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News Analysis: Arab Analysts Give Nod to Favored Oscar Contenders By JALAL GHAZI Pacific News Service

Tuesday January 17, 2006

For many years big budget Hollywood movies depicted Arabs as terrorists or greedy oil barons, but since Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq, it seems such films are finally falling out of fashion. Arab analysts and media are lauding portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in the recent films Syriana and Munich, and the smaller budget independent film Paradise Now. Each are contenders to be on the list of Academy Award nominations released on Jan. 31.  

Hafez Mirazi, Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau chief and host of its weekly television program “From Washington,” devoted a recent hour-long program highlighting these films. He also added a fourth movie, the upcoming Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. 

As Mirazi explains, “Yes, these films talk about Arab terrorists, suicide bombers and oil sheiks, but what is new is that Hollywood is finally trying to sympathize with Arab characters, understand their motives and give them human characteristics.” Evil and good parts are being portrayed equally, he says.  

Syriana is about an imaginary oil-rich Arab country. The two sons of its dying king are competing to succeed their father. One resembles the stereotypical image of a rich, short-sighted Arab sheik who cares only about promoting his personal wealth and prestige. The other, Nasir, is kind and generous. He wants to reform his country and stop American oil companies from taking his nation’s resources for granted.  

Director Stephen Gaghan (Traffic) told Al Jazeera, “I felt that it is very important to portray the true image of Arabs I have met. They were kind, polite, educated and wonderful. I live in Hollywood where many of the things about the Middle East in the movies are frankly inaccurate and stereotypical. This is why I wanted these characters to speak for themselves in their own voices.”  

Alexander Siddig, a British Arab actor who played Nasir, explains that the name Nasir was chosen because “it is the name of one of the most respected leaders in the Arab world.” Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president and the father of pan-Arab nationalism, envisioned a united and strong Arab world that could defend its resources from imperialism.  

The film reflects the aspirations of Arabs and Muslims to have a national leader who puts his country’s interests ahead of his own.  

In Munich, director Steven Spielberg tells the story of an Israeli intelligence Mossad cell that is tasked with killing 11 Palestinian leaders. The Palestinians were suspected of masterminding the operation in which 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and eventually killed during the 1972 Munich Olympics.  

The movie does not stereotype its Palestinian characters. In fact, one talks about why he is fighting and explains how he lost his homeland.  

Likewise, the film shows the internal struggles of Avner, the leader of the Mossad cell. Each time Avner’s group kills a Palestinian leader, their romantic ideas of Israel are challenged. By the time they kill the seventh man they realize that what they are doing is not so much different from what the Palestinian armed group did in Munich.  

The movie was banned in Israel and condemned by the Israeli general consul in Los Angeles Ehoud Danoch, who said any comparison between the Palestinian “terrorists” and the Israeli Mossad cell was “immoral.”  

The spokesman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), however, told Al Jazeera that he “expected this new Hollywood film to depict Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians as terrorists, monstrous and criminals, but I was surprised because the film was much deeper ... the film avoided depicting one side of the conflict or character as evil.”  

A much less publicized Palestinian independent film submitted for the Oscars is Paradise Now, in Arabic with English subtitles. The film explores two Palestinian young men who carry out a suicide operation against Israelis. It portrays how these young men were driven to do the extreme by unbearable and humiliating Israeli policies. At one point, however, one of the two men decides not to detonate himself on a bus because he saw a Jewish child.  

The film does not attempt to justify suicide operations; rather, it attempts to humanize those who are driven to become suicide bombers.  

Although not up for Oscar contention this year, the upcoming film Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World attempts to bridge U.S.-Arab tensions through comedy. Director Albert Brooks, who also plays the leading role, is assigned by the U.S. State Department to go to India and Pakistan and write a 500-page report on what makes a Muslim laugh as a new foreign policy strategy.  

Brooks told Al Jazeera, “This is the first comedy film on this topic produced in America. We should have 50 films if not 100 because this is the only way we can begin to build bridges and this is why I decided to make the film.”  

The Sept. 11 attacks provoked interest among Americans to learn more about Muslims and Arabs and “why they hate us.” Americans seem no longer willing to accept the pre-911 Hollywood films, such as Rules of Engagement or The Siege, in which Muslims are stereotyped as terrorists. Instead, they are now following more accurate and fair portrayals of the Arab world.  


Jalal Ghazi monitors and translates Arab media for New America Media (a project of Pacific News Service) and Link TV.