x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Breaking the mould

Film feature Muslims on Screen and Television aims to challenge negative portrayals of Islam in film.

In <i>Syriana</i>, George Clooney plays an undercover CIA operative. The 2005 film is considered to be fair and nuanced in its portrayal of Arabs.
In Syriana, George Clooney plays an undercover CIA operative. The 2005 film is considered to be fair and nuanced in its portrayal of Arabs.

Cynthia Schneider is one of the last people you would expect to show up in Hollywood. The former US ambassador to the Netherlands and a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University has a CV that seems more UN Security Council than Sunset Boulevard. Still, Hollywood is exactly where she has concentrated her efforts of late, for one reason. "Popular entertainment wields tremendous influence," she says.

Last year, that belief led Schneider, an expert in so-called cultural diplomacy, to form Muslims on Screen and Television (Most), a partnership between the Brookings Institution, the Washington, DC, think tank where Schneider is a non-resident fellow, and Unity Productions Foundation, a non-profit film company based in California. (The two founding organisations have since been joined by Gallup Inc, the American polling company, and One Nation, a philanthropic organisation dedicated to challenging stereotypes about Muslims). The group's primary objective is to connect content creators in Hollywood with experts and data on Islam and the countries where it is practised.

With a full-time project manager now in place in Los Angeles, Most's founders hope that screenwriters, directors, casting agents and other entertainment professionals will seek advice on Islam. Enquiries could range from questions about the customs of Ramadan to "what the Muslim-American family next door might eat for breakfast", Schneider says. Most's secondary mission is to facilitate dialogue via conferences and panels, including one event held this past summer with the Writers Guild of America, the union to which all television and film screenwriters belong. To this end, the initiative's next panel will take place in Abu Dhabi on Saturday as part of the Middle East International Film Festival. Schneider will moderate a discussion about how to challenge negative stereotypes of Muslims and Islam in western media, and examine the question of how Muslim filmmakers might be enabled to achieve global reach and success with their own films. Participants will include, among others, the entrepreneur and film producer Omar Amanat, the television producer Chip Johannessen and the Turkish Film Festival founder Pelin Turgut.

"In addition to serving as a resource and facilitating discussion in the US, we also have the mission of building a bridge between filmmakers in both the West and in Muslim countries," Schneider says. "For that reason it is very important for Most to have a presence at the premier film festivals in the region." In the US, Most will serve, essentially, as a reference library to Hollywood on all things Muslim.

"Our newspapers are full of information about Islam, the Middle East, South East Asia - the whole Muslim world," says Michael Wolfe, an American writer who converted to Islam in the 1980s, and a founder of both Unity Productions and Most. "On the other hand when we come to storytelling on TV and film, there is very little information about these people and their culture." Part of the reason for that is sheer lack of exposure on the part of media makers, according to Howard Gordon, the executive producer of the hit Fox series 24, which in its first few seasons was criticised for negative portrayals of Muslims. "Hollywood is a fairly parochial town," Gordon explains. "My circle of friends and colleagues are just about as ignorant of Islam as they are of any other group they're not a member of, and there are very few Muslims writing television."

In recent seasons, Gordon has diversified the representation of Muslims on 24, and he is now a supporter of Most. In addition to a stable of more than 100 subject-specific experts, Most refers Hollywood professionals to the work of Dalia Mogahed, the executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. She also co-authored the book Who Speaks for Islam?, an analysis of the attitudes of more than 50,000 Muslims surveyed in Gallup's international polling efforts.

While films and television programs about medicine and law have a wealth of empirical information on which to draw, Mogahed asserts that hard data about less tangible subjects like religion and culture has been hard to come by - until now. "The creative community has to grapple with questions about Muslims' sympathies - toward Americans and toward terrorism, for example," Mogahed explains. "We can now give them that information." She reports that a major driver of tension between foreign Muslims and the US is not "their perception of us, but rather their perception of our perception of them". Many respondents to the poll urged the US media to "'Stop portraying us as terrorists'", Mogahed says. It is a reminder that US audiences are not the only people consuming Hollywood's output.

Most does not intend to chide or agitate, but rather to serve solely as an objective source of information. Whereas the Council on American-Islamic Relations has launched vocal protests against films like Towelhead and television series like 24, both Schneider and Wolfe declined to name any examples of Hollywood portrayals that they deemed unfair or unbalanced. Still, Wolfe does go on the offensive - in generalized, collective terms - when talking about the state of Muslim representation in US entertainment properties.

"The difference between Shakespeare and the run-of-the-mill Elizabethan playwrights is that he saw into the hearts of human beings," Wolfe says. "Even when he told stories of nasty people he told them well. To belabour these [Muslim] stereotypes and then ship it all abroad is an insult to everybody. We need to do a better job." But in terms of Most's operations, Wolfe and Schneider have adopted a more laissez-faire attitude in the hopes that access to knowledge alone will improve the portrayal of Muslims in Hollywood fare.

"People in the media business don't have the time to do a lot of research to perfect their portrayals of Muslims," says Schneider. "We work with content creators on their own terms and provide any kind of information they might want." Most won't criticise specific Hollywood projects. However others are keen to do so. Jack Shaheen, a Lebanese-American academic, has published two books documenting the representation of Muslims and Arabs in American film. One, Reel Bad Arabs, dealt with the period before September 11, and the second, Guilty, considered films made after the attacks.

Shaheen believes the overall treatment of Muslims in movies has actually improved since September 11. Of approximately 1,000 films that depicted Muslims and Arabs before 2001, he estimated that only 65 portrayed them in a "positive or even-handed" manner. In the post-September 11 period he analysed, 30 of 110 films portraying Muslims showed them in a way Shaheen considered fair. "But even since 2001, we've still seen some incredibly racist movies, like The Kingdom," says Shaheen, who adds the recent blockbuster Ironman to the list of films perpetuating negative stereotypes about Islam.

Despite the improvement he noted in his most recent book, Shaheen is sceptical when it comes to the entertainment industry's intentions with regard to Muslims. "Why should Hollywood be interested in changing its depiction of Muslims?" he asks. "They can vilify all things Arab and Muslim and not have to worry about any one pressuring them," except, he suggests, for himself. Shaheen doesn't hesitate to label the majority of depictions of Muslims by Hollywood as racist, a description that Schneider dismisses. "I don't think the objectionable roles Muslims are sometimes given come out of racism, but rather a formula that Hollywood has found that sells," she offers. "For years this has been the standard plot of American action movies. Somebody else has to be the bad guy, and for a long time it was the Russians." Schneider attributes the persistence of such depictions to filmmakers' obligation to turn a profit: "In that context, unfortunately the winning formula has become one in which Arabs sometimes end up playing terrorists."

Hollywood concurs. "This is a business, and the profit motive is there," says Michael Nozik, a producer of the 2005 film Syriana, which was considered even by Shaheen to be fair and nuanced in its portrayal of Arabs. "Individual filmmakers may have the desire to tell more complete stories, but as a business there is no incentive." Nozik goes on to suggest that easy access to a resource centre like Most could negate the temptation among content creators to depict Muslims in a negative fashion - or to avoid depicting them at all.

Many of those involved in Most cite the advances made by black Americans in film and television in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s as a path they'd like to see Muslims follow. One definition of success might be a Muslim equivalent of The Cosby Show, which Mogahed views as a turning point for black people. "The Cosby Show was when African-Americans were finally presented as successful, intelligent, friendly and non-threatening," she recalls.

Wolfe sees a hint of that kind of progress in Canada, where the sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie is in its third season. It tells the story of Muslim Canadians and their neighbours living in a small town in rural Saskatchewan. "It isn't particularly devout," says Wolfe. "It's just a comedy about pluralism, with antecedents in American television." He goes on to cite the 1950s series I Love Lucy, in which Lucille Ball's Lucy was married to Desi Arnaz's Hispanic bandleader, as one such groundbreaker.

The lessons of acceptance that even innocuous sitcoms can teach are much needed, Wolfe argues. "There are more than five million taxpaying Muslim citizens in the US, many of whom have children being harassed on playgrounds across the country," he says. "It isn't simple to be a Muslim in America right now. It's just a difficult horse to ride." That truth is one played for laughs by Maz Jobrani, an Iranian-American comedian who attended a Most event in Los Angeles earlier this year. Jobrani, currently travelling on his Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, isn't yet certain of the effectiveness of the Most initiative, but he does call it "interesting". He believes the most powerful tool against stereotyping would be the cultivation of more Muslim content creators, both in America and abroad.

Ultimately, the success of Most may lie in the intentions of those who use it, rather than the information the initiative makes available. "I think it's great if a screenwriter wants to call up Most and find out about Islamic traditions," Jobrani says. "But if he's calling up just to find out what a terrorist would shout before he blows himself up, is that really progress?"