“2000 years of revenge, vendetta, murder. Welcome to Beirut,” says the cavernous voice of Jon Hamm in a new trailer for Hollywood film Beirut, sparking outrage around the region. Many have taken to social media to say it grossly misrepresents their city.
The two-and-a-half-minute clip, which stars Jon Hamm as an American diplomat, paints the Middle East with a dusty, decaying brush, and reduces the titular capital city of Beirut into yellowing architectural ruins and political turmoil.
To make matters worse, the film was shot in Morocco.
People have been sharing photographs of the ‘real’ Lebanon online to combat Hollywood stereotypes. In the UAE, Lebanese national Lynn Jisr, 27, says “every single part of it” was upsetting.
“I still don’t understand why the Middle East is always filmed in sepia and why movie scorers use a weird ‘leily ya leily’ chant like that’s what all Arab music is,” says Jisr, who is the head of Arabic editorial at gaming company IGN.
“The story itself is so tired and cliched. A Muslim extremist group kidnaps an American and now Americans must intervene and save Arabs from themselves... America doesn’t need any more reasons to harass and bully Muslims or Arabs but here comes a movie that reinvigorates the stereotype,” she adds.
An overwrought plotline sits at the centre of Beirut. After Arabs kill the lead character’s wife, he seeks revenge. Inexplicably, Israel becomes involved, a country that has long been at war with Lebanon. Messages flash on the screen: “THE AMERICANS WANT TO KEEP THEIR SECRETS. THE ISRAELIS WANT TO RAISE THE STAKES.”
It’s a strikingly familiar narrative, laced with propaganda.
American Assassin, a Hollywood film released last year, was another one of these tone-deaf political thrillers to feature a vengeful Westerner (Dylan O’Brien) whose fiance was killed by Muslim extremists, leading him to seek revenge in Turkey. It included several mentions of Israel, too. At one point, a group of Iranians enlist help building a nuclear weapon, and they are told to “kill as many Jews as [they] want” with it. This anti-Semitic plotline materliaised out of nowhere, further dividing the groups on screen into Us versus Them. Good versus Evil. Civil versus Barbaric.
But these are not new tropes. Racist mischaracterisation and whitewashing of Arabs in Hollywood has been going on for decades.
In 1921, The Sheik showed Arab men acting generally uncivil and gambling for their wives. The lead character, Shaikh Ahmad Ben Hassan, was played by a white Italian-American actor named Rudolph Valentino.
Move forward to Disney’s 1992 animation Aladdin, which gave its characters ambiguous cultural traits in an attempt to Arabise them. It originally included these racist lyrics in its soundtrack: “I come from a land, from a faraway place... where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”
Even when positive attempts at inclusion are made — for instance, the Palestinian character Abed Nadir in the television series Community — there are still major missteps. Nadir was played by Indian-American actor Danny Pudi and spoke in broken Arabic, showing a disregard for authenticity.
Speaking about the broader problem with representation of Arabs in Hollywood, Jisr points to filmmakers who have been using the medium to “sway public opinion for years”.
“How many movies have come out where the Vietnamese or Japanese or Russians or Chinese have been the bad guys and the Americans have been the heroes to defeat them? If you watch enough of these, you’re bound to make a correlation between a nation and villainy. The same happens with Arabs, particularly Muslim Arabs,” she explains.
Lebanese-American producer and writer Daniel C. Habib, 29, echoes these sentiments. He calls the trailer “lazy and simply dumb”.
“Why write a movie and title it Beirut if you do not utilise what makes the city so culturally and socially unique? It seems the Middle East will always be misrepresented by Hollywood because it’s easy to write stereotypes, it’s hard to create nuance,” Habib says.
Adding insult to injury, Beirut is set in 1982, which was a historically painful time for Lebanon. The civil war was ongoing. In September of 1982, a group of armed militia forces attacked the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in West Beirut, massacring thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.
Beirut is also slated to release on April 13, another glaring oversight: The Lebanese civil war began on April 13 in 1975, making it a catastrophic anniversary for many.
Responses on social media have ranged from baffled to angry to mocking. A parody account of the film’s production company, Bleeker Street, appeared on Twitter, writing in their bio that they are “dedicated to bringing smart and inviting entertainment to audiences that we hope don’t read history books.”
In a Facebook post, Lebanese-British writer Nasri Atallah calls Beirut a “shockingly tone-deaf, anachronistic and perhaps worst of all unimaginative film”.
US-based writer Adam H. Johnson tweeted that the trailer had used “every decontextualised, ahistoric, and orientalist cliche in the book”.
Jisr suggests that “an ounce of effort and compassion” could have prevented the film from missing the mark so significantly.
“There is no shortage of incredible Lebanese filmmakers, writers, and actors who would have made a great addition to this project,” she says.
“The fact that they filmed in Morocco and used mostly North African actors makes it apparent that they think Middle Eastern countries and people are interchangeable,” she adds.
Indeed, Arab filmmakers are trying to tell their own stories today, despite modest budgets. Typically, a film created in the UAE would be made for no more than $5 million (Dh18.36 million). (In comparison, Kings of Egypt, a Hollywood film that whitewashed its entire cast, cost $140 million.)
From A to B, for instance, which opened the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2014, is a comedic drama about three Arab friends — one Saudi-Irish, one Egyptian and one Syrian — who road trip from Abu Dhabi to Beirut, after their best friend, Hady, was killed in an Israeli raid over Lebanon.
Similarly to Beirut, From A to B was set in one place and shot in another.
“It’s going to be set in Abu Dhabi, through to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. But we’re not shooting in all those places. I mean, we don’t have to shoot it in Saudi Arabia to make it look like Saudi Arabia,” said Emirati filmmaker Ali Mostafa in 2011. He primarily shot in Jordan, but the film succeeded for its realistic portrayal of Arab characters, placed in recognisable environments, all on a budget of $2.5 million.
This points to the fact that there is untapped talent in the Middle East — writers, directors and actors — that Hollywood can call upon. Progress towards accurate depictions is achievable.
While casting the live action remake of Aladdin (2019), Guy Ritchie and Disney held auditions globally, including in the UAE, in order to find the perfect Aladdin. They cast Egyptian-Canadian newcomer Mena Massoud, which was a step towards better representation.
But until Hollywood starts to take Arab inclusion seriously, and stops relying on war-torn narratives that, more often than not, villainise Middle Easterners, here’s a few films you can watch that get it right.
Wajib is a 2017 Palestinian film about an estranged father and son, who must navigate their frictions on the road. It was the official Palestinian selection for the 90th Academy Awards.
Barakah Meets Barakah (2016)
A romantic comedy about two people in Saudi Arabia who struggle to find themselves, and to find love. It was Saudi’s official submission to the Academy Awards.
Solitaire tackles Syrian-Lebanese tensions through the lens of a romantic comedy. Therese is excited for the arrival of her daughter’s suitor — until she discovers his parents are from Syria.
Set in 1987 in an unspecified location in the Arab world, Emirati film Zinzana is a psychological thriller about a man who wakes up in prison with no recollection of how he got there.