One of the most famous scenes in
Raiders of the Lost Ark
occurs when Indiana Jones responds to a sword-wielding Arab by pulling out a gun, shooting and killing him. During the 30th anniversary of the movie's release a couple years ago, Harrison Ford, who played Indy, seemed to take pride in conceiving that particular act after he got sick and wanted to keep the scene's shoot short and sweet.
But these images - along with many others that have portrayed Arabs in Hollywood productions, television news and literature of all sorts - have got under Michael Singh's skin over the years. About 15 years ago, in fact, they inspired him to begin researching western depictions of Arabs for a documentary movie.
"I had seen films about blacks, Jews, gays, Native Americans, women in the media - but nothing about what I thought was the most pressing issue: Arabs and Muslims," says Singh, who grew up in India and now resides in Los Angeles. "I felt there was a vacuum and thought it was time to study this."
The end result is the director's creation, Valentino's Ghost, which had its cinema release in the United States earlier this month. It previously was screened at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and was an official selection at the Venice Film Festival.
Singh is now in talks with his co-producer and editor, Catherine Jordan, about plans for distributing the film more widely via outlets such as iTunes and DVD. It has also been sold to Al Jazeera, they say, and on Saturday is set to air on television in the US through local affiliates of PBS.
Yet even that has not been without controversy. About six months before September 11, Singh says, PBS called and asked him to create his film. But the company changed its tune once the World Trade Center towers were brought down in a terrorist attack. "I told them this was a very opportune time to humanise Arabs, and they said no sponsor is willing to associate their logo with your controversial film," recalls Singh.
Even on Saturday, Singh and Jordan suspect, certain PBS affiliates will likely not pick up their programme. "We can't really see any signs yet of stations having scheduled it, yet," says Jordan. "We're a little in the dark."
Their film features analytical and thoughtful commentary from notable historians, writers and journalists such as Niall Ferguson, Gore Vidal and the late Anthony Shadid from
The New York Times
. Insights from these experts get woven between shots from Hollywood, historic news shows and newspaper headlines, presenting a compelling argument about how images and descriptions of Arabs have changed over time and why.
Valentino's Ghost begins by looking at the first big-screen representation of Arab men - as romantic, eroticised heroes - during the 1920s. Some of these images came from visual interpretations of the 1919 novel The Sheik, which the actor Rudolph Valentino brought to life in a movie with the same name. Hence the title of Singh's film. "The title alludes to the after-effects of what happened to that romantic hero," says Singh. "Why did he become an embodiment of evil?"
"It's worth noting that I don't think there were any Arabs or Muslims thrilled about the depiction of the Arab in
movies at all, because it was completely unrealistic and unserious," says Jordan. "But our point was that it was not overtly hostile and became overtly hostile - and is still that way to this day."
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