Film festival explores Arab history, identity

The Williams Reads program continued its series of events related to Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent last weekend with a brief film festival. Five films were screened in Griffin and at Images Cinema last Saturday and Sunday, and tea was served in Griffin on Saturday afternoon.

The festival began Saturday afternoon with Axis of Evil Comedy Tour and two screenings of Ramin Serry’s Maryam in Griffin. Axis of Evil follows comics Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Kader and Maz Jobrani, all of Middle-Eastern descent, on their sold-out tour. Special guest Dean Obeidallah joins them as they work to build bridges between East and West, frankly addressing stereotypes and covering a range of topics, from gay terrorists to the challenges of flying in a post-9/11 America. Maryam portrays the experience of a young Iranian immigrant, Mary Armin, as she grows up in a New Jersey suburb. Mary thinks of herself as simply American until the Iranian hostage crisis erupts, forcing her to confront the anti-Iranian attitudes that surface in response to the crisis.

Amreeka and Reel Bad Arabs simultaneously concluded Saturday’s films. Amreeka chronicles one Palestinian family’s tumultuous journey to and experiences in the U.S. during the Iraq War. Characters must navigate a hostile American environment steeped in prejudice. Director Cherien Dabis effectively infuses such serious topics with levity and humor, producing a memorable narrative. The first documentary of the series, Reel Bad Arabs examines the portrayal of Arabs throughout cinematic history, from silent film to modern blockbusters. The documentary explores the origin of stereotypical images such as Bedouin bandits, submissive maidens and irrational terrorists in the context of American history. Reel Bad Arabs reveals the effect of such a long line of images that reinforce a narrow view of Arabs and can be linked to American domestic and foreign policy. The documentary advocates for counter-narratives to begin to fairly represent the diversity and humanity of Arabs.

The Williams Reads Film Festival concluded on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Images, with a screening of Valentino’s Ghost. Directed by Michael Singh and narrated by Mike Farrell, this second documentary covered issues similar to those of Reel Bad Arabs, linking American foreign policy in the Middle East directly to American media portrayals of Arabs and Muslims. The film includes several expert commentators, including Niall Ferguson, Robert Fisk, Gore Vidal and Melani McAlister, who analyze the absence of serious discussion of American Middle Eastern policy in the U.S., particularly concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Valentino’s Ghost begins with footage of Maz Jobrani (an Iranian-American comedian part of the “Axis of Evil” comedy group) performing a comedy set in Washington, D.C., about his airport experiences. Ultimately, Valentino’s Ghost explores the images, semantics and editing of various news and entertainment that have made the Middle East “unintelligible” to the general population. The documentary moves through decades of cinema in the U.S., highlighting various epochs of American Middle Eastern policy and their corresponding portrayals of Middle Easterners. Valentino’s Ghost notes the initial romancing of Arabia, represented by Hollywood icon Rudolph Valentino’s portrayals of Arabs in silent films like The Sheik. The documentary explains that during the 1920s, when the U.S. had little political interest in the region, the Middle East served as “a blank slate where Americans could project their fantasies.” Then, in the 1930s, as the West began invading the Middle East and northern Africa, Hollywood predictably revised its portrayal of Arabs from mysterious sex symbols to barbarians, not unlike Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans in the American West. The documentary continues to trace Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs and Muslims through current dehumanizing images.

Valentino’s Ghost devotes a significant portion of time to explaining the history of Palestine and the plight of the Palestinian people. Such information is likely new for the documentary’s audience because American media generally has not covered such issues. Contributors note the relatively recent development of Zionism, observing the successful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians before the 20th century. The film notes the persistent influence of the Israeli lobby in the U.S., the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and its freedom from any serious countering Arab or Muslim lobby. Contributors note the unusual lack of public discourse on the American policy of unconditional support for Israel. Whereas British and even Israeli commentators frequently address and publically disagree on the issue, Israeli policy is “out of bounds” only in the U.S.

The documentary proposes that a “gutlessness” to diverge from accepted norms exists in the American media and credits “good old-fashioned interest group politics” for the American position. Journalist Anthony Shadid expounds on the media’s aversion to convey both sides of the issue, explaining an episode where his editor declined to run a controversial piece to avoid a deluge of hate mail he predicted in response. Politicians similarly toe the line because unconditionally supporting Israel means “I don’t have to explain myself to anybody.” Ultimately, John Mearsheimer explains the “charge of anti-Semitism” has become “the great silencer,” precluding any questioning of the American stance toward Israel and Israeli policies.

Williams Reads events will continue on Thursday at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) with the WCMA at Night event “Cultural Snapshots, the Crescent Café.”