With the live-action remake of Aladdin on screens, the representation of Arabs in film is once again in the spotlight.
When the live-action remake of Disney’s Aladdin in cinemas, we can be assured of one thing: continued discontent with the decision to cast a non-Arab in the role of Princess Jasmine.
The movie has reignited the debate surrounding authentic casting, with Naomi Scott, an actor of British and Gujarati descent, portraying the lead female role. Shouldn’t she be Arab, said a chorus of online disapproval when the film’s trailer was initially released. After all, Aladdin is a folk tale of Middle Eastern origin.
“I watched the trailer a few nights ago and felt it was worse than the animated version,” says short-film director Amirah Tajdin, whose films have been in competition at Sundance and at the Cannes Film Festival Directors’ Fortnight. “It’s been wrongly cast and feels more like a whitewashing of Bollywood than a celebration of the rich history of storytelling from the Middle East or Arabia.”
For many, Scott’s casting is viewed not as a success for the British actor, but as a lost opportunity. This could have been an incredible breakout role for a young talent from the region. Instead, Arab actors have once again been ignored.
People may well laugh, but it’s a thorny issue and not always clear-cut. Rami Malek, an American of Egyptian descent, won an Oscar for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, a Zanzibar-born British singer of Parsi ancestry, while the Egyptian actor Amr Waked played an Italian cop in Luc Besson’s Lucy. Sometimes casting by nationality or ethnicity just doesn’t matter.
However, it’s part of a much broader problem. It’s about the misrepresentation of Arabs in general and the one-dimensional portrayal of the region’s diverse peoples and cultures. This in itself has two main areas of concern. One is the perpetuation of orientalist tropes, the other is the demonization or victimization of all Arabs. That means being classified as either “bombers, billionaires, or belly dancers,” as the comedian Jamil Abu-Wardeh once noted, or as the noble savage.
“Even though Abu-Wardeh talked about bombers, billionaires, and belly dancers about a decade ago, not much has changed,” says the actor Dana Dajani, who auditioned for the part of Princess Jasmine in Aladdin. “We’re not transcending regional tropes and we don’t see enough Arabs being cast in universally accessible stories. We’re constantly being identified in very limited stereotypes and caricatures.”
Those stereotypes are the terrorist, the refugee, the militiaman, and the corrupt politician. There’s also the young woman who attempts to throw off the shackles of patriarchal oppression, inevitably to be saved by the enlightened West. All of which is hugely damaging. Not only does it reinforce stereotypes, but it also cements a sense of “otherness” and feeds bigotry, with the biggest culprit being Hollywood. Just take this line from 2018’s Beirut, starring Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike: “Two-thousand years of revenge, vendetta, murder. Welcome to Beirut.” If anyone watching the film didn’t already have a negative attitude towards Lebanon’s capital and its people, they would after sitting through 109 minutes of misleading cinema.
So is there a problem with Western cinema’s depiction of Arabs in film?
“Absolutely there is a problem with Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs in film and pretty much all non-white people,” says Annemarie Jacir, the Palestinian director of Salt of this Sea and Wajib, which won the best fiction feature film award at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2017. “Hollywood has for decades reproduced crass and racist images of Arab men as evil and threatening and Arab women as oppressed and abused. Recently, there have been some exceptions, but unfortunately too far and wide between. Racist images do a tremendous amount of damage and I think looking at the US right now, with the current president, we can see how far Americans have to go in terms of dealing with race.”
Stereotypes exist across all cultures and social classes, of course, but it’s the prevalence of these stereotypes that is problematic. Yes, there are cliched Western characters that represent elements of their respective societies, but for Arabs, the stereotypes are the norm and not the exception.
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Vogue Man Arabia
The region’s directors, producers, actors, and cinema lovers are not sitting by idly. Directors such as Jacir are pushing back, as are Ziad Doueiri and Nadine Labaki, Lebanese filmmakers whose movies were nominated for Oscars in the past two years. They are creating authentic Palestinian and Lebanese films that revel in rich, localized storytelling. The only problem is that such films have limited exposure abroad.
Butheina Kazim, co-founder and managing director of Cinema Akil in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, consistently calls for the programming of independent Arab cinema in film festivals and cultural programs across the world. She is doing so in order to “subvert and challenge the often myopic, reductive, and essentialist representation of the Arab character and voice in mainstream cinema.” For Kazim, nothing speaks louder than indigenous voices that challenge misrepresentation through “deeper, closer, and more authentic lived experiences and perspectives on a place and a people.”
Others are refusing to be part of a system that perpetuates misrepresentation. Dajani, for example, who has been offered roles as a helpless refugee and a terrorist’s wife, made the decision not to take on any characters that feed into stereotypes about women, Arabs, or Muslims.
“No culture or people should be portrayed as angelic and solely in a good light – that would not be authentic,” says Jacir. “However, when you have a community consistently portrayed in a negative light, the ignorance and damage it causes is detrimental. Hollywood has never been particularly nuanced, however, and the racism in films has always been historically tied to American foreign policy at the time. I would like to see more real characters, real people, with all their flaws. I think most of us are bored with the ‘white savior’ storyline. Hollywood needs to break out of the mold and experiment more with another way of storytelling, and enable the people from those communities to tell their own stories.”
Tajdin, the first Kenyan director to be selected for Sundance’s Screenwriters Lab and its Directors Lab, agrees. “The Arab world is full of stories old and new, tragic and romantic, and I don’t think we’ve ever been given the opportunity to share these stories on bigger platforms,” she says. “It took long enough for Black Panther to be allowed to exist in the brilliant way that it did, and what it did for Black and African culture on a global, mainstream scale. Correct representation only results in richer histories – a sort of validation that individual and societal voices matter.”