Rendition: Middle East and its presentation in Hollywood
I did not get to see the movie Rendition when it first came out, but I saw it recently on DVD. I never expect good out of Hollywood: in fact, I expect the worst when liberals tell me that a particular film, like Munich, is “sensitive”, or not that bad. Rendition is politically good in talking about the plight of an innocent Arab-American: it was good how it showed that some Arab-Americans can be seen as integrated into American life. But there are certain things that always bother me. Let us start with the Israeli factor. In every movie on the Middle East, you see an Israeli hand or foot or more. This one was no exception: there were Israeli actors who played Arab actors. Hell, the Arab who got the most screen time was an Israeli actor. And usually they shoot the Arab scenes in Israel but in this movie they shot them in Morocco. So that was good. And usually, characters speak atrocious Arabic with a heavy Hebrew accent, where Husayn becomes Khuuuuuuuuuuuseini. Not in this movie, and I waited for the final credit to see they hired an Arabic coach and translator. I forgot her name but the translations were not that accurate overall and the accents were quite inconsistent. This is common in such movies: you find the mother speaking in a Moroccan accent, while the father speaking Egyptian accent, and the kids speak Syrian accents, and some in the movie were speaking Fusha. Don’t get me wrong: this movie was better in that it showed the Arab characters speaking Arabic and we got subtitles. That was a step forward. But there were other problems in the Arabic: the sings of the demonstrators were in bad Arabic and sometimes placards carried half sentences. (Like one sign said that “Let America Go”, and I assumed that they were translating from a sentence that was intended to say “Let America go to hell”.) And there were other cultural problems: of course, praying and Qur’an is always big, but at least they showed one Muslim character drinking whiskey. That is realistic. But at one point, the fundamentalist militants were listening to music by Marcel Khalifah: Khalifah the communist. What was that? That aroused my interest regarding the Middle East experts who advised the movie makers. I waited to the very end and saw that they hired two “cultural experts” on the Middle East: one is a certain Noureddin Abedine and the other is Reza Aslan. I never heard of the first one and don’t be surprised if it is a code name for an Israeli expert. The second guy is no expert on the Arab world and does not speak Arabic, and has not even finished his graduate degree in the Middle East (he is still a PhD student at UC, Santa Barbara). And why do Middle East characters are always sweaty and jittery in movies? And why do they always invoke Allah (or Allaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, as they pronounce it in American movies and media for extra emphasis?) And Middle East women always appear as “grieving widows”: they looks sad, somber, and listless. Why is that? And did I hear the annoying voice of Ofra Haza in this movie? Why? And the suicide bomber portrayal is always wrong in Hollywood movies in that the character is seen forced or compelled or coerced while in reality they are the one who press their handlers and recruiters to send them (and I am afraid that it was no exception Paradise Now by Hany Abu As`ad and I have discussed the matter with him). And in this movie, there were people ready to shoot the suicide bomber if he failed to detonate the bomb. And that never happens in real life. I don’t know of one case in the Middle East where it happened although it may have happened with Tamil Tigers. And why do Middle East men always appear gruff and rough and cold? With the exception of the Green Card holder guy who was married to the the characters played by Reese Witherspoon. And one bothersome element in the movie: the sight of the CIA operative played by Gyllenhaal agonizing over the suffering of the torture victims while the Arabs involved had no conscience. The White Man always comes to the rescue in such movies, and the CIA operative in this movie was no exception. And why does Arab life in such movies appear cartoonish? Everything is exaggerated. And the portrayal of the Interior Minister in Morocco (although they left the Middle East North African country unnamed, but only identified as a North African country) and the chief of the secret police is not accurate: those usually are henchmen who are more likely to answer to the CIA station chief than to the prime minister. I finished the movie thinking: I would rather that the Middle East be left alone and ignored in American culture, than be dealt with “sensitively.” Spare me liberal Hollywood sensitivity, please.
PS Since I received at least one response on this point, I don’t mean that we should require elite qualifications before people can speak about the Middle East. That was not what I said: I only believe in specialization and training (like in Plato’s Republic without the belief in the different metals of people). And just as carpenters should be trained, Middle East specialists who offer expert opinions should also be trained. That was my point. Also, in the movie there is a scene of a fame AlJazeera newscast: it was so bad and the female broadcaster spoke awkward Arabic and was typically veiled when of the tens of news female broadcasters on AlJazeera, only one is veiled.
Posted by As’ad at 9:23 AM