Bid to unravel ‘bad Arab’ cliche

Hollywood stereotypes tend to portray Middle Eastern characters in negative light.


Bashar Da’as plays himself in Driving to Zigzagland

The 3rd Dubai International Film Festival took a giant leap towards combating racial stereotyping in the film industry when it hosted ‘Operation Cultural Bridge’, a panel discussion late last week.


Moderator Riz Khan [Al Jazeera English] opened the debate with a question to director Oliver Stone whether Middle Eastern characters have been unfairly characterised by the film industry.


Khan was referencing a documentary film in the festival called Reel Bad Arabs which chronicled 40 years of Arab demonisation on screen.


But Stone was unconvinced.


“I think that you can say the same thing for the Chinese or the Jewish or the blacks. I think that any minority can feel threatened by Hollywood. Hollywood has become a synonym for the monster and I think that’s unfair,” he said.


“If you focus on any one thing you can find what you want.”


Aladdin and the ear


Stone also recalled seeing images of Arab characters in cartoons which he thought were positive, something Jack Shaheen, the narrator of Reel Bad Arabs, and writer of the book by the same name, specifically counters.


The 1992 Disney cartoon Aladdin “recycled every old Hollywood stereotype of bad Arabs”, Shaheen said, citing the film’s line “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”


Jack Shaheen has probed the
representation of Arabs in cinema

Shaheen’s documentary alluded to dozens of films, the worst of them being Delta Force [1986], where an American aircraft is hijacked by Palestinian terrorists who indiscriminately kill passengers; True Lies [1994], the Schwarzenegger action film where Middle Eastern terrorists steal nuclear weapons, and Rules of Engagement [2000], starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel Jackson, where Yemeni civilians, including women and children, conspire to fight against US Marines.


“What’s the outcome?” asks Shaheen. “What do Arabs think of us [Americans] that see these movies showing us killing them? Does this bring us closer together or does it separate us?”


Naïve Hollywood


Actor Richard Gere countered that Hollywood studios are actually less crafty than most of the public gives them credit for. “I just don’t think that there’s a cabal. I think it’s much more naïve than that. I think that filmmaking in America is incredibly naïve,” he said.


“The storytelling, almost by its nature is very cynical. So essentially the villain of the piece is whoever the villain on the planet is at that moment. Obviously the Russians were at one point, the Japanese were at another, the Germans were at another point.”


But Arab actors trying to make it in Hollywood complain that it is a constant challenge not to get typecast in the role of a terrorist or ruffian.


Bashar Da’as, a Palestinian actor looking for work in Los Angeles, says he has been offered many roles to play a terrorist by big production houses but virtually nothing else.


“The only roles open to Arabs are the terrorist parts and if it’s not a terrorist then it’s a role that de-humanises Arabs and Muslims and that’s even worse,” he said.

Da’as plays himself in Driving to Zigzagland, a film showing at the festival about a Palestinian cab driver in Los Angeles struggling to find acting work.


Driving to Zigzagland tells the story of a
Palestinian actor looking for work

Harming Arab students


“In other auditions, they wanted me to do something that I knew in my heart would harm people,” Da’as explained. “CSI Miami actually liked me. They said the character fit me precisely. But he conspires with the Nazi groups, which is nonsense. I mean a Muslim extremist working with a Nazi group to kidnap a school? And my role in the show was to put a gun to a little boy. You can imagine how harmful that image would be to Arab students who go study in the US.”


Da’as rejected the offer, along with all other terrorist roles that came his way. “I tried to give them a history lesson, but the people in the business, they don’t really care,” he said.


Stone elaborated on the challenges he faces moving away from Hollywood cliché. “If we want to make a film about China or Turkey or wherever, we have to have a Western protagonist to kick it off. The same thing is true everywhere else. These are barriers that are going up around the world, partly through ignorance,” he said.


“Richard [Gere] and I have faced this problem for years. You cannot make a movie about any subject without a Western protagonist. It is a major problem. But it’s not just in America, it’s everywhere.”

Source: Al Jazeera