My television viewing habits are fairly fragmented and not exactly the stuff of scholarly appraisal, but once in a while I see something that I think deserves further examination. This happened to me today.
I saw an advertisement for Turner Classic Movies which was touting their “Race and Hollywood:Arabs in Film” series, only this year the “race” depicted are Arabs (TCM might have been better served by substituting the word “culture” for “race” but that is a totally different subject). They are attempting to analyze how the West views the Middle East and Northern Africa through its popular movies. While this is a noble gesture, and no doubt the people at Turner Classic Movies are sincere in their attempt to shed light on an unfair portrayal, TCM is approaching their topic incorrectly in my opinion.
During the month of July host Robert Osborne is joined on Tuesday and Thursday nights by noted Middle Eastern media expert Jack G. Shaheen in discussing that night’s feature film, which will have an Arab theme. So far, so good. The devil is in the details however. Here is a partial list of films they use as a backdrop to discuss Hollywood’s depiction of the East. Among others are The Thief of Baghdad From 1940 and The Sheik from the 1930s featuring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Using movies from almost 75 years ago to frame an intelligent discussion of the state of Hollywood’s depiction of a people is a stretch to say the least. Also listed is Tarzan the Fearless (no comment here,none is necessary) and Caesar and Cleopatra. To be fair some more modern movies are on their roster,but they include the comedy Jewel of the Nile as well as Three Kings. To further drive me crazy they are showing such politically sensitive films as Ali Babba Goes to Town and shorts by the Bowery Boys AND cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny.
The premise that “Arabs in Films” only includes those portrayals made in California is short-sighted and,well, just plain incorrect. The movie industry in this part of the world has a rich past and is thriving. The Dubai International Film Festival is now considered a must for budding film makers, on the same level as the Sundance Festival in the United States and the venerable Cannes Film Festival in France. There are thriving film companies in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and many independent moviemakers are springing up all over the Middle East and Northern Africa.
The time has long since past when movies meant films made in Hollywood exclusively. The peoples of the Middle East and Northern Africa are not just belly-dancers nor are they desert thieves or terrorists, although this is how some “classic” Hollywood movies have depicted them.
People in the West need to see how people of other cultures want themselves portrayed on the large screen. Only then can an intelligent discussion about the subject take place.
Turner Classic Movies can, if they wish, add to this dialogue or they can extend a worn out stereotype which even in its heyday never made much sense.
More on this subject in a later posting. Let me know what YOU think.
Turner Classic Movies
The Arab Film Industry by Richard Seymour,BNET
By Jeffrey Warren, Special Report for Breathing Freedom. All opinions contained herein are those of the author.