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Within the past century, there has been an immense change in the way Hollywood depicts the Middle East genre. As John C. Eisele explains in his article “The wild East: Deconstructing the language of Genre in the Hollywood Eastern”, in the past, the Middle Eastern protagonists and characters were depicted as heroes who survived all sorts of harassments: from slavery, imprisonment or threats of amputation and rescue. In other instances, they were also depicted as villains (Eisele 69). This showed that just like in any other society the Middle East has people with a mixture of characters: some good and others who were not so good. However, all this changed after the first two decades of the introduction of the film industry where most Hollywood films now portray Arab characters as maniacal terrorists with no morality or human decency. Unlike in the past, this is a generalization of all individuals with Arab descend to be of the similar character and yet not all human beings are the same; we were created differently. Just because a family member is caught stealing from a neighbor does not make all family members thieves. In essence the development of Arab characters in Hollywood has moved away from love interests, heroes or heroines to what Eisele refers to as ‘disidentification’ with unseen enemies or antagonists.
It’s largely clear that the representations in the films industry indicate the real situation in real life. In the beginning of the 20th century when Native Americans were portrayed as antagonist and even labeled the red Indians. This showed how this community was suffering a tragic fate during civilization (71). There is a high likelihood that Native Americans were given an antagonistic representation because of the opinion held by the public on the Indian Wars. Some Indians strongly resisted against the theft of their land by America and engaged in war with those who were viewed as supporters of the US in the theft. On the other hand, Arabs had close ties with the US especially when they all fought against the Ottoman Empire. It was until the 1973 oil embargo that resulted from the war between Israel and Arabs when the Arabs became a threat to the interests of Americans. It was around the same period that Hollywood began to depict Arabs as terrorists in films such as Black Sunday, directed by John Frankenheimer in 1977 (86). In his essay “Lemme Stay, I want to watch” Luz Calvo argues that racial identity is determined by an understanding of historical and personal origins that involve a prehistoric scene (Calvo 73). It therefore confirms that the reason as to why Americans consider Arabs as enemies is because of the conflicts that existed in the past and some that still exist between the two nations in the modern world. Now Arabs are portrayed as terrorists in most Hollywood films, it is the exact representation of what is happening in the real world; the conflict between the western world and the Middle East. Any individual watching such kinds of movies would definitely read between the lines. As a matter of fact this could increase the tension and growing hostility between Arabs and Westerners.
Two films that can perfectly illustrate the change in the way Arabs are negatively represented are ‘True Lies’ directed by James Cameron in 1994 and the ‘Sheik’ directed by George Melford 1921. In ‘True lies’ the hero is Harry Trasker played by Arnold Scwarzenegger. He could be equated to Ahmad in The Sheik. This is a European who takes up the character of an Arab Sheik. He leads a double life by pretending to be an accountant with mild-manners with a family consisting of a wife and a kid but in reality he is a super spy. In both films there are two identities. One of an Arab who takes up the role of a super spy and the other is a non Arab who could either be an American or an European. However, the difference between the two films is that in The Sheik, the identity of Ahmed is revealed for Diana, the heroine. As an Arab, his unmarked identity is later on developed and exposed. On the other, in True Lies, Helen, the wife to Trasker only comes to know him as an unmarked super spy when she gets entangled in Trasker’s secrete life. All along she knew him as a mundane accountant (80). In ‘True Lies’ the Arab characters are portrayed in a very negative manner just like other terrorist eastern. All this is done to set off the goodness and strength of the hero who is an American. A comparison of the two films indicates that non Arabs are good people while the Arabs are bad people yet this is not always the case in real life: there are so many good Arabs friends, colleagues, relatives and business men and women out there.
There is a high possibility that Hollywood champions the views and ideas of the larger American Society. Hollywood shapes its films to according to what the masses would like most since they are their consumers. A film that does not attract the attention of a larger audience would not sale and this would mean a loss to Hollywood producers. With the increased tension between the Middle East and the United States in the 1970s, especially with the Arab nations, it was certain that this reality would be evident in movies. Fast-forward to about thirty years later with the September 11 tragedy, there was an immense increase in anti-Middle East sentiments. In fact there were complaints by Arabs about cases of harassment by the security personnel at all entry points into the US. For instance, any Arab flying into the US was thoroughly searched by the security personnel since all of them were viewed as potential threats to the security of the country. After September 11, it was clear that Arabs were the enemy to the United States. Since Hollywood is very American, it produced movies that had American interests. Irrespective of how true this was, it was a theme of so many films produced during this period and after. Consequently, most of the negative sentiments held by the public against the Arab nations had to be displayed in the films. This also helped United States to gather support from its citizens and other nations for its subsequent war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to Luz Calvo, most people might think that all the scenes of violence were buried in historical books. The reality is that they continually surface in everyday life although in some hidden forms in the popular culture, one of these cultures being the film industry (Calvo 74). Just like the Mexicans produce a film which depicts their social values, so Americans do. When describing the reflections of ‘Touch of Evil” by Welles, Calvo emphasizes on the idea that this film demonstrates that the society is preoccupied with the past. Similarly when the Hollywood films characterize Arabs as terrorists or inhuman people, they represent what happened in the past. Often such representations would only help in increasing enmity between nations or races.
In Calvo’s article, ambivalence demonstrates the existence of contradicting attitudes and feelings towards an object. In particular it’s about the racial and sexual difference found in cinema (73). I concur with Calvo’s statement that psychoanalysis is a key determinant in formation of identity. Regardless of whether the identity might be wrong or right, the fact still remains that what will be portrayed in the cinema will demonstrate what is in the mind of the public. However, sometimes lack of understanding of an existing situation can create bigger problems. For instance, one scene in ‘Touch the Evil’ demonstrates that a lack of understanding by the child when he sees his parents having sexual intercourse. According to the child, this is an act of violence against his mother when the fact is that it’s because of a similar act between his parents that he was born. The same could be applied to the situation between Arabs and Americans. Each of these societies has their own cultures that might not be common to the other. A wrong interpretation of the cultures could give a wrong understanding on why they do what they do and might end up generating more hatred between the two.
Even though Welles production does not rise above the originality of the scenes of racial violence and sexual violence as demonstrated in the earlier production by Olmos, it investigates into a cultural fantasy. This makes it a representation of the societies along the border (75). Anyone watching the movie would believe that it represents what happens in the region because the film industry has been known to do so. As Eisele explains, when the Arabs were perceived to be threats to Americans in the 20th century, they became the subjects of various movies which strived to portray them as bad individuals. Even though it was not the United States Government that used to produce these movies, private movie industries were staged in American and it could be said that they represented the interests of the American government. After all, citizens are part of the larger government. This trend, with no doubt changed the attitudes of most American citizens and played a big role in fueling the interest of the United States towards the Middle East as it is seen in the modern time. This is a true indication of the potential the film industry has in changing the attitudes of the population.
The use of film as a medium of denigrating a specific culture or a small group of people is no rocket science. It has been used severally in the world. One individuals how knows the effectiveness of these medium is Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany. On several occasions, he used the film industry to build up negative sentiments towards Jews. He used films to convince the population that Jews were working towards the demise of Germany and it was of great importance that they were exterminated from the world. Currently Arabs are also viewed in a similar pejorative way. Although it might not be to the same level as Hitler’s, Hollywood need to realize the potential of what they are doing.
At this point in time, this is not what we want for the society. The world has become a global village thanks to development in information technology and other forms of infrastructure. It would be much better if we took up this opportunity and worked with people of different races so that we could be equipped with all the necessary skills for development. Every nation has a specific area of specialization in which they are known to be good at. For instance, Italians are known to be good designers of clothes while Arabs are brave. This diversity should be used to strengthen our relationships rather than dividing us. Since the film industry is so influential in society, it would be the best avenue to mend the relationships between different races. Hollywood should therefore consider its racial representations in their movies to create a better future for the film industry and the world in general.