland, North Carolina.

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