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23 April 2024

Stories of war with two sides

By Bindu Rai


Over the next few weeks, UAE cinemas will witness a blitzkrieg of war movies. In The Valley of Elah, Redacted and The Battle for Haditha have a lot more in common than just the war on terror – they go a step further and humanise the plight of Iraqis, who have suffered the most over the past four years.


It seems Hollywood has finally discovered there are other stories to be told and, in the process, is looking at war from a new viewpoint. But this U-turn goes beyond these three films. The past six months have been all about Hollywood waking up to the Middle East, as anti-war opposition grips the United States in the run up to this year’s presidential elections. While many critics dissect the political motivation behind this trend, it doesn’t change the fact that the general stereotype of the reel-bad Arabs in Hollywood cinema is finally witnessing a change.


Nick Broomfield, director of The Battle for Haditha, which opened to enthusiastic audiences during December’s Dubai International Film Festival and is scheduled for a general release later this year, says the Arab stereotype in Hollywood is finally changing as more and more people tune into the realities of the Middle East.


He says: “The thinking audience in the US has matured over the years, thanks to their exposure to satellite television and international news channels, but there is still a lot of prejudice that needs to be dealt with.”


Broomfield’s film is based on the real-life incident at Haditha in Iraq, where a group of US marines gunned down 24 Iraqis one bloody afternoon, allegedly in retribution for an attack on their convoy that killed a corporal. Among the dead Iraqis, 15 were unarmed civilians, including women and children – some as young as three. While The Battle for Haditha has yet to obtain a commercial release internationally, other critically acclaimed films such as Redacted and Rendition have already made it to the big screens, albeit largely on the festival circuit.


Produced by Universal Studios in 2007, The Kingdom is probably the most commercial film to date that humanises the Middle East and its people. Even though it did not strike box-office gold in the US, it managed to make a visible crack in the on-screen Arab stereotype of gun-toting terrorists that Hollywood has been marketing until now.


Director Peter Berg says: “I pitched the idea of a moderate Saudi police officer, an Arab who is motivated to battle extremism.” The film was partially filmed in the UAE and starred Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx as an FBI special agent and Ashraf Barhoum as the Saudi officer, both investigating the 1996 Khobar Tower bombing in Riyadh. Berg says he wanted to take the international audience into the culture in a way you can’t find in news coverage. “You see the problem from all three sides: Saudis, Americans and the terrorists,” says Berg.


It is an approach that Broomfield also takes with Haditha. “You see a clear demarcation between the point of view of the US soldiers, the Iraqi insurgents and the innocent Iraqi civilians, who are caught between these two groups,” he says.


But even though the tide is turning in Hollywood, can this momentum be sustained over the next few years, especially with the disappointing returns at the box-office of such films indicating a case of war fatigue in the US? The Kingdom, shot for $70 million (Dh256.9m), for instance, managed only a tiny profit at $86m worldwide, while the $10m Rendition managed $21m around the world, according to boxofficemojo.com. In Hollywood terms, $10m is little more than chump change. Both films made around 50 per cent of their takings outside the US, a significant departure from the norm.


Looking ahead, Broomfield says: “The mass American audience is very resistant to the real story of the Middle East. Yes, they all spoke up during the Vietnam War, but that was when the country was drafting soldiers and the ones most affected were middle-class college students. Now, it’s the poor and the minority groups who are heading to war, and the majority of the people don’t really care, in real life or in reel life.”


He says most Americans are happy with the Arab stereotype presented to them on-screen – a terrorist with a black scarf covering his face, bloodshot eyes staring back and a loaded machine gun as a side prop. “The problem is most major Hollywood films dealing with the Iraq war have failed to portray Iraqis in a positive light,” he adds.


Arab-American actor Tony Shalhoub says the responsibility falls on the actor who agrees to sign up for such roles, adding: “There is a drought of Arab-American films and stories being told. There are limited roles for Arab actors in Hollywood, but we need to get some of these stories told.”


Shalhoub stars in the film AmericanEast, which tells the story of an Arab-American café owner (Sayed Badreya), who aims to open a restaurant with his friend (Shalhoub). While the film itself is not based on the war in Iraq, the Middle East serves as a pivotal backdrop that affects the lives of Arab-Americans living in the US and has been a conscious effort on the part of the filmmakers to promote Arab cultural understanding in the US in the wake of the Iraq war.

Shalhoub says: “We have to make a long-term play. We’re not going to get results overnight, or change people’s perceptions next week, but over a bit of time, perceptions are going to change. We have to show the faith we have in ourselves, in our abilities and what we have to contribute. People aren’t going to come knocking at your door. You have to scream it from the rooftops.”


Dr Jack Shaheen, author of the award-winning books Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture, Nuclear War Films, and The TV Arab, says: “The problem is we hate what we don’t know, but once we know an individual or group or religion we feared, our prejudices evaporate.


“Although much of the stereotyping emerges from mainstream Hollywood cinema, it is crucial that the larger Arab world stays aware of it and works to counter it,” says Shaheen.



Most memorable on-screen Arabs: The Good, The Bad and the ugly


1. True Lies Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as an undercover US spy in this 1994 hit, chasing an Arab terrorist group that calls itself ‘Crimson Jihad’. If the cheesy name isn’t enough, the bad guys threaten to nuke the US in the name of religion. Now we’ve heard it all.

2. The Siege This 1998 film  starred Bruce Willis and Tony Shalhoub in the roles of a racist general and an Arab-American FBI agent respectively. It made an appalling attempt to justify imprisoning all the Arabs in New York City as a safety precaution against terrorism.

3. Rules of Engagement If there was ever a film that was blatantly anti-Arab, then it’s this 2000 film. Every Arab man, woman and child is called a terrorist, making one wonder what A-list celebrities Samuel L Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones were thinking when signing on.

4. The Kingdom of Heaven  Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic came as a breath of fresh air for Arabs. Set during the crusades of the 12th century, it focuses on the heroic escapades of the legendary Salaheddin, who unified much of the Islamic world and conquered Jerusalem in 1187.

5. The Kingdom While this 2007 film didn’t work wonders at the box-office, it did show a human side to the Arab-US conflict, with actor Ashraf Barhoum starring as a Saudi police officer who combats terrorism and insurgency waged by some factions in the region.