On New Year’s Day, 2011, members of the family gathered around the lunch table, or around a hot tea pot which summed up the warmth of the hearts happy to be together after long absences because of work, study or travel. After some conversation and after exchanging best wishes and aspirations for the New Year, a family member suggests watching a film in order to extend this cozy atmosphere which comes only once or twice a year. They choose Presidential Decision produced Fox Movies. They all took their places ready to watch afilm which appeared from the beginning to be a political propaganda film, aimed at spreading hatred against Arabs and Muslims.
The movie starts by showing nice human relations between the crew and passengers on board an airplane heading to Dallas airport in Washington. Then, it is revealed that the plane, carrying over 200 passengers, is also carrying a nuclear device in the possession of a terrorist group which hijacks the plane. The group demands the release of other terrorists. They kill in cold blood the beautiful hostess and some other innocent passengers. Soon, it is revealed that this bloody and ruthless terrorist group consists of Arabs and Muslims: some of them shout in Arabic; and one terrorist hands another a Quran. The groups does not hesitate to slaughter a congressman who tries to mediate; and when the battle heats up, a terrorist kills the captain and his assistant.
This is one of numerous movies produced by Hollywood about Arabs and Muslims in this idiom. And in this way, this image of Arabs and Muslims takes root in the minds of people in the West to the extent that they can no longer distinguish between the image and the civilian, innocent Arab victims of American and Israeli wars. It becomes so difficult to correct this image. Hollywood spares no effort in targeting Arabs and presenting them always as violent, treacherous and backward villains. Meanwhile, Arab movie makers have not invested sufficient money and effort in combating these poisonous movies by producing ones which depicting reality, their rights, their suffering as a result of Western wars, the Israeli occupation, genocide, racism, assassination and torture in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Boca at the hands of Western and Israeli intelligence agencies, like the Mossad and terrorist firms like Black Water and many others.
The late Mustafa Akkad was the First Arab to rise up to this difficult and important challenge when he directed movies like The Message, about Prophet Mohammad’s call to Islam, Lion of the Desert about Omar Mukhtar and others. He became an important reference point in the United States where his movies were screened to university students and discussed in seminars which in themselves became important venues for correcting the distorted image of Muslims in the minds of Americans and Westerners in general. For this reason, terrorists killed him by exploding a bomb at the wedding he was attending in Amman, and thus an end was put to a career in which he tried to redress the imbalance and fill a gap in world cinema by portraying Arabs and Muslims in a realistic manner.
The problem is that wealthy Arabs do not invest any money in producing movies in the footsteps of Akkad to show the reality of Arab civilization, their historical contribution and their tolerance. The paradox, however, lies in the difference between the image of the Arab in American cinema and the official Arab money spent annually on film festivals, without achieving the desired objectives.
For film festivals to proliferate in the Arab world, sometimes with the host country not having produced a single film which it tries to market, is difficult to understand. If Arabs are good at producing drama series, why do not these series portray the suffering of Arabs and Muslims as a result of Western terrorism and wars for over a century and their suffering at the hands of ‘civilized’ Westerners, and the settlers of the ‘oasis of democracy’ in the Middle East? Why don’t these festivals focus on what we produce and need to market and pass to young generations? What is the point of all these film festivals held in Arab capitals and cities, in light of the miserable conditions of the film industry?
Wouldn’t it be better if those responsible for film festivals in Damascus, Dubai, Cairo, Wahran, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Alexandria, Carthage, Rabat, Marrakesh and others, agreed on holding one Arab film festival a year in one of these cities and mobilized all energies and capacities for producing Arab films with significant artistic and political import, like Presidential Decision, and market them, using a single Arab marketing strategy? What is happening instead is that Arab cities are competing with each other to show foreign films in their festivals. It is a typical Arab competition which strengthens, most of the time, country biases and uses criteria far from being objective and have nothing to do with world cinema.
Every day a Palestinian tells a story of heroism and belonging that is worth being the material for creative artists and producers concerned about the causes of their nation. But this needs a new vision which aspires to put Arab movies on the global scene instead of competing behind closed doors far from the real impact of world public opinion.
BOUTHAINA SHAABAN is Political and Media Advisor at the Syrian Presidency, and former Minister of Expatriates. She is also a writer and professor at Damascus University since 1985. She has been the spokesperson for Syria and was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. She can be reached through email@example.com