x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

How the US film and TV business advances anti-Arab stereotypes

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

Why all the commotion in Hollywood, nowadays? Some critics worry that Arabs may be taking over the entertainment business. They point to an increased Arab presence in this year’s Academy Award nominations involving films set in Egypt, Yemen, Palestine, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

In the category of best documentary feature, there is Jehane Nojaim’s compelling movie, The Square, documenting Egyptians struggling for freedom. Then there is Sara Ishaq’s moving film, Karama Has No Walls, focusing on Yemen’s revolution. The film is nominated for best documentary short subject.

Once again the Academy has recognised Hany Abu-Assad, this time for his telling feature film Omar, a love story about Palestinians resisting the occupation. Omar, is nominated for best foreign language film.

This is Abu-Assad’s second time around. His gripping Paradise Now was nominated in 2005. At the Sundance film festival last month, Talal Derki’s jolting film, The Return to Homs, about Syria’s Free Army rebels, won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary. Finally, yet another “Arab” film, Wadija, directed by Saudi Arabia’s Haiffa Al Mansour, almost made the Oscar list.

These same critics are also complaining that Hollywood’s new villains are Jewish swindlers, citing the protagonists in American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street. Not to worry. Though both films are about real people – The Wolf of Wall Street is based on a memoir by Jordan Belfort who ran a crooked brokerage operation, and American Hustle is a fictionalised version of Abscam, the 1970s FBI sting run by Mel Weinberg – both depict their con men as likeable rogues.

Despite the appearances of two Jewish con men in two major movies and the three nominated “Arab films”, there’s no way we viewers are going to be exposed to lots of Jewish villains on screen, nor is a “reel” Arab takeover of Hollywood imminent. What most concerns me is another reality – the growing Israeli presence on American television.

It all began in 2006, with creator Donald P Bellisario.

Bellisario, who had previously produced the Arab and Muslim-bashing series, JAG, added to NCIS, his highly rated show for CBS, an Israeli heroine, Ziva David, played by Cote de Pablo.

For nine years, David, a Mossad agent, was the only full-time Israeli character on American mainstream television. Not only did the character wear a Star of David, but she also wore an IDF uniform jacket to show the “military influence” on the character. Only after several seasons did she become a US citizen.

Harvard University’s Eitan Kensky identified David as the “most prominent televisual Israeli” in the United States. Her depiction was praised for exposing the western public to Israeli society and culture, its positive portrayal of an Israeli, and its “cheerleading role” in promoting ties between the US and Israel.

For nine years I watched this tough and sexy Israeli Jew and her American colleagues beat the tar out of Arab and Muslim bad guys – she trounced them everywhere, both in the US and internationally.

Throughout the series, I kept thinking: why didn’t Bellisario create a Palestinian heroine instead of an Israeli one? Or, why didn’t he include a Palestinian agent named Marwa to work side by side with the Americans and David in NCIS? After all, his series was not political, just harmless entertainment, right?

Flash forward to the present day. Few viewers are aware that “a small group of creators and industry types has built a pipeline between Israel and the Los Angeles entertainment world 9,000 miles away,” writes Steven Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times.

He adds, “the entertainment pipeline is a new development born of the maturation of the Israeli television industry – and has turned a nation known for politics into Hollywood’s hottest spawning ground”.

For example, we now have the archaeological thriller Dig, the first-ever Israeli-made drama to be sold directly to US television. Dig will have its premiere on the USA Network this summer. The series focuses on an American FBI agent stationed in Jerusalem.

Nir Barkat, the city’s mayor, is especially pleased that Dig is being filmed in Jerusalem. He was also pleased with the 2012 Brad Pitt film, World War Z, where the film’s characters say – and subtitles mistakenly state – that “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel”. The mayor also boasted that “Jerusalem is a city of great drama – religious drama, archaeological drama”, mentioning that the city is divided among Palestinian Christians and Muslims, Jews, Armenians and other groups.

Will these diverse groups be represented in the series in a balanced manner, or will Dig’s FBI agent be tracking down only one group of baddies – you know who I mean.

Recently, America’s FX network ordered Tyrant, another dramatic series from Israel, from Homeland’s executive producer, Gideon Raff.

Coincidentally, Raff, who created the Israeli series Hatufim on which Homeland is based, also plays a key role with the Dig series.

The plot of Tyrant concerns the son of a Middle Eastern dictator who returns to his home country with his American family after 20 years in the US.

“Once there”, notes Variety, the entertainment-trade magazine, “he’s drawn into political and familial turmoil.”

Will Raff’s episodes offer fair and balanced portraits of Arabs and Muslims? Or will his shows advance the stereotype, displaying Arabs fighting or killing fellow Arabs and Israelis?

Production begins next month in Tel Aviv for a summer premiere in the US. According to 20th Century Fox Television’s joint chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman: “This is one of the most ambitious series we’ve ever set out to make.”

Finally, in a few months Kiefer Sutherland returns to Fox TV in the series, 24: Live Another Day.

As we may know, not so long ago most seasons of 24 drilled home dangerous falsehoods about America’s Arabs and American Muslims, as well as falsehoods about overseas Arabs and Muslims.

24 presented them as evil beings intent on waging “holy wars”.”

This time around, the executive producers say their new series will not sway “in any political direction. Tthe show is extremely apolitical”.

Not so. Hollywood’s “entertainment” shows are not harmless fluff, especially those with an Israeli connection. They are political.

Can you imagine the outcry from Hollywood and Washington, DC if shows like Tyrant and Dig were Arab-made dramas being “sold directly to series for US audiences”? Would they tag such shows “entertainment” or “propaganda”?

If and when Arab-based dramas do appear on American television be prepared to fasten your seat belts, and get ready for some real commotion.

Jack Shaheen is the author of Reel Bad Arabs