Since the turn of the century, the concept of Arab identity and its role in the media gained prevalence throughout society, from educational institutions, through to casual conversations within one’s home.
Subsequently, it goes without saying that many of us have grown up watching American cinema and media; naturally inflicting upon us American lifestyles and values. Although, how sure are we about the accuracy of the ‘American Dream’ that media companies sell to us?
It has come to my attention the widespread of displeasure in society on the misconstrued representation in the media; that we (Arabs) are terrorists, oppressors, wife beaters and so on. Despite being largely discontent with the image depicted by the media, I also find that we truly do aspire to change this stereotypical image that western media portrays us in but struggle in finding support to go mainstream.
Working within the film industry, my job involves reviewing films for festivals, screening content, analyzing and learning more about the power of film. Though it wasn’t until recently that I completely appreciated the power of film in how intriguing and educating they can be for young minds and society alike. The sheer fact that it can provoke one’s thoughts with questions, subject matters and ideologies on a wide spectrum of topics highlights cinema as a powerful tool for communication – one that the entertainment industry has fully utilized.
Last week, I watched an interesting documentary called “Valentino’s Ghost”. And no, it wasn’t about the Italian fashion mogul, but rather, about the depiction of Arabs in media. The first portrayal of that was in the 1920’s in an American film called “The Sheik”, starring the late actor Rudolph Valentino. The documentary traces the origins of Arab/Muslim images in Hollywood from the onset of the 1900s to date. It touched upon one of my personal favorite topics, orientalism.
More often than not, orientalism in Hollywood tends to negatively represent Arabs in the media. Millions and millions of dollars are spent on creating films, fabricating news and music to feed people false information about Arabian history, politics, culture, religion and they have been very successful at that.
I do not intend to fan the flames of conspiracy theories, but I do acknowledge the lack of retaliation in rectifying our image whilst educating the masses about who we are, our culture and lifestyle.
Unfortunately, cinema in the Middle East has remained very much local. The only films that are mass-produced in the Arab world is Egyptian Cinema, and lucky for them, are commercial enough to infiltrate theatres in other Arab countries.
This trend is now slowly changing. The establishment of filming bodies (government backed or private) such as twofour54, the Doha Film Institute and Enjaaz in the GCC, Gulf Cooperative Council, is aimed at starting and nurturing a film movement within the region. This movement is aimed at reaching international audiences, in a bid to alter and educate the west’s perception of the Arab world and its society.
It all starts with educating society about cinema, supporting independent filmmaking and working with distributors who play a major role in bringing films to the big screen. It has to be commercial after all.
Regional film festivals not only provide opportunities to soft drinks and munch popcorn but they also play a substantial role in influencing and supporting independent cinema. While film festivals in the GCC aim to educate its local population on film appreciation, it also spends large sums of money hosting global industry professionals, international producers, directors and distributors to watch local films that are produced by the real voices of this Middle East; its own people.
Our stories and culture are parallel in importance to that of the ‘American Dream’, thus if America can utilize Hollywood to fabricate our image, we can use Hollywood to fix it.
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