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American Cinema and the Developing World | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat- At this year’s Oscars, it is expected that three films that are about (and not from) the developing world will dominate the awards ceremony. The first film is ‘Babel’, part of which is filmed in Morocco. It features a young Moroccan boy called Yusuf who accidentally shoots an American tourist called Susan. Her husband is angry as they cannot find adequate medical care in the poor Moroccan village. Meanwhile, the US State Department believes that terrorists were behind the shooting. The situation escalates when a military helicopter lands in the village and marine forces arrive to take Susan and her husband away. The second film is called, ‘Blood Diamond’, set in the period of Sierra Leone’s civil war, which follows the events of an African prisoner who happens to come across a rare diamond that could cost him his life, and his collaboration with a diamond tradesmen played by Leonardo DiCaprio to find his family in exchange for the whereabouts of the diamond. The third film is ‘Apocalypto’ that relates the story of the civil war of the Mayan civilization (1000 B.C). The most horrific methods of torture and murder were used during this war and it was the beginning of the end of a civilization contemporaneous with the Pharaonic civilization.

One cannot say that these American productions are positive in their depictions of people from the developing world, however at least they are less insulting and disdainful than other films of the past and even of recent times.

The first attempt made by the American film industry to depict the developing world came in 1910, the year that American film production emerged. That same year, the director of the Biograph Company in New York, D.W. Griffith, traveled to California for its fine weather in comparison to the rainy and cold weather that he left behind in New York to produce his first feature film. Griffith landed in Los Angeles where a friend of his told him that there was a quiet, rural village in the north called Hollywood that would be suitable for his new project. As the movie industry began in Hollywood, just after the First World War, cinema technology was primitive and films were silent, black and white and unclear.

The first few feature films can be divided into two categories: films that depicted Americans positively and films that portrayed the developing world negatively. For example, in the first category there is ‘The Blue Bird’, a fictitious story about an imaginary journey to the happiest place in the world, ‘A Christmas Carol’, which was based on a Dickens novel that was published in 1843 and which looked at the notion of happiness and the ‘Wizard of Oz’, the popular story about Dorothy and friends to see the “wonderful wizard.” On the other hand, a number of offensive films emerged from Hollywood about the developing world, for example, the film ‘In Old California,’ about California under Mexican control (the USA took power of California in 1846). The conclusion of the film was that California had flourished under American control rather than Mexican. Another production entitled ‘Roosevelt in Africa’ was based on President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Africa in 1909. It showed naked male and female tribesmen of Zulu, Americans who hunted lions, and Africans who wanted to put the white man in a large pot of boiling water and cook him.

The first film to portray Arabs was called: ‘The Sheik’, starring Rudolph Valentino. The character Ahmed Bin Hassan, a tribal sheikh in Algeria, kidnapped Lady Diana, a British tourist who had traveled to Algeria. However, Diana soon fell in love with the “Sheik” despite the way he had treated her at first (which he soon regretted). Lady Diana is then kidnapped by a rival tribe and following combat between the tribal sheikhs, she is returned to the protagonist. So what made him victorious and why did Lady Diana fall in love with him in the first place? Well, Sheik Ahmed Bin Hassan was actually European himself, born to an English father and an Arab mother. Five years later, Valentino appeared in the sequel to ‘The Sheik’, entitled ‘The Son of the Sheik’. In this film, the young protagonist had fallen in love with ‘Yasmin’, born to a French father and Arab mother who was a dancer. It is implied that Yasmin is raped by the Son of the Sheik but is left to the audience to decide.

Both films were successful in the US however, both productions presented the idea that Arabs are only interested in women and raping them. The term “Sheikh” was then introduced to the American dictionary as somebody who charms women in an imposing manner. Despite the widespread belief that ‘The Sheik’ was the first film about Arabs, the internet has revealed that a black and white, silent film that lasted only ten minutes called ‘Fatima’s Coochee Coochee Dance’ was produced in 1896 by the inventor, Thomas Edison.

At that time, many believed that American productions were “conspiracies” against the Arabs and the developing world, especially because a number of the founders of the film industry were Jews, such as Samuel Golding or Adolph Zukor. However, the films simply represented American culture at that time, features of which included ignorance of the developing world. Secondly, there was discrimination towards the black race as well as towards Jews themselves.

The first American feature film entitled ‘Birth of a Nation’ by D.W Griffith caused much controversy as it focused on white supremacism and portrayed the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in a favorable light. The poster advertising the film depicts a member of the KKK on a white horse raising a crucifix. The film shows black members of Congress sitting barefooted, drinking and flirting with women.

In 1939, ‘Gone with the Wind’ was produced, based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel of an aristocratic love story during the American civil war. The film was not blatantly racist; however, all servants featured were Afro-Americans. Hattie McDaniel, who played ‘Mammy’ in the film, won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress opposite Vivien Leigh and once jokingly said that she would “rather play a maid than be one.”

With the emergence of color film, the negative depiction of the developing world continued. Meanwhile, American cinema now featured actresses such as Greta Garbo who came from Sweden and Marlene Dietrich from Germany as well as its homegrown talent such as Jane Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. In ‘Shanghai Express’, Dietrich travels with her American husband to China that is going through civil war and she is told by a Chinese leader that he loves her fair skin and that he wants her to be his mistress. After refusing the offer, the Chinese leader kidnaps her husband and threatens to kill him unless she accepts the proposal. She eventually does so, however the story ends with her and husband escaping and the country that is engulfed in war.

The depiction of Arabs however in films such as ‘A Café in Cairo’ (1924), emphasized the idea that Arabs love dancers and all dancers betray those who fall in love with them. In 1976, a film called ‘Network’ portrayed Saudis as religious extremists. In ‘Roll Over’ (1981), this film depicted Arabs as evil oil traders who sought to destroy the American economy and ‘True Lies’, produced in 1994, featured a made-up Islamic organization called ‘Red Jihad’ that had attained a nuclear bomb in order to destroy the United States. The list is endless…

Former spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Hussein Ibish stated, “The reason behind films depicting Arabs in a negative light is the negative perspective of them that most Americans have. The government is blinded by this perception and this refrains it from being fair to Arabs. Hollywood encourages the production of films that are offensive towards Arabs and when films that are offensive towards Americans are produced, this negative view expands. It is a vicious circle.” Ibish made this statement one year before the 9/11 attacks. The outlook upon Arabs now is slightly different…

Firstly, there have been many films that look at the issue of terrorism and terrorists, however many of them now focus on the reasons that terrorists take part in such activity and allow them to present their views. In one film, an American asks, “Why do you kill innocent Israeli women and children?” The man replies, “Why did the Israelis steal our land?” In another film, a “terrorist” shouts to an American, “You kill our women and children with your aircrafts and tanks and you call us terrorists? You are the terrorists!” There have also been a number of films about American intervention in Arab countries in which there were attempts to balance views between American and Arab sides.

The Oscar-nominated film ‘Babel’ is an example of an American production that seeks to balance American and Arab viewpoints. After the American tourist is shot accidentally by the young Moroccan boy, out of goodness, the tour guide takes the injured woman and her husband Richard to his home. The US State Department believed that the shooting was an act of terrorism. In ‘Black Diamond’ the film stresses the dangers of the diamond trade and all of those involved including Europeans. ‘Apocalypto’ showed the prosperous Mayan civilization and the civil war that engulfed it. It will be a long time however before the American film industry will do justice to Arabs and Muslims and the rest of the developing world. Nevertheless, after 9/11, there is a glimmer of hope that has emerged in the form of “reasonable movies”.

In April 2007, Hollywood will present a film called ‘The Kingdom’ that will depict the 1996 bombing of the Al Khobar Towers starring Jennifer Garner and Jamie Foxx as FBI agents who travel to Saudi Arabia to take part in the investigations. Perhaps like ‘Babel’ in Morocco, ‘Blood Diamond’ in Sierra Leone, ‘The Kingdom’ will gain worldwide recognition and even nominations for prestigious awards.