By Ouidyane Elouardaoui
By Ouidyane Elouardaoui
Morocco World News
Santa Barbara, April 3, 2012
Jack G. Shaheen, in his two latest books Reel Bad Arabs and Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11, extensively discusses the inhuman depiction of Arabs on Hollywood screen. He points out that a large number of Hollywood films has perpetuated a demeaning image of Arabs and contributed in generating several cultural misconceptions about them. Similarly, in his analysis of three particular Hollywood films produced in the seventies (The Exorcist, Rollover, and Black Sunday), Tim Semmerling contends that the misrepresentation of Arabs in these films served to stabilize Americans’ feelings of superiority and control that started to shake after the oil crisis in the seventies.
Prior to Shaheen’s and Semmerling’s works, Edward Said, in his milestone books, Orientalism and Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, examined the essentialist approach that Western media have invariably adopted vis-à-vis the social, political and economic realms of the Arab world. Said believes that the idea about the Orient as the exotic and inferior Other can be easily discerned in early western visual and written cultural productions. He also points out that the focus on presenting certain types of cultural “realities” instead of offering a holistic and a deeper approach is ideologically-motivated.
However, there has been a growing number of Hollywood films that challenge this dominant line of (mis)representation. This category of Hollywood films that attempts to present an image more reflective of the real Arabs has noticeably started after the events of 9-11. This divergence is embodied in the way more complex approaches emphasize the humanity of Arabs in contrast to stereotypes denying their equivalence in earlier Hollywood films.
This category of films breaks free from a historically ingrained negative portrayal of Arabs. This realistic portrayal is made possible through the focus on ordinary likeable Arab characters and the way their commonplace worries and hopes have been emphasized. I believe that Babel (dir. González Iñárritu, 2006), The Kingdom (dir. Peter Berg, 2007) and Rendition (dir. Gavin Hood, 2007) are among the post-9/11 Hollywood films that foster such approach.
The film Babel is set in four different locales and its events evolve through the crosscutting between four stories that hardly appear to be connected. The four stories are linked through the presence of a rifle. A Japanese hunter, during his visit to Morocco, offers his rifle to his Moroccan friend who subsequently sells it to another Moroccan whose son uses it and accidentally shoots an American tourist on a bus. Drawing on Be?la Balázs’ analysis of the importance of aesthetics, the way framing is used in Babel, particularly close-ups, helps to underscore the characters’ shared feelings of confusion, anguish and hope for redemption.
particular use of close-ups, which serves to unify the characters’ different narratives, is prominent in the way the characters’ disturbing emotions are being highlighted, allowing the viewers to identify with the turmoil of each one despite their belonging to different cultural backgrounds.
Babel’s attempt to present a brighter image of Arabs is evident in Richard’s relationship with Anwar, the Moroccan guide. Anwar’s positive personal characteristics have been underscored in various instances. Anwar helps to save Susan’s life by ordering the tourist bus driver to stop, fetching for a local doctor and volunteering to stay with the couple till the helicopter’s arrival.
The last scene where Richard hands Anwar a pile of money before heading to the helicopter best illustrates Anwar’s benevolent nature. Anwar refuses Richard’s money with a sweet smile, which suggests that the two men’s relationship was not merely business-oriented. More to the point, the use of relaxing harp music in that scene along with the absence of dialogue draws attention to the facial expressions of the two male characters in which Anwar’s natural kindness becomes so palpable as well as Richard’s silent gratitude.
As to The Kingdom, the first sequence presents sweeping violent scenes of Americans being brutally killed by the attacks of a number of Saudi extremists. More important is the crosscutting between an American officer (Fury) narrating stories to his son along with other kids and a Saudi father forcing his child to witness the terrorist attacks from a faraway window.
This segment obviously perpetuates the stereotypes about Arabs nurturing their children the seeds of hatred towards Americans. In fact, Shaheen categorizes The Kingdom in the Hollywood films that promote racist stereotyping. He states that, “Hollywood’s most violent movie since 9/11 is The Kingdom (2007). In this Rambo-in-Arabia shoot-’em-up, viewers applaud the heroics of four FBI agents who fly off to Saudi Arabia and kill Arabs.” (Shaheen, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11, 26)
However, as the film progresses, these stereotypes gradually fade away, allowing for the emergence of a complex treatment of the way Arab characters interact with the FBI agents. For instance, when the Saudi officer, Faris, tells Fury in a concerned way, referring to the American victims, that he “only cares about that 100 people who woke up a few mornings ago, had no idea it was their last,” Fury’s firm facial expressions relax all of the sudden as he asks Faris in a friendly manner “so is your first name Colonel?” In fact, this is the only scene where Fury and Faris are seen together without the rest of the American team. They also start holding a personal conversation as Faris tells Fury about his two daughters and his “beautiful” son. This particular conversation not only indicates the possibility of a friendship taking place between the two officers but it foreshadows the coming dramatic events.
The humanity of the Arab officers including Faris is more emphasized in silent scenes where they are depicted interacting with their family members. For instance, Faris is seen in his Arab pajamas relaxing and playing with his children. Though this scene has a simple visual content that draws attention to the commonality of the life experiences of Arabs, such approach is absent in a large number of Hollywood films. Thus, this scene that offers viewers access to parts of Faris’s personal life serves to stress Faris’s humane characteristics, such as his fatherly love, allowing the viewers to identify with him. Similarly, the compassionate personal traits of Faris’s friend, Haytham, are being highlighted when he is seen taking care of his crippled father.
The importance of these silent scenes that are loaded with central dramatic implications has been pointed out by Balázs. He contends, “but when an actor has no lines to speak, his entire body becomes a homogenous expressive space and every crease of his clothes takes on the same significance as a wrinkle in his face.” (Bala?zs and Carter Early Film Theory: Visible Man and The Spirit of Film, 28-29) This applies to these scenes, given that they draw attention to the relaxed bodily gestures and the serene facial expressions of the Arab characters in their private spheres.
In addition, Faris is a good-looking and elegant young man, which obviously impacts the viewers’ judgment about his moral stances. This detail has been emphasized by Balázs in his study of the role physiognomy and type casting play in suggesting the personal traits of characters. He notes: “in film what determines character from the very first moment on is his or her appearance.
The director’s task is not to find a ‘performer’, but the character itself, and it is the director who creates the film’s figures through his selection.” (Bala?zs 27) Balázs holds the same opinion about the role of costumes. He describes its function as “discreet, but it still defines character right from the outset.” (Bala?zs 28) Faris’s looks and neat clothing in addition to his calculated and yet benevolent acts set him as one of the most important main characters, and thus helps to create a sort of empathy between him and the viewers.
Regarding Rendition, it first begins with violin music that has an orientalist spin. After the short scene of Anwar informing his wife Isabella that he is heading back home to Chicago, the orientalist nature of the music becomes more prominent with the playing of drums and tambourine. However, Anwar gets detained and interrogated about a violent attack that took place in an unknown North African Arab country. Fawal, a high-ranked Arab inspector subsequently takes charge of interrogating the guiltless Anwar. Interestingly enough, despite Fawal being a cruel inspector, there are a number of scenes that point to his extremely humane personal characteristics.
For instance, one of the scenes presents him lying down on his bed with his little daughter in his arms as he playfully cuddles her. This particular scene serves to restrain the viewers from forming a hastily negative judgment about Fawal, as it offers a nuanced picture of his personal characteristics. Besides, even after his second daughter’s elopement, Fawal tries to contact her and expresses his willingness to forgive her if she decides to return home.
Fawal’s stand here helps to break the old stereotypes about Arab men being revengeful if their daughters defy their authority. Upon knowing about his daughter’s death during the suicide attacks when she was trying to persuade her lover, Khalid, against his devastating plan, Fawal is so emotionally moved that he bursts into tears. His facial expressions correspond to those of Khalid’s grandmother whose wrinkled face expresses her deep pain and agony after she has lost two of her grandsons (one of them is Khalid) the same way.
Unlike old Hollywood films that confine Arab characters to particular stereotypical molds, Arabs in these three films are round characters who change opinion and experience a wide range of feelings that affect their decisions and acts. These different feelings are being highlighted through the frequent use of close-ups that serve to bridge the Arab characters’ reactions to spectators. The use of silence in these films also helps to direct the viewers’ attention to the characters’ affective experiences. Moreover, Arab characters are central to the narratives in Babel, The Kingdom and Rendition and are not used to generate humor or elicit fear.
This can be discerned from the way screen time is structured as there is an equal focus on both Arab and American characters. Also, given that Arab characters play major roles in these films, their physique helps situate them within the narrative. Balázs discusses the significance of beauty in a medium that heavily relies on the element of visual attraction. He observes, “where nothing but the eye is the judge, the beautiful stands witness. The hero is outwardly beautiful because he is inwardly beautiful as well.” (Bala?zs and Carter 30) Balázs explains that the physical aspects of characters influence the way viewers perceive them in terms of ethical stands. This applies to Faris in The Kingdom and Anwar in Rendition, given that they are both physically attractive and morally correct, elements that are very difficult to find in pre-9/11 American films.
It is undeniable that the depiction of Arabs in this specific category of post-9/11 Hollywood films is, to an important degree, devoid of classical stereotypes and heralds a new approach regarding the way Arabs need to be addressed on screen. However, the public sphere in the United States has experienced a deterioration in terms of tolerance vis-à-vis Arabs, Muslims and generally anyone who could be identified as Middle-Eastern. Shaheen states that “In 2006, hate crimes against Muslims in the US increased 22 percent, according to the FBI.” (Shaheen, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11, 16) Correspondingly, Jen’nan Ghazal Read states that during the aftermath-9/11, the American public opinion shared a misconceived generalization about the Arab ethnicity. She notes that the cultural and religious heterogeneity of the seventeen Arab countries have been usually overlooked.
Instead, Americans would identify Arabs on the ground of their physical features which are not obviously static. In the same vein, Mohamed Nimer states that Hollywood’s demeaning images of Arabs have had damaging effects on the lives of Arabs and Muslims in America’s public sphere, in terms of the increase of violence and hate crimes. He reveals that the Arab population has engaged in a number of initiatives to face up to the profusion of the American media’s stereotyping of Arabs. For instance, he points out the importance of the interfaith activities led by the Public Affairs Council situated in Southern California in order to help shatter the old stereotypes about the Arab-Islamic culture.
The stereotypical image of the Arab character in American cinema has induced critical and rich scholarship, which proves that the prejudiced portrayal of the Arab ethnicity and the Islamic religion are no longer seen as unproblematic as they used to be. This is strongly related to the role the 9/11 violent attacks have played in inciting professionals from both the academia and the media industry in the United Sates to approach the Arab-Islamic culture with inquisitive and unbiased mind, aiming at a better understanding of its main tenants and principles. This might be in part the reason behind the shift that has taken place in regards to the representation of Arabs in several post-9/11 Hollywood films.
In addition, the way Arab viewers reacted to the general stereotype-free representation of Arabs (they stood up and gratefully clapped when they saw Salah al–Din picking up the cross) in The Kingdom of Heaven during its screening in Lebanon proves that the Arab audience, particularly the youth, are not heedless of the way Hollywood treats their collective cultural heritage. However, even this category of films also occasionally falls in the trap of reinforcing some misconceptions. For example, the first sequence of The Kingdom presents a controversially disturbing portrayal of Saudis, who are pictured as hatred-feeders. Thus, this forthcoming shift in Hollywood industry, embodied in recently-produced films that are generally devoid of the classical debasing images of Arabs, needs to be further promoted for the benefit of both cultural spheres.
Ouidyane Elouardaoui is a Fulbright PhD candidate in the Film and Media Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She received her Master’s in English Language and Culture with focus on media and film in Morocco in 2008. Her current research interests include contemporary Arab media, melodrama, and spectatorship, as well as television, globalization, and modernity. Her publications include “Mexican Telenovelas in Morocco: The Localization Process and its Limitations” and “Arabs in Post 9/11 Hollywood Films: A Move toward a more Realistic Depiction?” which appeared in the International Journal of Amity School of Communication and Purdue University e–Pubs. Many of her essays have also appeared in the late Casa-Analyst newspaper.