Most people know me as an author and journalist, but I’m also a filmmaker, one who has to almost work underground, using my own flashlight, like a miner. It’s difficult enough being a women filmmaker let alone one with Middle Eastern background. So when Chris Rock talked at the Oscars about the lack of blacks in Hollywood (in films, receiving awards, etc.) I thought, “They Have it Made – Compared to us!”
Over ten years ago I was at the Surrey Writer’s Conference in Vancouver and I met with three producers, one who’d produced Father of the Bride II, one who produced Pay it Forward, and the third, I forgot what he produced. Anyhow, I pitched to them and their reactions to my stories were quite unique. Even though the U.S. had been politically involved with Iraq for decades, even though my stories were of modern day Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans, these producers didn’t see how they could possibly adapt them into film.
“It would be difficult to cast an Arabic movie,” one said. “Who would we cast for the leading role? Tom Hanks?”
As if Tom Hanks is the only actor in Hollywood! It was not a problem to cast him in The Terminal, a sweet and delicate comedy, similar to my type of work – where Tom plays a man from the fictional country of Krakozhia who is stuck at John F. Kennedy International Airport. It was possible to cast Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta as women (Tootsie and Hairspray), but it is impossible to get a good actor to play a normal Arab?
Plus, the roles of “bad” Arabs have been easily played by other western actors, starting with Rudolph Valentino. In the 1920’s he starred in The Sheik and Son of the Sheik, two films which set the stage for the exploration and negative portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood films. They both represented Arab characters as thieves, murderers, and brutes.
Jack Shaheen, in his book Reel Bad Arabs, surveyed more than 900 film appearances of Arab characters. Of those, only a dozen were positive and 50 were balanced. Shaheen writes that “Arab stereotypes are deeply ingrained in American cinema. From 1896 until today, filmmakers have collectively indicted all Arabs as Public Enemy #1 – brutal, heartless, uncivilized religious fanatics and money-mad cultural “others” bent on terrorizing civilized Westerners
I didn’t make such remarks to that particular producer, who smiled at me as though I was a naive little girl. In the middle of our conversation, he had actually winked to his colleague, as if to say, “Isn’t she a darling creature to have such profound visions?”
I walked away, uninfluenced by their discouragement, but over the years, I saw how negative images keep certain communities in the dark and without a voice. When I watched the Oscars the other day and listened to the emphasis on the lack of black peoples receiving roles and awards, I thought, they have it made – compared to filmmakers of Middle Eastern and Arab backgrounds. For us, we can’t even get our stories in the industry let alone be given roles and win awards.
Stereotypical representations of Arabs and Muslims are often manifested in a society’s media, literature, theater and other creative expressions, and often have real repercussions for people in daily interactions and in current events. Though not legally prohibited, stereotyping could put innocent people in danger.
I’m glad that black people are at least bringing this subject to light, because for humans to survive, diversity must have a home. With millions of Middle Easterners living in the US, making them the fastest growing group of immigrants, and with so many social, political and religious issues regarding that region – Iraq in particular – happening on a daily basis, it is becoming absolutely essential for Hollywood to provide film audiences everywhere true stories of the lifestyle and culture of the modern Middle Easterner. In this way, cultures will develop a better understanding of each other, and thus, the world will be pushed into another, a more diverse reality.