Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Quotable: “S. M.” on American films that “vilify” the Middle East

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Tuesday, May 3rd 2016
“Hollywood’s relationship with the Middle East still relies on stock scenes and clichés. Films often proselytise American militarism while vilifying the largely Muslim region.”  This opened a commentary by “S.M.” in the “Prospero” blog on The Economist website on April 26, 2016 – A war of narratives: To combat Islamic State propaganda, Hollywood needs broader perspectives .” 

The essay is another commentary in the long debate over how American popular culture – in this case, films – communicate images and views that can affect foreign policy.  Here are some of of the article's comments on films such as American Sniper, Rules of Engagement, Zero Dark Thirty, Syriana, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, The Kite Runner, Airlift, and others.

  • Can Hollywood get out of this rut, and better yet contribute to the battle of ideas between Western democracies and radical Islam?

  • John Kerry, the American secretary of state, announced a re-energised working relationship between the government and Hollywood in February, tweeting “Great convo w studio execs in LA. Good to hear their perspectives & ideas of how to counter #Daesh narrative”, using an alternate name for Islamic State (IS).

  • America’s failure to match IS’s finely tuned propaganda machine has clearly been haunting Mr Kerry; a memo published last year by the New York Times showed under-secretary of state Richard Stengel urging Mr Kerry “to think more globally about [their] counter-ISIL messaging”.

  • Mr Stengel suggested that America is under-resourced in an area that could make all the difference: having multilingual, multicultural people with insider understanding of the Middle East.

  • Can he find that insider knowledge in Hollywood? It's unlikely that the 14 studio executives he went to for “perspectives and ideas”, 12 of them middle-aged, white American men—have the perspective needed.

  • Hollywood faces no small challenge if it is to take up a de-radicalising, counter-IS narrative that is inclusive towards ordinary Muslims and the civilian Middle East.

  • Few of their films have laid the right groundwork. Even before the war in Iraq, American films about the Middle East had uncompromising messages. “Rules of Engagement” (2000), in which a Marine is absolved despite killing hundreds of Yemeni civilians against orders, drew criticism from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

  • Then came the post-9/11 “militainment” Hollywood blockbusters, making it even more difficult for the industry to speak to the Middle East from a place of “good influence”.

  • Some of these films have implied that all Muslims are suspected terrorists: Clint Eastwood’s biopic of Chris Kyle, “American Sniper” (2014), sees the shooting of a woman and child—all Iraqis are suspect by default. It was criticised by Muslim Americans and some veterans alike: Brock McIntosh, an Iraq veteran, called it the result of “a culture industry that recycles propagandistic fiction under the guise of a ‘true story’”, while for Adrian Bonenberger, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, it avoided the political grey areas of the Iraq war altogether.

  • Controversial in other ways was Katheryn Bigelow’s action-thriller about the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” (2013).

  • If the industry is to create narratives to combat those of IS, it needs to make films about three-dimensional Muslims, and look to the broader Middle East, too.

  • Some films have approached this balance, though blockbusters they may not be: “Syriana” (2000) and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2012) were both political thrillers partially told from Arab and Pakistani viewpoints.

  • Qasim Basir’s “Mooz-Lum” (2010), too, gave viewers a Muslim-American coming-of-age story set around the attacks on 9/11.

  • It pays off when screenwriters look beyond the typical Hollywood writing-room, as well: “The Kite Runner” (2007) successfully adapted a tender novel by Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini, and Roger Allers turned Khalil Gibran’s multi-faith prose poems, “The Prophet”, into an 2014 animation.

  • Raja Menon’s upcoming “Airlift” (2016) will explore Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait from the perspective of minority Indian Kuwaitis.

  • If Hollywood and IS are battling it out for soft power, as Mr Kerry seems to think, then balanced movies about Muslims and the Middle East must be the norm, not the exception.

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