Offended? We know how you feel

From the archive (legacy material)

Joe Wakim | Herald Sun | 18 February 2004

It is flabbergasting to hear your own words about anti-Arab films echoed by someone else. Especially when that someone else is a Jewish films-maker. Rabbi Marvin Hier, recipient of two Academy Awards as co-producer of Genocide (1981) and The Long Way Home (1997), is also leading the public campaign against Mel Gibson’s new movie The Passion of Christ.
Let us look at his protests:
He says that all Jews are portrayed in a negative manner. This is common in movies featuring Arab terrorists. In his 2001 book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood vilifies a people, US Professor Jack Shaheen analyses more than 900 films dating back to the silent films of 1896. He concludes “filmmakers have collectively indicted all Arabs as public enemy No. 1”.
In The Siege (1998), all Arabs are suspect, so US troops enforce martial law, herding Arab-Americans en masse into internment camps. After we are seduced to trust one Arab character, he turns against us when it is revealed that he is part of the terrorist cell: one of them.
Rabbi Hier goes on to say there are not ten of them, but hundreds and hundreds, showing huge crowds of Jews saying ‘Crucify Him’.
The power of numbers is certainly daunting on the silver screen. In Rules of Engagement (2000), we also see a huge crowd of Arab demonstrators outside the US embassy in Yemen. The gun-toting jihad is chanting in Arabic with clenched fists, and includes women and children with guns up their sleeves. Every Arab we see in this film is a liar and they all deserved to die because they were either terrorists or potential terrorists.
Arabs are also shown as a mob in The Mummy (1999), cheering for a hanging, and obeying the risen mummy as a herd of chanting zombies.
Indeed, pictures do speak a thousand words. When did you last see an Arab character portrayed as civilised rather than barbaric? When the camera shoots Arabs, we see the prescribed, one-dimensional sub-human stereotype: bearded, dark, shrouded, threatening, sinister, irreconcilably different and the enemy of civilisation.
History has taught us that films do not operate in a political vacuum but are exploited as propaganda to demonise the enemy. Two decades ago, the late US author of Orientalism Edward Said warned that the anti-Semitic images current from before World War II had been transferred from the Jews to the Arabs. Ironically, some of the worst examples of this demonisation of Arabs have been filmed in Israel or use Israeli actors.
Typically, the script given to Arab characters is about violence and their broken Arabic is rarely subtitled, as in The Siege. We are led to believe they are evil by nature with no reference to any cause or injustice. For example, the publicity for Executive Decision (1996) refers to a mid-air rescue mission to save a plane carrying 400 innocent passengers’ who have been hijacked by a fanatical Arab. He is already doomed and he may as well say nothing.
His reasoning doesn’t even come up on the horizon. Arab villains are incapable of reason: it is a contradiction in terms. Instead, we are expected to believe that they are bloodthirsty maniacs with no conscience and no soul. In True Lies (1994), the terrorist cell has many opportunities to state its cause, akin to the tapes of bin Laden, but alas it is nothing but threats of destruction through self-destruction.
Everyone else is portrayed as sensitive. This juxtaposition and contrast is enhanced through the music; the US heroes always have names, families, feelings and dreams while the Arabs are anonymous and expendable.
Some anti-Arab films have deviated from the original text to dramatise the villain-victim scenario. In the children’s classic novel The Black Stallion, a benevolent Arab sheik befriends an American boy, giving the youth the first foal from his Arabian horse. In the 1979 movie, a nasty Arab abuses an Arabian horse and violates an American boy.
While The Passion reflects on events two millennia ago, the anti-Arab films reflect on Arabs today. With respect, Rabbi Hier, we understand what it is like when the extreme actions of an extreme minority are depicted as all of us.