Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fueling the Fire

Tuesday, 09 October 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

SAUDIS are sensitive, particularly in the post-9/11 world, about their image and take great care in presenting Saudi Arabia as an ally of the United States and correctly represent their serious efforts to fight terrorism within its own borders as well as other countries. I point this out because I left the cinema over the weekend with mixed feelings after watching "The Kingdom," the American-made film featuring Jamie Foxx, Ashraf Barhom and Jennifer Garner. Foxx and Garner portray a pair of FBI agents who join Saudi police and military investigators to identify and capture a band of terrorists who bombed a fictional residential compound in Riyadh that left about 100 people dead. Barhom plays Saudi Col. Faris Al-Ghazi, the liaison between the Saudi government and the FBI.
Director Peter Berg got much of Saudi Arabia right and some of it wrong. I suppose that is to be expected. I give him credit for trying to provide a balanced portrait of our country. The Saudi characters, usually played by Syrians and Egyptians, come off well although no one speaks with a perfect Saudi accent or even tries to.
And the film starts off promising enough, giving us a brief, but compelling, history of the Kingdom and a dramatic, if not painful, depiction of the bombing of the compound. But it soon becomes apparent that we are watching an action movie with little thought to the political nature and relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Some of it is an outright distortion of the political equations between the two countries. For example, the film makes it clear that Saudi Arabia does not want FBI agents on its soil, fearing that it will inflame further the terrorists and their sympathizers. At one point early in the film Foxx's character meets with the fictional Saudi ambassador to the United States and threatens him if his team is not permitted to conduct an investigation in Riyadh. Saudis have cooperated for years with the United States by inviting and providing assistance to US investigators in crimes committed by terrorists against US citizens. There has always been a bilateral agreement between the two countries. In reality, there is no need of threats.
Worse, however, is the imagery and selective editing Berg uses to foreshadow terrorists acts. Often before the story changes to the terrorists' point of view, we see scenes of mosques at sunset and the call for prayer. Whenever these evil men are prepared to attack innocent civilians or the FBI agents themselves they repeatedly utter "Allah-o-Akbar."
We already know that so-called Muslims who use their religion to commit murder have forever tainted in the minds of Westerners "Allah-o-Akbar" and similar expressions, but the film seems to go out of its way to reinforce this stereotype. I suppose that could be one reason why some Muslim clerics were denied permission to board a flight in the US early this year. They were praying in the airport lounge before take-off and some Americans became jittery over "Allah-o-Akbar" and reported them to the authorities. This film only adds fuel to the fire.
I can quibble over other misrepresentations. Egyptians place their prayer mats on the walls of the homes. Saudis don't, although you wouldn't know it by watching the movie. And, according to the film, Saudis can break into families' home and threaten them at gunpoint. No Saudi law authority would do such a thing without having female personnel present to escort women from the home. ‘The Kingdom' falls into a typical action movie with lots of bloodshed and violence, so the opportunity to tell a more subtle, important story of Saudi-US relations is squandered.
Yet despite these flaws the performance of Ashraf Barhom stands out as a highlight, if not an inspiration. Playing Col. Al-Ghazi, Barhom, ironically an Arab-Israeli, humanizes Saudis with his wit and intelligence. There is an extended scene showing the home life of his family that drives the point home that Saudi families are just like any other family.
We will see more films telling Saudi stories without Saudi actors. I understand there were Saudi consultants on the film. Naturally not all of their suggestions would have to be implemented. It was Peter Berg's story to tell and I respect that.
But I'm disappointed, although not surprised, that the filmmakers were not permitted to make the movie in Riyadh, according to the director. By extending cooperation and allowing the movie to be shot in Saudi Arabia, it might have given Saudis more control, or perhaps more influence, on how they were portrayed on the screen. This film was shot in Abu Dhabi and Arizona in the United States. Given the chance, a film crew allowed to work in Riyadh could have furthered the understanding between the West and us by using Saudi crewmembers and even actors.
In an interview with a United Kingdom newspaper, Jennifer Garner noted that she knows more about Saudi Arabia now that she has completed the film. She characterized Saudi women as oppressed and banned from driving and receiving no education. She never stepped foot in Saudi Arabia yet her appearance in the film apparently makes her an expert on Saudi affairs. But she does nothing but perpetuate the stereotype. Perhaps this could have been avoided if she actually spent some of her time in the Kingdom.
When the next film crew seeks permission to make a movie in Saudi Arabia, I hope Saudi authorities will consider it.

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