Mahir Al Toby
US Film & History
The Perception of the Arab in Hollywood
After the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, US President George Bush launched an offensive with the aim of fighting terrorism. The so-called “war on terror” would be a comprehensive fight against the threat for several decades emanating from Iraq, Iran and North Korea towards the West. The first target by Bush was Iraq headed by dictator Saddam Hussein, who was blamed for the attack on 9/11 and was also accused of being in possession of WMD. Iraq was soon overwhelmed by the US military and what followed was an attempt to provide the country with a new stable government. 15 years after the start of the Bush offensive, the ‘War on Terror’ was still in full swing and now the US struggles with perhaps the most radical organization until now: the Islamic State (IS). The impact of the Islamic State is not only strongly felt in the Middle East but also in Europe through its presence on social media with videos of gruesome beheadings, bloody attacks in Paris and Brussels and the influx of thousands of refugees to Greece and Germany from Syria. The Western perceptions of Islam and the Middle East is continuously fed by the daily flow of images in the (mass) media.
In Media and Society in the Twentieth Century (2003) Lyn Gorman and David McLean argue that propaganda in the media is not only inherent in (former) totalitarian regimes like Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, but in times of war it is always a very effective tool in liberal democratic societies: propaganda can be understood as a normal part of the activities of government. But the need for systematic propaganda comparable to that of the totalitarian regimes was recognized by democracies only during in times of war. Tamara Al-order goes further than Gorman and Mclean by arguing in “Propaganda and the War on Terror “that Western media today still make extensive use of propaganda to influence our opinion about the Middle East. While according to Al-order there is an assumption that democratic societies or more specifically Western media seek objectivity always and are out to discover the truth. In particular the US. used propaganda extensively as claimed in Al-In order to maintain the military industrial complex.
The constant war with an enemy leads to–according Garth Jowett–a constant imagination of an enemy and the battle between good and evil in the American entertainment industry, so the audience is motivated to support any war (financially). In particular, the film (Hollywood) is a common propaganda tool to form the general opinion by its visual appeal and ability to blend entertainment with political messages. This paper examines how modern American war films about the ‘War on Terror’ deal with this enemy image and how these war films are merely a different facet of an already existing image. I wonder how two different films engage in the debate about the war in the Middle East and that there is also propagandistic strategies such as ‘stereotyping’. As Yasmeen Elayan claims Hollywood films, often make extensive use of stereotyping (magnifying negative characteristics of a race or religion) in the visual construction of Arabs.
In this section I look at the way elements of bias and prejudice are expressed in the representation of minorities and ethnic groups within Hollywood cinema. Stuart Hall describes in “The Work of Representation (1997)” representation is an essential part of the process of signification and transferring meaning within a culture. Representation can also include the use of language, signs and images that represent or symbolize certain things. Representation moreover, forms part of a system, since it does not consist of individual concepts, but from the sequencing and organization of concepts and from the determination of relationships between concepts and the distinction. Remarkably Hall explicitly appoints the principles of ‘equality’ and ‘difference’ in establishing relationships and differentiate between concepts. Meaning depends on these principles “. Meaning depends on the relationship between things in the world – people, objects and events, real or fictional – and the conceptual system, which can operate as mental representations of them”
The representation of Arabs in Hollywood Cinema
The representation of minorities and ethnic groups in the Hollywood film almost always bring elements of bias and prejudice forward, depending on the intentions of the creator. John Cones argues in Patterns of Bias in Hollywood Movies, Hollywood films generally reflect the values, intentions, cultural perspectives, and prejudices of their creators. The power of the studios and their producers shall, show patterns of preferential treatment: “Thus, one of the less than desirable are direct results of a film industry dominated by a small group of people who share similar backgrounds show a bias in the content of the movies they create.” This bias in Hollywood films also seem to occur largely in the imagination of Arabs and Arab Americans. In “Stereotypes of Arab and Arab-Americans Presented in Hollywood Movies Released during 1994 to 2000,” Yasmeen Elayan argues and analizes how stereotyping plays a major role in this imagination. Stereotyping as defined by Elayan is a biased view or opinion about the characteristics of another person belonging to a particular group (based on religion, ethnicity, social), and these properties are directly associated with the respective group matter. Although according to Elayan there is definitely some truth to some stereotypes, she finds the portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood films is systematic in a negative way.
Elayan mainly relies on the work of Jack Shaheen in his study Reel Bad Arabs:How Hollywood vilifies a People (2001) which performed an analysis of a number of movies where Arabs were represented, which according to him only twelve portrayed the Arab in a positive way and fifty in a neutral manner. Shaheen and Elayan align themselves with their views with the concept of “Orientalism” propagated by Edward Said in his work Orientalism. According to Said, the term Orientalism is generally used in an academic context, though, it serves as a political tool to maintain colonialism and imperialism (Western world domination). As a result, the West made extensive used of caricatures of the (Middle) East. Although stereotyping and prejudice against the West from the Middle East perspective which is also systematically addressed, according to Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, what they refer to as ‘Occidentalism’ in their work Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies (2004), I focus in this paper only on the western side of the story. I do this mainly because of the way in which power plays into this narrative, in particular the power of the Hollywood film industry and its power to influence. In addition, both cases are made from a Western perspective. Well, we could conclude from the work of Said in relation to Buruma and Margalit that stereotyping comes from the West and the East is largely a matter of reciprocity. The main stereotypes of the Arab / Arab culture according to Shaheen. I think his analysis of Arab is useful for my own analysis in visualizing the way the West perceives of ‘the other’, and whether this visualization also contains elements of stereotyping and consequently contains propaganda against the Arab and Islam.
Islam, Arab, terrorism: According to Shaheen has one of the most important stereotypes which explores the difference (or rather the lack of it) between Islam, Arab, and terrorism. (US) Filmmakers, however, tend to depict all Arabs as Islamic and depict all Muslims as Arabs. As a result, the viewer puts a consistent link between religion and ethnicity. In the same way there will be consistent with a link between Islam and violence: “Today’s image makers regularly link the Islamic Faith with male supremacy, holy war, and acts of terror, depicting Arab Muslims as hostile alien intruders, and as lecherous, oily sheikhs’ intent on using nuclear weapons. Beginning in 1951, since the film Sirocco (Curtis Bernhardt), Arabs are systematically linked to terrorism. Islam and terrorism, according to Shaheen are constantly intertwined within the (American) cinema.
The bad: Of the more than nine hundred films analysed by Shaheen, there are hundreds that present the Arabs as merely “evil.” Often the Arabs are anti-Western and anti-Christian and are hostile towards Americans, Europeans, Israelis, Africans, but also fellow Arabs suffer. Arabs trying to murder, rape or abduct women, is also a big recurring theme. A sub-genre within the war genre are the French Foreign legion films, which have many of the civilized, bold legionnaires up against blood thirsty, unhinged Arab. In comedies, the Arabs are often ridiculed as clumsy klutz, and even described as “dogs” or “monkeys” which, according to Shaheen, with the American public creating a kind of distance from an ‘idiotic’ population.
Sheikh: In the Islamic world Sheikh is seen as a respectable and wise religious leader. Within the Hollywood Cinema this is quite different according to Shaheen. Screenwriters portray Sheikhs at the beginning of the 20th century often as rich, lazy dictators who feature a thick figure, hooked nose and robe who are keen to add the white blonde to their harem or to increase their wealth at the expense of brave Americans. Modern Hollywood movies present especially thick, combative, and showy sheiks who drive expensive cars and plot against America. Additionally, sheiks often anti-Christian and anti-Semitic dictators housed in heavily guarded military bases, armed with nuclear weapons, and surrounded by oil and money. These sheikhs use the Islamic religion to justify violence. These modern sheiks pose a much greater threat to the West, Israel, and fellow Arabs than their predecessors. Shaheen cites The Jewels of the Nile (1985, Lewis Teague) as a known example. A significant detail Shaheen refers to the distortion of geo-political events. During World War II, for example, many Arab countries supported the Allies. Most movies do not show the Arabs who fought alongside the Allies, but rather pro-Nazi dictators who operated in the service of the Arab Gestapo.
The wife: According to Shaheen Arab women are humiliated, demonized, and eroticized in more than fifty films. A number of Arab stereotypes with respect to the woman include voluptuous belly dancers that belong to a Harem and which have been dressed in transparent veils. Another familiar sight is the blackened procession of women dressed in burkas following their men silently. Shaheen also stressed that the Arab woman is depicted in several films as a bloodthirsty vampire or bomber with the intention to rob Westerners of life.31 Costumes are according to Shaheen are a means to make personal and political claims regarding the Arab woman. These women shrouded in black are a medium for the Hollywood cinema to portray what they believe to be the systematic oppression of women in the Arab world, these women usually never have speaking roles and are usually reprimanded if they do speak out.
After establishing key Arab stereotypes in Hollywood films, it is also relevant to look at how the American is self-represented. In Enemy Images in War Propaganda (2012) Marja Vuorinen describes how namely the construction of an enemy is simultaneously accompanied by the construction of the self. ‘The human urge to itself as “good” and the other is to be stamped as a “bad” is set here at the root. This principle of distinction is consistent with the previously described principles of Hall on representation: to give meaning to a particular ethnic group or religion in comparison with another group. Vuorinen relies on the psychological concept of “projection” of Sigmund Freud. Projection is splitting psychological and culturally desirable properties of evil, malicious and weak features, and then the less desirable properties themselves are projected in the other in an attempt “to mentally protect the self.”
American Sniper Synopsis: American Sniper (2014) tells the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in the fight against terrorism gained fame as the most lethal sniper in the history of the US Army. Gradually it becomes clear that Chris has difficulty letting go of the war in the Middle East, to the frustration of his wife Taya (Sienna Miller). In this part of my analysis I focus be constructed in the way Arabs and Americans or represented in American Sniper using the concepts Ball, Verstraten and Bordwell and Thompson. The American characters Chris, his father and wife Taya and Arab characters Mustafa, his wife and The Butcher are particularly central. The primary telling and film techniques I discuss are focusing, mise-en-scène, cinematography and editing, but I will regularly make a connection between image and sound / music to show how the structure of the Arab and American is strengthened.
Relevant American characters in American Sniper American and protagonist Chris Kyle is represented throughout the film as a hero and an inspiration, whose motivation to fight in the Middle East will be explored carefully. In one scene, Chris receives the news with about attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam and eventually the Twin Towers in New York (21:05-21:50). By showing these images, followed by Chris face in an assembly, shows a direct causal relationship between his motive (and the US) to invade Iraq to protect the homeland. This is enhanced by including a shot with that’s a closeup of the face of Chris where he is concentrated in practice with a sniper. Such a causal relationship within the editing is an (internal) focusing technique to crawl deeper into the psyche of Chris and make clear his real motives.
Figures 1, 2 and 3: The motivation of Chris to fight is visualized.
The association of Chris and masculinity are frequently associated in the film with the education and ideas of his father during his youth. In a flashback segment (03:25- 06:00) we see for example how a young Chris meets a gun for the first time when his father takes him to hunt, which shows that Chris has a talent for shooting. At the dinner table the father then tells Chris and his younger brother that there are three types of people: “the sheep, the wolf and the sheepdog”. We see that Chris has already emerged at an early age as a shepherd dog, the person whose job is the ” protection of the flock against wolf”, as he protects his brother against a bully. These images are provided with the words of the father, serve as a parable for the hero. Chris who will play the “shepherd” in the fight against terrorism the ‘wolf’ in the Middle East. Also, in this same segment is the role of the church and the Bible. We see how Chris and his father, mother, and brother attend a prayer in a church. Chris in particular develops a fascination with the Christian faith as he deliberately takes a Bible from the church. The same Bible we see later on when Chris is in Iraq. By repeatedly displaying a close-up of the Bible we are reminded that as a viewer that not only is there a struggle between two cultures and nations, but also between two beliefs: Christianity and Islam. In a particular shot the Bible is positioned next to Chris’s gun, implying that the Americans believed that the war was also a sort of Holy War. Chris seems to be portrayed as an almost Christ like figure who will defend the Good from the Evil.
Figure 4 and 5: The frequent display of the Bible (in combination with a gun) indicates the importance of the Christian faith for protagonist Chris.
The flashback segment is a manifestation of the (external plus) internal focusing. This entire segment is where the feelings and thoughts of Chris are carefully explored: The audience becomes attached to Chris through the flashbacks and as such the audience builds respect and sympathy for him as we now understand that he is motivated by the Good the need to protect his nation, his family, his religion and also the need to protect the weak. The movie also builds a sympathy in the audience for the US military but more specifically for the men who are deployed with Chris as we see them during SEAL training. This is done by showing many light-hearted moments between the soldiers, when they play a game of cards, visit a café, attend each other’s wedding, telling each other about the birth of their child, etc .. By showing smiling faces in between the severity of the war, tells the external narrator that these American soldiers are ordinary people with a heart and soul.
Figure 6: shows manly companionship among Americans.
Relevant Arabic characters American Sniper
The most important Arab characters in American Sniper are mainly represented as evil and brutal, unlike Chris. This malignancy is seen in characters like ‘The Butcher’, an Iraqi lieutenant serving under Al Qaeda, and Mustafa, a sniper who is presented as the Arabian counterpart to Chris. The Butcher is depicted (as his name suggests) as a ruthless brute who shuns everything to get his way. Throughout the film his reasons are never clear. Moreover, he and his associates are continuously wrapped in a robe with an Arab headscarf, which strengthens the association between Arab, Islam and terrorism. In one particular scene (45:30-48:00) The Butcher tortures a child of an Iraqi sheik who betrayed him to the US military. The father of the child is begging in the background, The Butcher kills the child with a jackhammer. This scene is a graphical relationship established between the suppression of the child by The Butcher and the bully from an earlier scene who had physically tormented Chris’s younger brother. The parable of the wolf and the Islamic terrorist: The Butcher is “the predator hunting on the weak.” This graphic relationship between the flashback of Chris and the scene with The Butcher is a link between an (external plus) internal focused shot of the bully (looking through Chris’s eyes and memories) with a focused external shot of the villain. An omniscient external narrator tells us in this case, that The Butcher is the personification of evil that Chris must fight. Also, by omitting the actual name and motives of this character the audience never builds an understanding of the character and will always remain The Butcher.
Figure 7 and 8: the role of The Butcher (right with drill bit) is supported as a malignant suppressor.
Although the Iraqi Sheik in this scene is also plugged into an Islamic robe, his clothes are much lighter in colour than that of The Butcher, or any other Arab fighting against the Americans, which shows the goodness of this character in contrasts with, for example, The Butcher. Moreover, the Sheikh is assisted by characters (relatives) who put on more Western-looking clothes. The scene shows this addition to the connection between Arab and Islam and the malice of the Arab character The Butcher but also divisions among the Arab people.Mustafa the sharpshooter, like Chris has a knack for shooting, but rather is represented in the same way as The Butcher. Like the lieutenant of Al Qaeda the motives of Mustafa almost never exposed and is constantly provided with a dark head scarf. Mustafa and The Butcher wear similar colours and clothing which reveals in a sense their Islamic motives. Also, therefore there is a distinction in the use of costumes between Americans and Arabs in faith. By omitting these scenes where Arabic characters are inserted into other, more accessible clothing in peaceful settings it is insinuated that these characters live for nothing else than their jihad, or holy war.
Figures 9 and 10: The Butcher (left) and Mustafa (right) are continuously inserted into black, Islamic clothing.
The battle against the Islamic faith has been ushered in during the opening scene (00: 00- 03:25). When the logo of the production company Warner Bros. shines on the screen, the viewer is serenaded by a male voice that preaches the Arab and Islamic phrase “AllahuAkhbar”. Immediately afterwards, the sound track is dominated by a moving American tank, after which quickly a medium long shot that follows this same tank which is surrounded by a patrolling American military convoy. The atmosphere is hereby accentuated by frequent use of pieces of stone, rubble and grey and brown tones. The intro can be seen as a way to clarify that we are in the Middle East. Simultaneously, the volume of the Arabic words “Allahu Akhbar” staged so that (with the patrolling US soldiers) the audience feels that there might be a fight against the Arabs and Islam. This feeling is repeated several times in the film underlined when shots of Arab characters are equipped with Islamic songs.
The role of the American and Arabic woman in American Sniper The contrast between the Arab and American women are also quite striking in American Sniper, and is, among other visually represented by the loved ones of protagonist Chris and antagonist Mustafa. Although both snipers play an important role for their country, Taya (the wife of Chris) displays a much more critical regard for the welfare of her husband than the seemingly passive wife of Mustafa; although it must be said that the latter, unlike Taya gets less screen time. However, the connection between the two women and the relationship with their husband are displayed through montage and mise-en-scène. In two scenes (01:15:50-01:16:20) and (54:00-54:56), a graphical relationship between Taya and Mustafa’s wife is realized. Where Taya in this shot is active, upright and emotional way when Chris is returning to Iraq on the other hand, Mustafa’s wife sits and looks silently, head bowed when weapons are brought into position to fight, as a sign of submission. Also, Mustafa’s wife does not speak and is wrapped in Islamic garb. The character Taya will counterbalance the Chris as the war begins to get to him.
Figure 11 and 12: Mustafa’s wife and Taya’s wife Chris, both bear a child, which is a graphical relationship established between the two women. The wife of Mustafa silent when her husband goes to war, while Taya criticized her husband.
The subordinate role of the Arab woman is also visible (25:00-27:28) in a scene where an Arab woman with her child is (presumably) commanded to follow her husband rushes toward a US military convoy armed with a Russian grenade. It becomes clear that mother actually had evil intentions. Arab women and children frequently are shown through the scope of Chris’s sniper rifle, indicating that in this war everyone is a combatant that there is no such thing as an innocent Arab. Moreover, the woman is like Mustafa, The Butcher and Mustafa’s wife wrapped in a black Islamic robe. Costumes seems to symbolize the identity and motives of all these characters. It seems that the external narrator tells us through these focusing techniques (by omitting certain information about Arabic characters and providing information about the Americans) developing sympathy for the American and antipathy for the Arab.
Figure 13: By showing the woman and child through the sniper scope the audience is distanced from them
The Film The ShiekhIn the film The Sheik (1921) there are not much trace of hostility or terrorism. Because stereotyping in film is a mechanism that uses recycling, it is useful to look at the earliest forms of stereotyping of Arabs.12 In the early the twentieth century, many countries in the Middle East were under colonial rule, the French and the British. Similarly included the town of Biskra in what is today Algeria where this film is largely happening at the time of French colonial rule. The film opens with footage of an Imam preaching, praying Muslims in the desert, oases, palm trees, camels and a market where the ‘wealthy sons of Allah “can buy their wedding as an “ancient custom.” Since it is a silent film, this is explained by commentary. The audience already gains a sense that the Arab lands are an exotic place that is akin to another planet. The female protagonist is going on a journey. The British Diana is preparing for a journey across the desert. The audience is made to relate to Diana and view the Arabs as primitive and barbaric. This movie plays into the earlier mentioned stereotype that Arabs are lecherous beings who fantasize about the white woman and have no civilised sensibilities.
Figure 1: A frame from The Sheik in which the opposition civilization / barbarism is clearly seen.
The Arab world is a place where civilization has not yet penetrated. Such statements give an idea of a binary opposition which were prevalent and still are: Western civilized / Arab uncivilized. In this uncivilized world they were also fond of women which are often exotic belly dancer or oppressed as shown by covered clothing. The oppression of women is central to the film. Sheikh kidnaps Diana and submits her to his will. A similar scenario where Western woman are kidnapped or seduced by an Arab comes in more than 60 films.13
Perception is reality, this axiom is one that rings true when it comes to Hollywood and their portrayal of Arabs. The power and influence that movies have on the perceptions of the audience. Hollywood’s influence is not merely restricted to the US but extends beyond its borders. Hollywood is a soft-power tool that the Unites States government has no qualms in utilising. A tool to which they would use to win the hearts-and-minds of the people, in order to build a narrative, so that any war that the US is engaged in is a ‘good war’.
What this paper set out to show is that the perceptions of the Arabs in Hollywood has been negative since the advent of cinema itself. These perceptions go a lot further and a lot deeper than simply that Arabs are bad or are terrorists. But the perceptions have dismantled all parts of the Arab culture. More importantly, there must be more work done to bring these issues to the public eye, because the audience are having esoteric messages influence them and this world in a negative manner. Hollywood directors and film houses need to be held accountable for the perceptions that they are creating, that is the only way in which things can get better.