It is a great tragedy sometimes that cinema and all that it represents has so much power. This power can sometimes be used negatively and in extreme instances, becomes a form of propaganda. The enlightening documentary Reel bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People addresses this issue in light of Hollywood's negative, sometimes vile representation of Arab, and therefore Muslims, in extremely bad light.
In the same way that Russians were once portrayed as the enemy of choice by Hollywood during the height of the cold war in the 60's, Arabs today have become the replacements for this role. But this, the documentary very convincingly argues, is not a recent development. It is the work of years of media manipulation by the powers that be. To use a quote that the movie also uses, by Movie mogul Jack Valenti "Hollywood and Washington spring from the same DNA." The level of detail to which the documentary, and the commentary by media consultant Dr. Jack Shaheen extends, is extensive. I learned about a production company called 'Canon Studios', run by two Jewish partners, which during the 80's (arguably the worst period for Arabs in the American media) made nearly 20 movies with strong anti-Arab sentiments. The most popular of these was the B-movie hit Delta Force. The atrocities go on – movies with a negative portrayal of Arabs, have been endorsed and helped by the Department of Defense including the likes of True Lies, Executive Decision and even Rules of engagement, which was written by James Webb, former secretary of the U.S. Navy.
The documentary, in an extremely persuasive manner, informs us about how the Iraq war was justifiable to the world at large mostly because of years of media buildup. Like a great book, on which it is based itself, it even explores why such a situation came to be and attributes it collectively to three major incidents: the Iranian revolution, the oil embargo in the 70's and the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict over the years. The feature isn't pessimistic however. It ends with a look at how new filmmakers have tried to change and at least provide a more balanced, humane look at Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general and cites as examples great films such as Three Kings (in which the narrator Jack was a consultant), Paradise Now and Kingdom of heaven, which though performed badly in the US, did well internationally and received a standing ovation from critics in Beirut. All of this contained in a very short, almost brisk running time of less than 50 minutes.
Good documentaries can move you or inform you. Great documentaries can change your entire point of view. Reel bad Arabs falls into the latter category.
- by Faizan Rashid [Rated 4.5 out of 5]