American Prejudice: Arab Films Try to Breakthrough Bias
by Anthony Kaufman
"It's a challenging time," admits John Sinno, head of Arab Film Distribution. "In September, somebody threw stones and smashed our windows. The director of 'Gaza Strip' received a death threat on Amazon.com." For fear of future reprisals, Sinno took the company's address off their website. "I thought about changing the name of the company," he continues. "It has been demoralizing."
November, ironically, is Arab Heritage Month in parts of Illinois, but with the re-election of George W. Bush this month, there's little to celebrate for the roughly 3 million Arab American in the U.S. As Chicago-based columnist and Arab American comedian Ray Hanania jokes, "the airports are offering two-for one cavity searches during the month of November as a part of the celebration. The U.S. Postal Service is providing Commemorative Most Wanted Poster Frames to go around your pictures... And the FBI is offering a no fee squeal telephone number for those who wish to turn in one of their relatives."
While Hanania is being facetious (partly), there is little doubt that the media and politics of the United States continues to perpetuate negative stereotypes about the vastly disparate Arab world (comprised of 22 different countries and cultures) and to demonize the religion of Islam.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Nicholas Dembowski's "TV's Promised Land," one of many works available for purchase through Sinno's company (arabfilm.com), a scathing found-footage indictment of America's portrayal of the Arab world. The video played at San Francisco's Arab Film Festival in September and shows again later this month at the Gene Siskel Film Center's "Visions from the Arab World" series (running now through Dec. 2 in Chicago).
Splicing together 75-minutes of hate, misinformation and propaganda, Dembowski's video skips from "Indiana Jones" and "Dances with Wolves" to Fox News and CSPAN to produce an illuminating and darkly comic collage that reflects America's ignorance and prejudice.
Most compelling and extensive is the film's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: while Fox News reports "Israelis don't kill people" and Bill O'Reilly equates the Koran with Mein Kampf, the BBC shows clips of children killed by Israeli rocket attacks and a harrowing video of Israeli soldiers ceaselessly beating young unarmed Palestinians with a brutality more sadistic than the Rodney King video. Implicit is the question: why aren't these images on U.S. news networks and could they actually sway public opinion? The bias is startling.
"TV's Promised Land" also goes after politicians, targeting Bush's "evildoers" comments, and Oklahoma Senator James M. Inhofe, up for re-election in 2008, emerging as the most mind-numbingly naive when he says Israel has a right to the land "because God said so."
Iraqi-American filmmaker Usama Alshaibi also makes some striking juxtapositions with his work "Bombshell: Iraqi Secret Videos and Artifacts from a Fallen Regime," which split-screens a smiling Saddam Hussein birthday party and underground torture videos as well as images of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Hussein in 1983. "'Bombshell' is saying many things at once," explains Alshaibi, who lived in Iraq as a child and just recently visited his homeland. "I'm just showing the history of Iraq: the U.S. intervention, but also keep in mind that Saddam was the United States' main guy, we helped him produce chemical weapons, so it's the schizophrenia of war and Iraq as a symbol of many things."
Alshaibi, who just received his U.S. citizenship in May 2003 and lives in Chicago, now feels more confident about using his art to engage with current politics. Before he became an American, he says, "I thought if I said the wrong thing, they were going to put me in an orange suit and ship me away."
He is currently working on "Nice Bombs," a feature documentary about his return to Iraq as an adult, which screens as a 12-minute work-in-progress in Chicago. "I have to admit that when the U.S. was about to overthrow Sadaam, I was ecstatic," he says. "But that honeymoon is quickly fading. As Iraqis will say, 'The only good thing that the United States has done was getting rid of Saddam. Everything else they've completely messed up.'"
Alshaibi's sentiment is vividly echoed in "About Baghdad," another Iraqi documentary making the rounds at Arab film festivals. Created by InCounter Productions, a filmmaking collective, this portrait of Iraq in July 2003, three months after the fall of Hussein's regime, shows a people liberated from a tyrannical dictator but devastated by war and chaos. Sandwiched in between flaming oil fields set afire by Hussein's army and bombs falling from U.S. airplanes, one Iraqi woman recalls the horrible double bind for the country's population. Another man on the street confirms, "The student has left, the master has come, and the people are the victim."
While it's easy to get caught up in the Iraq quagmire, film programs around the U.S. have the important purpose of showing Arab peoples neither as fundamentalist freedom fighters nor as victims of Israeli and American military actions, but as regular folk struggling within families or falling in love.
"We've invaded the Middle East, so it ought to be on the radar of most Americans and it's great if people can see documentaries that have a more overtly informative aspect," says Barbara Scharres, director of the Gene Siskel Film Center. "But for a lot of people it might be important to see a dramatic feature fiction film and in a painless and entertaining way, their eyes are opened to another culture. And that's how understanding is created."
Shown at prestigious festivals, Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah's epic, "The Gate of the Sun" follows stories of romantic entanglement against the backdrop of the Palestinian's losing fight to retain their homeland, while Danielle Arbid's "In the Battlefields," a dysfunctional family drama set in war-torn Beirut is more focused on the turmoil inside the home than outside. And in Cannes Critics Week FIPRESCI winner "Atash" (Thirst), 28-year-old Palestinian filmmaker Tawfik Abu Wael tells the story of an impoverished family struggling to eek out a living.
The Chicago Film Center spotlights a trend in Middle Eastern features from and about women directors, including Yamina Benguigi's 2001 film "Inch'Allah Dimanche," about an Algerian wife and mother who moves to Paris, Tunisian director Raja Amari's 2002 bellydancing Zeitgeist release "Satin Rouge," and "Viva Algeria," a spirited melodrama from "the Algerian Almodovar" Nadir Mokneche.
Currently in the West Bank, filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, who made the prize-winning short "Like Twenty Impossibles" is among this new female movement, developing her feature debut "Salt of this Sea," the story of a rebellious young couple trying to live their lives on their own terms. "I don't feel my work is any more relevant now," she says. "I think things have always been difficult for Arabs in America, at least as far as I can remember."
While few of the above films have made a dent in the U.S. marketplace ("Satin Rouge" made approximately $230,000), there is a groundswell of grassroots cultural activity among Arab Americans in the U.S., according to Livia Alexander, executive director of Arte East, a co-sponsor of Chicago's Arab World program and the host of a bi-weekly screening in Manhattan of Middle Eastern films. (This Saturday, Arte East -- arteeast.org -- screens Iranian filmmaker Parviz Shahbazi's "Deep Breath," Iran's submission for Oscar consideration last year, about alienated teenagers in Tehran.)
"The current political climate definitely calls for an organization like Arte East," says Alexander. "But it's coming at a particular moment of a boom -- you see a lot of cultural institutions coming out now. Just in the last few months, I can think of two or three more magazines on Arab culture or Iranian culture that are really good. I don't know if it's because of this political climate, but there's definitely this bubbling up in the Arab and Muslim communities in this country."
Whether this renaissance reaches distributors and exhibitors of art-house fare in the U.S. may be a different matter, however. Last year, I reported on Sinno's hopes for the theatrical release of filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad's "Rana's Wedding." The film fared poorly at the box office (around $45,000) and the exhibitor that booked the film, Madstone, went out of business, taking any profits along with them. While the movie is fairing better on home video, Sinno has high hopes for two new theatrical releases coming out this January, "The Letter," about Somali refugees relocated to Maine, and "Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land," which further looks at American media distortion of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
"It's unfortunate what's happening in this country," says Sinno. "But I'm not worried."