The Hollywood Sign is pictured in Los Angeles, California Image Credit: AFP

Many studies have been authored on how Hollywood, for decades, has influenced the shaping of public perception of complex social, political, and cultural issues, especially where certain minority groups are concerned. Since its genesis, Hollywood has given Arabs and Muslims a bad rap. The 1921 silent movie “The Sheik,” starring Rudolph Valentino, comes to mind as offering a strikingly naive, simplistic, and stereotypical view of Arabs.

One of the best researchers into Hollywood and its unfair treatment of Arabs and Muslims is the late Arab-American scholar Jack Shaheen, who wrote several books on the subject, including “The TV Arab,” “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People,” which was also made into a documentary, and “Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture,” among others.

The 2006 documentary “Reel Bad Arabs”, analyses how Hollywood corrupts or manipulates the image of Arabs. The documentary analyses 1000 films that have Arab and Muslim characters, produced between 1896 and 2000, out of which the great majority, 936 titles, were negative in their portrayal, arguing that the slander of Arabs in American filmmaking has existed since the early days of the silent cinema and is present in the biggest Hollywood blockbusters today.

Read more by Osama Al Sharif

An inherent bias 

In contrast, Hollywood had given special attention to the plight of European Jews under the Nazis, with over 400 movies and TV productions dealing with the subject. Hollywood would go deep back in history to produce epic movies such as “The Ten Commandments,” outlining the biblical story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt to Palestine, while finding the money to finance Oscar-winning productions such as “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist” and “The Reader,” among many others. A movie related to the Holocaust would be produced on an almost annual basis. It’s all about maintaining empathy and presenting a historical perspective that is rarely being challenged.

In the past two years, at least four movies have been churned out by Hollywood on the Holocaust, the latest this year being “The Zone of Interest.” “One Life” (2023), stars Sir Anthony Hopkins, tells the true story of a British man who saves the lives of 669 children, predominantly Jewish, in Prague upon the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia by transporting them to Britain.

No Hollywood blockbuster movie on the plight of Palestinians has been made. Most productions that one would find are produced by small production houses in collaboration between independent filmmakers, actors, and directors. A few have managed to win prizes at international and regional film festivals.

The drive to produce films on the struggle of Palestinians under Israeli occupation is a reasonably new one, thanks to a rising generation of Palestinian and Arab filmmakers. They are yet to get the attention of big Hollywood production houses and distributors.

Among the handful of independent Palestinian films that won prizes is “Paradise Now” (2005), a controversial movie that won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and became the first Palestinian film nominated for the Oscars.

Interestingly, while Hollywood avoided scripts that dealt with the Israeli occupation and the oppression of Palestinians, it was Israeli filmmakers who produced many eye-catching movies, such as the animated war docudrama “Waltz with Bashir” (2008) about Israel’s war on Lebanon in 1982, and “5 Broken Cameras (2011), a joint Palestinian-Israeli work on the non-violent resistance to occupation.

Rise of streaming platforms

Gaza Mon Amour (2020) is a light-hearted romantic story told amid harsh life in the beleaguered Gaza Strip. It was Palestine’s official entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2022 Academy Awards.

Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza has polarised Hollywood like never before. Several well-known American actors have come out in support of Palestine while denouncing the Israeli oppression of Palestinians. Among those influencing performers are Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo, and John Cusack.

The world’s perception of the Palestinians has changed since 7 October 2023. Israel’s horrific war on the hapless civilians in Gaza has awakened millions across the globe. Grotesque images of dead Palestinian children and the deliberate bombardment of hospitals, churches, mosques, and residential towers have pointed the finger at Israel’s war machine.

Now, Israel faces severe charges of committing genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass starvation of civilians, and forced displacement of millions. The tragedy that is unfolding in Gaza cannot be ignored and will inspire writers and filmmakers to document and narrate the millions of stories of agony and hardship at personal and collective levels.

Will Hollywood producers ignore the genocidal war in Gaza and the new awakening at the public level of the decades-old tragedy of Palestinians who are enduring the most prolonged occupation in modern history? The big Hollywood production houses now have serious competitors in the form of streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, and Sling, among others.

Netflix has boosted independent filmmakers by co-producing many foreign-language movies and mini-dramas. To date, it has offered a number of pro-Palestine films such as “When I Saw You” (2012), “Born in Gaza” (2016), “Omar” (2013), and “200 Meters” (2022).

Hollywood will probably choose to turn its back on the Palestinians for reasons well-known. Still, their stories will be told as more independent movie makers, and producers get together to present a different narrative as they tackle the many heartbreaking nuances of the ongoing Palestinian saga.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.