Wednesday, 23 July 2008

MUSLIMS ON FILM

The Islamic 'other' in film

By Sukant Chandan*

Docu-dramas, documentary films and feature films are
perhaps some of the most influential media by which we
develop our political perceptions and prejudices. This has
been recognised long ago and put to use on a mass scale
during the Second World War, when films were used to rally
the masses in the Allied countries against Hitlerite
fascism. It was a time when the US made films celebrating
Soviet guerrilla martyr attacks against the Nazi
occupation, such as in the film North Star. The US has ever
since pumped massive amounts of resources into this medium
through the cinema, TV and more recently the internet.

With the emergence of the internet, online video file
sharing and peer-to-peer download services in the last
decade, the grip of the big production houses have
decreased, and people now have relatively more access than
before to a more complex and critical understanding of
politics and culture. Documentary films have also played a
major role in shaping public opinion, and perceptions of
the 'Other'. The Other being non-white people generally,
but today specifically focused on Muslims and Islamists
which, we are told, do not share or are against 'our'
values.

Perhaps the most well-known example of a documentary film
that has shaped public opinion is Michael Moore's
Fahrenheit 9/11. Many other films have had an impact on
political discourses which are defining our time:
Islamophobia, Western initiated war and occupation, or in
the words of the world's self-proclaimed standard bearers
of democracy: "full spectrum dominance" and "shock and
awe".

While it is often US-made films that receive most
attention, there have perhaps been more interesting and
nuanced films made in Britain. Such films include White
Girl, Mark of Cain, Britz and several documentaries,
especially on the issue of Palestine.

Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield's films have been
commercial successes. However one is not so sure that they
have been successful in assisting their mass audiences in
understanding Muslims and their struggles for independence
such as in Iraq or Palestine or throughout the Muslim world
generally.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is seen by many as an insightful critique
of US government reaction to 9/11, but it fails to give any
insight into US foreign policy in the Middle East, policies
that have led many in the region to view the 9/11 attacks
as a reaction against the oppression of Arabs and Muslims
over generations. Unsurprisingly criticism of the film has
come from the Right, however it is important that people
who oppose Western arrogance do not let Moore off the hook
as Muslims are given no time whatsoever in representing
themselves. Robert Jensen's review of the film has been one
the few critiques from a progressive point of view. He
states: "The sad truth is that Fahrenheit 9/11 is a bad
movie, but not for the reasons it is being attacked in the
dominant culture. It's at times a racist movie. And the
analysis that underlies the film's main political points is
either dangerously incomplete or virtually incoherent."

Jensen argues that there is no fair representation of
Muslims in the film, and the representation of countries
like Morocco are far from respectful, let alone inline with
challenging racism and prejudice. While the film
contributed to the climate of mass opposition in the West
to the Iraq war, it failed to give any understanding of
what Muslims are thinking and doing about their oppression;
rather the only portrayal in the film of Muslims was the
rich Gulf Arabs (the Bin Laden family who are one of the
main construction industrialists in the region) who are in
cahoots with Bush and Co. Jensen spoke about his criticisms
of the film, saying that at the time of writing his review
he was too soft on the movie and explains: "Since the end
of WWII, there has been bipartisan support for US attempts
to dominate the politics of the Middle East. Republican and
Democratic administrations alike have pursued illegal and
immoral policies, using overt and covert violence. This
didn't start with George W Bush and won't end when he's out
of office. Moore's movie failed to offer any coherent
analysis of the historical and political context for Bush's
failed wars, and hence did little to help viewers deepen
their understanding."

Broomfield's recently released Battle for Haditha on the
other hand does feature Iraqi protagonists in the community
where the massacre took place as well as persons involved
in the Iraqi resistance. This film was expected to be a
critical film of the now notorious massacre of 24 men,
women and children by US marines in November 2005. While
the film does show the gung-ho nature of the Marines, it
fails to depict the Iraqis accurately. Iraqis are a proud
people with a long history and tradition of
multi-confessional Iraqi, Arab and Islamic culture which
includes a deep sense of patriotism which they have
defended against colonialism of the past and today against
neo-colonialism.

Battle of Haditha treats the Iraqi resistance in an even
more problematic manner than that of the Iraqi
non-combatants. One of the main resistance fighters is a
drunk and joins the struggle due to financial reasons,
while the Islamist resistance leader, a cleric, is a very
shady and manipulative character who cares nothing about
the Iraqi people. In contrast, despite the animal-like
behaviour of the Marines, they are shown as victims of
their political and military leaders. There is no doubt
that the viewer is supposed to sympathise with the Marines
culminating in one of them leading an Iraqi girl by the
hand into the light, while a few moments ago he just
massacred her entire family. The Western viewer would
rightly never accept such a depiction of a soldier of the
Third Reich in relation to the French or Dutch, and would
never accept the anti-fascist resistance as a fundamentally
suspect movement, so why should the viewer accept such a
portrayal in this instance?

Radical Arab Nationalist Ibrahim Alloush explains in a
critique of the film, "when the humanitarian perspective
becomes a cover for humanizing the invader in Iraq or
Palestine independently of politics, it changes into an
arrogant, orientalist mechanism of reducing the Arab cause
to a form of shallow humanitarian advocacy at best, and
political misguidance based on conflation of henchman and
victim at worst… Undeniably, the movie's message is tricky:
it is in an effort to exonerate the Marines in Iraq and the
non-ideological resistance; present the residents as
aimless barn animals ready for slaughter; and to indict
major politicians in the West and ideologists in the East.
Ultimately, it is a liberal message and stems from lack of
comprehension of the ongoing battle between the occupation
and the resistance on Iraq's soil."

The puzzling thing about Broomfield's 'docu-drama' is the
way in which he depicted the relationship between the Iraqi
civilians and resistance; it seems this was at odds with
reality. The residents of Haditha have said that the
resistance are a part of the community who defend the
people against the occupation forces. For some reason
Broomfield has decided to completely distort the
relationship between the resistance and the people of
Haditha.

In contrast to Moore and Broomfield there are a number of
British-made film productions which positively challenge
the mainstream Islamophobic discourse. In discussion with
The Guardian journalist and film-maker Clancy Chassay on
the subject of his video reports from Gaza, he said of his
short films: "It encourages the viewer to engage with our
shared humanity; a humanity too often denied to these
victims."

Indeed it is not a complicated principle to understand, but
the ability to engage in a process to share a common
humanity is beyond many people as a result of the sheer
mass of mainstream media which turns reality on its head.
Chassay's reports cuts through the warped message in much
of the mainstream media that Fatah equals a shared
democratic value with Western democracy, and that Hamas
equals terrorism and repression. Chassay shows that in Gaza
Fatah's armed wing are actively engaged in sending rockets
into Israel, whereas we are led to believe that it is
Hamas' responsibility that any homemade Palestinian rockets
are targeted at Israel. The second round of films from
Chassay shows the impact on Palestinians in Gaza of the
blockade on Gaza by Israel and with which the West is
complicit. These latter films challenges a Western audience
as much as the first set of Chassay's films as they force
the viewer to see beyond the 'terrorists' label, and see
Palestinians as people, albeit a brutally oppressed people.

One of the bravest films to be made is the British film
Britz, a film that raised some uncomfortable home truths
about the ramifications of British foreign and domestic
policies towards Muslims. The film's director Peter
Kosminsky has said that the film was not aimed at Muslim
audiences but at white Western audiences, particularly
those in Britain. Moazzam Begg in his review of the film
following a special preview screening states: "He
[Kosminsky] replied that it was to make people ask more
questions about internal and foreign policy; about spooks
as well as suicide bombers. Indeed, it was to boldly ask
the question whether the effects of personal trauma-in this
case Nasima's best friend who is detained without trial and
then subjected to a control order-coupled with societal
hostility and a sense of political impotence can lead
someone to the path of violent extremism. And if it can,
are we able to understand?"

Britz addressed political taboos head on. In this day and
age it takes confidence and political daring to take up
political themes that should be some of the main political
issues that urgently need addressing. The onus is on
intellectuals, writers, film-makers and those engaged in
progressive political change to radically adjust the
parameters of the debate (or the lack of debate), otherwise
it is left to those in weaker positions to try and raise
these issues but are either ignored or vilified in an
atmosphere reminiscent of McCarthyite totalitarianism.

Another off-limits subject seems to be the Iraqi
resistance. There is only one documentary film that has
reported on the resistance, and that is Steve Connors' and
Molly Bingham's Meeting Resistance. This film was shot
during the small window of time immediately after the
invasion of Iraq in March 2003 when Western filmmakers
could still meet and interview those involved in the
resistance. The film shows people from all walks of life,
young men, professionals, religious clerics, a house wife
and political activists, all part of the resistance who
have nearly an hour and a half on film to discuss their
motivations and the nature of their involvement in the
struggle to free their country.

In conversation with Connors at the British Museum's
screening of Meeting Resistance during the London
Documentary Film Festival, Connors explained how the film
challenges many assumptions and misrepresentations of the
resistance to occupation in Iraq: "Firstly, it pushes back
on the "insurgency" title. To use one word to describe all
the different reasons for violence in Iraq is ridiculous
and - far from simplifying the issues - just creates more
confusion."

When asked in what ways the film challenges Western
preconceptions of the conflict in Iraq, Connors replied "I
think the film allows the audience to rethink and
re-humanise the resistance faction of the Iraqi political
scene and shows them to be people whose aspirations are not
so dissimilar from our own. Denying a view of Iraqis as
actors in their own history then perpetuates the notion
that we Westerners are the only ones civilized and
sophisticated enough to provide a solution instead of
facing the reality that we are actually the major problem
in Iraq. Unfortunately most Western filmmakers (or
journalists) who have tackled Iraq simply haven't been
sufficiently self aware to look at themselves and the
subject in this way".

Connors is right when he highlights the dearth of
filmmakers that approach the Muslim and Islamic Other in a
human way rather than in way that adopts every Eurocentric
stereotype of Muslims. Nevertheless, despite the flawed
depictions of Muslims and their liberation struggles, and
in the face of the lack of films like Britz and Meeting
Resistance, these and other ground-breaking films are
outstanding examples for others to build upon and
positively influence wider audiences.


*Sukant Chandan is a London-based political analyst. This
article first appeared in Conflict Forum's Cultures of
Resistance magazine, of which Sukant Chandan is a
Co-Editor. He can be contacted at sukant.chandan@gmail.com

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