Hollywood writers with Middle Eastern heritage have called for greater representation in an open letter to the US film and TV industry.
The recently formed Middle Eastern Writers Committee issued an open letter in response to the Writers Guild of America West’s latest inclusion report, which revealed that only 0.3 per cent of currently employed writers in the US are of Middle Eastern origin.
The letter, signed by more than 50 committee members including Big Hero 6: The Series writer Paiman Kalayeh, Lambda Literary Award winner Abdi Nazemian and Oscar-nominated The White Tiger writer-director Ramin Bahrani, notes that the shockingly low number is “pretty close to 0 per cent” and calls on studios and producers to “take more chances on us".
“What led to the formation of the committee is really that 0.3 per cent number," Life-Size 2 writer Cameron Fay, who co-founded the Writers Guild of America West with Kalayeh, tells The National. "That really stood out to me. It made me sad, and angry.
“For the longest time, the Middle East has felt like an afterthought when it comes to diversity. For my entire lifetime, many countries in that region have been the US's enemy. Why would studios want to hire ‘the enemy’? I'm not saying that's what they're actually thinking, but I think we've been conditioned over time to think people from that region of the world are not friends of the US.”
The situation is further complicated by the fact that there are no records of how many Americans of Middle Eastern origin there are, thanks to the shortcomings of the US census system. The Arab-American Institute estimated there were 3.7 million Arab Americans in the country at the end of 2016, which is well more than 1 per cent of the national population.
Cherien Dabis wrote and directed 2009’s Amreeka, which tells the story of an Arab American family, and made more than $627,000 in North America and $2.1 million globally. She is a signatory to the letter, and her frustration with the situation is clear.
“Part of the problem is that we aren’t properly counted on the US census,” she explains. “We don’t have our own category. We either have to check ‘white’ or ‘other.’ And if we check ‘other,’ we need to write in ‘Middle Eastern’ for anyone to know who we are and to count us in that group. So even the figures we have aren’t accurate.
"Because we lack our own recognised minority group, we are overlooked as an audience that not only deserves proper, authentic representation but also as an audience of media and entertainment consumers to be taken seriously.”
One image of Middle Eastern people in Hollywood that industry figures are wearily familiar with is the terrorist stereotype, both in terms of characters and storylines. As the letter notes: “We’re often branded as one-dimensional, naive foreigners with funny accents, stereotypical, shady businesspeople and, too often, our identities seem to be intrinsically tied to the War on Terror and being America’s No 1 enemy.”
Perhaps we should be grateful that a show such as Ramy has begun to break the mould, portraying Middle Eastern people and Muslims as regular people, then? For Fay, such victories are too few and far between.
“It was honestly very hard for us to find shows beyond Ramy to highlight. We don't have our Crazy Rich Asians. I hope we will one day. I think we're seeing little victories here and there, but nothing major yet. I'm working on something for Universal, which could be a big step forward, and I know others in our committee are, too. I feel like it's just a matter of time, but we're not there yet.”
Dabis agrees, although she, too, shares some of Fay’s optimism. “Hollywood still seems most interested in us when we are portrayed as the other. So if you’re out there pitching a show about a progressive family who just happen to be Arab, you’re out of luck," she says. "I think, and hope, that’s changing, but it’s still so early in the process of change that it’s sometimes hard to tell."
Chady Mattar is one of the most successful Arab producers in Hollywood, and is the executive producer behind Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated Capernaum. As a Hollywood producer and someone of proud Lebanese heritage, he could be said to have a foot in the camp of both the letter’s signatories and its intended recipients. He’s keen to emphasise that increasing representation cannot simply be a matter of passively hoping Hollywood will change itself.
In Mattar's view, if the people, and countries, of the Middle East don’t tell their own stories, why would Hollywood do it for them?
“It's a two-way bridge, and the Middle East needs to be extending the hand to Hollywood,” he says. “Not just inviting celebrities over to shoot a movie, that’s great for tourism, but really creating an industry and showing we have our stories to tell. Look at how well [MBC streaming platform] Shahid is doing in the region compared to Netflix, and that’s because Shahid understands the market. We need to tell our own stories, too, before we can expect Hollywood to get it right.”
Mattar singles out the UAE and Saudi Arabia as countries where this is beginning to happen, though he does have concerns about the lack of serious funding outside of government bodies. “Culturally we're less risk-taking than the western world,” he says.
“The old industries, oil and gas, the real estate business where you can see the building in front of you, these have no problem. Investing in a film, it’s still not really seen as a ‘real job’. Investment in film is almost non-existent outside of governments. That is slowly changing, and I’m personally involved with building a fund right now to specifically push filmmakers and content from the region.”
All three industry figures are in broad agreement about what is needed to improve the situation – and that's the normalisation of the Middle Eastern face in movies.
“We need multidimensional heroes that people actually look up to; movies like Black Panther and Shang-Chi and Crazy Rich Asians. We don't have big stars making big movies and shows. That's what we're ultimately aiming for because that's how we start to change the narrative, at least in terms of entertainment,” says Fay.
Dabis concurs. “We need more Arab characters in non-Arab stories,” she says. “Characters who just happen to be Arab even if the story isn’t about that. Our community is growing stronger, more vocal and more united. And we won’t stop until it gets done.”
Mattar has a role model in mind to achieve these goals – the former head of Fox International Pictures Sanford Panitch, who brought international movies to American audiences in the days before Netflix made it seem normal.
“His mandate was to go out and make local-language films that will appeal to a global audience,” he explains. “The budget is designed to recoup the money in its local market, but his vision was implementing locally what could be elevated globally to worldwide audiences.”
This is the model the producer will be applying to his next, as-yet-untitled film with director Caroline Labaki, Nadine's sister, and he seems confident of continued success with the Labaki clan.
“It takes place in Lebanon. It's a bunch of guys going on an adventure,” he explains.
“It's a female director from the Arab world. It's a comedy about coming of age that deals with no politics, no religion, nothing like that. They speak English and Arabic together, they're on the internet. I think the film is going to be a global sensation because of these elements that are very local but also global. Then we will be extending the hand, telling the world ‘look, we can make that kind of content'.”