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Arab cinema fights censorship at home and hate crime in the West

In June, Oscar-winning screenwriter David Franzoni announced his upcoming biography of the 13-century Persian poet Rumi, a production he believes will counter the negative portrayal of Muslims put forward in Western films. Yet despite the premise for the film, it was LA-born Leonardo DiCaprio who was tipped to play the lead role, with Robert Downey Jr as Shams of Tabriz, the spiritual guide who led Rumi to enlightenment.

Following Franzoni's announcement, almost 7,000 people signed a petition, promoted under the hashtag #RumiWasntWhite, calling for a Middle Eastern actor to be cast as Rumi. Hollywood has drawn on a wealth of Middle Eastern actors to play terrorists, they pointed out, so why should a white man play one of the greatest poets of all time, who was born in present day Afghanistan?

If this casting goes ahead, DiCaprio and Downey Jr are set to join other white actors who have played people from a range of ethnic backgrounds in Hollywood movies, among them Rooney Mara, who played American Indian Tiger Lily in Peter Pan; Angelina Jolie was cast as the Afro-Cuban Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart; Joseph Fiennes played Michael Jackson; and Ben Affleck was the Mexican-American Antonio J. Mendez in Argo.

Even when productions do cast actors and actresses from the Arab World the characters they play help to entrench widely held, tired, stereotypes about the region. There is perhaps no better example of this than the American TV series Homeland starring Roya Hammad, a Palestinian journalist sympathetic to the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nazir, the operational leader of Al-Qaeda. Abu Nazir supervises the captivity of Nicholas Brody – an American Marine who was captured in Iraq – turns him, and sends him back to the US to carry out missions for Al-Qaeda.

Abu Nazir represents the archetypal Arab terrorist, Roya the clandestine terrorist hiding in a suit (clear message: trust no one, not even the Western-looking Arabs). The Brody character – his conversion and subsequent assignments for Al-Qaeda – suggests that the ideology of Muslim terrorists can infiltrate all levels of society, even the families of white Americans.

The negative depiction of Arabs in popular culture has an impact far beyond our living rooms. The speeches of our politicians are littered with the same negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, which not only reinforces them but dehumanises Muslim and Arab communities so much that we as observers barely flinch at illegal military invasions in the Arab world and increased surveillance at home.

In June this year, the monitoring group Tell MAMA reported that in 2015 anti-Muslim abuse, targeted largely at Muslim women, was up by 326 per cent. At the height of the furore surrounding the burkini ban in France, these hate crimes culminated at the end of August when a middle-aged Muslim woman on a beach in France was forced to remove her headscarf by armed policemen. No one on the busy beach intervened to help her. There is no doubt that the negative portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in popular culture has contributed towards the fact that these hate crimes are carried out, and that they have increased.

In The TV Arab and Reel Bad Arabs, academic Jack Shaheen argued that since the 1920s Arabs have been depicted as one of the three Bs – "bombers, belly dancers or billionaires". With his wife Bernice, Shaheen documents the depiction of Arabs in TV, film, magazines, video games, comic strips, toys and games, and together have compiled the Jack G Shaheen Archive out of their research, which is now housed at New York University.

Based on this research, Shaheen has concluded that stereotyping is everywhere, "like a virus." The repetition of images fuels widespread assumptions about people; because films often portray Arab men as conniving or backward and the women as submissive, this can thus form the basis of our opinions about entire communities, particularly as many viewers will not have even met such people first hand.

"Stereotypes feed from ignorance and thrive in the absence of contact and engagement," agrees Rasha Salti, curator of this year's Safar contemporary Arab film festival organised by the Arab British Centre – which will be held at the ICA in London from 14-18 September. Salti told MEMO that negative stereotyping and hate crimes are certainly an issue: "I don't deny the reality of negative stereotyping, I go through passport control at airports often enough to know the implications of negative bias, painfully first-hand… hate crimes and negative stereotypes come hand in hand; they are different manifestations of the same situation."

Less interested in confronting this negative stereotyping "head-on", Salti wants to engage with audiences "from the terms set by the films and the filmmakers" of Arab cinema. These "terms" have become more daring and visible over the past 20 years and are not only contrary to the Orientalist depiction of Arabs in Western films, but also challenge the way that Arab dictators want the countries they rule over to be portrayed.

"Arab auteur filmmakers are politically engaged, that is a reality," says Salti. "They have made their films against countless odds, forged a boldly independent, emotionally captivating and politically dissident or subversive cinema. Arab cinema of the past thirty years embodies the most cogent and fantastic counter-cultural archive that tells stories Arab dictatorships wanted to silence and represent realities that were intentionally kept invisible from mainstream culture."

Lined up for this year's festival is a film about the decade-long conflict in Algeria, the revolution in Tunisia and a production about everyday life in war-torn Aleppo. Safar's programme doesn't just tackle politics, though: Before the Summer Crowds is a psychological drama set in Egypt whilst Borders of Heaven features a family torn apart by grief in Tunisia.

What connects all of them is that that they are recent productions, made in the past two years; that they showcase a plurality of voices and approaches; and that they have not been handpicked for a Western audience: "Without a shadow of a doubt," replies Salti, when I ask if she would pick the same line-up to screen at a film festival in the Middle East, which catered to a Middle Eastern audience. "At the risk of censorship."

By endorsing accomplished films produced by a diverse range of Middle Eastern directors themselves, and enabling the audience to engage with these filmmakers directly, Safar film festival will help to counter the negative stereotypes of Muslims and people from the Arab World.

"Stereotypes simplify, flatten and appeal to the worst psycho-affective disposition," says Salti. "The more there is circulation, exhibition, opportunities for discussion and dialogue, the more a complex representation is communicated, the stronger the immunity to racist stereotyping."

Safar film festival will be at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) from 14 September to 18 September 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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