Western cinema often settles on the stereotype that Arab Muslims are billionaires, terrorists or belly dancers. These films often merge being an Arab and a Muslim together, forgetting that there is a significant, though decreasing, population of Arab Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, as well as Jews, in the Middle East and in countries where Islam is the predominant religion.
One recent film about Palestinian Christians was Amreeka, the story of a woman and her son who immigrate to Michigan after 9/11 and confront many of the prejudices created by stereotypes, as well as genuinely kind Americans.
At this, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is good for us to examine our cultural stereotypes about Islam so that we can reflect and make a positive contribution to Catholic-Muslim dialogue. Some of these films look at Islam from the outside, some from the inside.
Sex and the City 2
This 2010 sequel follows the adventures of Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) as they find adventure in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.
This is a disappointing follow-up to the film Sex and the City (2008) that had the redeeming qualities of friendship, fidelity and family. This film mocked the citizens, culture, religious, moral beliefs and sexual mores of their hosts. In addition, it had no real plot, so being outrageous and offensive was the default for lazy filmmaking.
This film won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 2000 and a Special Mention certificate from the Catholic jury for its critical portrayal of how women are treated in Iran.
Director Jafar Panahi uses the metaphor of a circular staircase to show the beginning of life for a girl in Iran, and the desperate end, if she does not belong to a man who makes every decision for her. Nothing changes; life for women is an endless circle. The film is jarring and moving—and is banned in Iran.
The Kite Runner
This 2007 film tells the story of two Afghan boys, Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi), the privileged son of a wealthy merchant, and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), son of a servant. The boys play carefree in the streets before the Soviet invasion and fly kites in tournaments.
After winning a contest for his friend, Hassan is attacked and raped by a local bully. Amir is ashamed for his friend and betrays Hassan by framing his father so that he loses his job. Amir moves to America, but guilt for his betrayal of his friend follows him. He returns to Afghanistan as a young man to look for Hassan and to
The 2003 best-selling novel on which the film is based was criticized for hampering the West’s understanding of Islamic culture. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Culture banned the film and DVD due to a rape scene, which by American standards was not so graphic. To me, the book and film are both excellent, and the closing scene of the film, where Amir prays in the mosque, is very inspirational.
Called by some as one of the 10 best films of the ’90s, this biopic features Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington as the controversial Malcolm Little, who became Malcolm X after his conversion to the Nation of Islam.
This religious movement was founded in Detroit in 1930 and sought to empower blacks with belief in their dignity and to improve their lives economically and spiritually. There is an inner struggle for leadership, and Malcolm leaves the Nation of Islam and makes a pilgrimage to Mecca in April 1964. There he sees Muslims of different races, treating one another as equals.
Malcolm repudiates racism and adopts more moderate views, resolving to work for civil rights when he returns to the U.S. He is assassinated six months later. The film is more than three hours long, but with Spike Lee’s direction, based on the book by Alex Haley (Roots) as told to him by Malcolm X, it gives a sense of the accomplishments, struggles and persecution of African-Americans in the 20th century.
What few people realize is that significant numbers of African slaves brought to America were Muslim, so the return to Islam by some African-Americans is a return to their roots.
Disney’s animated hit was released in 1992 and won two Academy Awards for best original song and best musical score.
Based on the Middle Eastern folktale One Thousand and One Nights, the Disney version (followed by two direct-to-DVD movies), tells the story of Aladdin, a street urchin who falls in love with a princess, Jasmine. The princess is on the lam from her father, the sultan, who wants to marry her off. The genie from the magic lamp helps them to overcome everything and live happily ever after.
The American-Arab Anti-Defamation League, however, complained about the lyrics for the opening song: “Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”
Disney changed the lines about the ear and face to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense,” but they refused to change the line about barbarity. The stereotype of the narrator as a filthy Arab was also deemed offensive.
The film may have been deemed entertaining by unassuming audiences, but the film did little to promote understanding between cultures.
The Stoning of Soraya M.
Based on a true story by a Iranian journalist living in France, Freidoune Sahebjam, this 2008 film tells about a woman, Soraya, whose husband contrives to have her convicted by Shariah law (Islamic religious law) of adultery and stoned in 1990. It is a harrowing tale, and I thought it really demonized the men, until I read the book.
Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Soraya’s aunt, told me at a press conference that she’d been waiting 20 years to make a film like this because she herself witnessed a stoning before she fled Iran as a young woman. Shohreh’s message to people of faith that day was: “We see human beings; we can serve the God in them. Take your kindness to the people of God. Treat them the same way you will treat your God.”
This 2010 film by the artist and Oscar-nominated director Julian Schnabel chronicles the life and good works of a real person, Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass). Hind gathered Palestinian orphans, mostly Muslim, who survived the 1948 massacre of Deir Yassin in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In the film, more children come and she uses her grandfather’s mansion as an orphanage and school. One student, Miral (Freida Pinto), is placed in the orphanage when her father can no longer care for her. She is a rebel, however, and becomes involved in violence to regain Palestine for her people. Her actions threaten the orphanage, and Miral must make a choice. A miral is a small flower that grows along the roads in Palestine. They are so beautiful but so small they go unnoticed. Such are the women of Palestine: beautiful, strong, resilient and unnoticed—for now.