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Review: ‘Valentino’s Ghost’

New documentary looks at the Middle East in U.S. film and media

Above: Journalist Robert Fisk discusses US media images of the Middle East

— How Hollywood shapes the public consciousness has long been a discussion of film critics and viewers alike, from ideas on race and justice to social attitudes and support for war, especially in the Middle East

Two recent examples come to mind, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo,” the film about a group of U.S. embassy workers smuggled out of Iran shortly after the U.S. embassy was taken in 1979. Bigelow’s film recently has been revealed to be a CIA collaboration and the wow finish of “Argo” was discredited by the Canadians who were there, to the disappointment of not a few U.S. viewers.

But that’s just the movies, right?

Not so fast, says documentary director Michael Singh. In his new documentary “Valentino’s Ghost,” Singh takes a deeper look at how film and the U.S. media shape public perception of Middle Easterners and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

An ambitious documentary, “Valentino’s Ghost” stretches over 80 years of U.S. film and reporting set in the Middle East.

The documentary is a powerful, if sometimes slightly bulky, discussion of an American narrative that runs the gamut from the Exotic, Erotic Other (“The Sheikh”) on the one hand to Terrorist No. 1 (any number of recent films) to those “evil people” (the news) on the other.

Singh looks at how images of the Middle East and its inhabitants have undergone some profound shifts in past decades between Valentino’s Sheikh and "Argo’s" crazed Iranian mobs, passing through the Great White Liberator of David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia."

A number of expert commentators such as British journalist Robert Fisk, Hollywood writer Allan Sharp and Rabbi Yisroel Weiss explore the question of why this level of stereotyping is not only possible, but expected.

It especially is touching to see interviews with the late Anthony Shadid, whose award-winning coverage of the Middle East for The New York Times provided much-needed context and served as a counterbalance to reporting by outlets such as Fox News. Shadid died unexpectedly in 2012 from an acute asthma attack while on assignment in Syria.

The discussion in Valentino’s Ghost is chronological, sectioned off by themes such as the “disobedient Arab” and "The Arab as Victim.” In the beginning, the Middle East is seen as exotic, enticing to Western women with weak wills, but as the exploration for oil spreads, the imagery shifts, says Robert Fisk, passing through ungrateful upstart (the revolts against colonialization) to incompetent evil (“Indiana Jones”) to evil terrorist (“Judgment Day”).

Much of the historical coverage will be a surprise to some people as it passes through the colonial wars in Algeria and Egypt to the U.S. overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran and Iraq.

The documentary starts to get a little unwieldy when it moves into the historical context, especially the section on the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis — although, the documentary argues, and quite rightly, that it is exactly this kind of context that is missing in films like “Argo.”

Case in point, when told the ending to “Argo” was historically inaccurate, a local class of film students sat in shocked silence.

‘Really?,“ said one. “But the Americans kicked a_ _.”

And context is something Singh clearly feels is missing from popular discussion of the Middle East, including the relationship between the US and Israel.

Although commentator Niall Ferguson characterizes the U.S./Israeli relationship as the “U.S. sees Israel as a kind of Mini-Me,” Ferguson, Fisk and others clearly point to an accelerating series of events — such as the founding of Israel in 1948, the killing of the Israeli athletes in 1972 by Palestinian terrorists, and most recently 9/11 — that lead up to things such as Bigelow’s torture porn as box office gold and "Argo’s" dramatic ending.

But the documentary also makes clear that these events, in addition to U.S. intervention in the Middle East, have led to the current issues with terrorism. And yet, discussion of U.S./Israeli policies nearly is silenced in the U.S. even though vigorous debate on Israeli/Palestinian relations occurs frequently in Israeli society and the press, according to commentators Fisk and Shadid.

It’s a vicious circle — like a snake swallowing its tail — one the usually articulate Shadid struggles mightily to put into words so as to report and not to judge.

And one of the most vicious parts of it, Fisk says, is the shift in language both in film and in the news.

It is a shift that does not escape writers like Palestinian-American Diana Abu Jabber or comedian Ahmed Ahmed, who contributes some of the biting satire of the documentary.

Abu Jabber remembers watching the news and hearing “Jerusalem has been liberated.”

“From who?,” she remembers asking, thinking ”we (Palestinians) have just been erased.”

As Fisk and others observe, when you have movies like “ Aladdin,” that starts off with calling the Middle East “barbaric,” then you have a generation of viewers primed to believe this. As Tony Shalhoub ruefully observes, Arab-American actors often are offered limited parts, usually involving a thick accent as some sort of Ur-terrorist.

“... And so, we make the Middle East unintelligible for people who don’t live there or visit there," Fisk says, laying the groundwork for U.S. voters to be less inclined to question the need to invade a country or maintain detention for “evil-doers.”

The remedy?

“More information,” says Fisk.

And more context, add a number of the commentators, advising viewers to look further than the skewed landscapes of American film and media for a nuanced view of the region.

While “Valentino’s Ghost” might be heavy in some areas and surprising in others, it is sure to provoke a lively discussion about just how we see the Middle East.

And it is very possible you may never see “Aladdin” in quite the same way again.

"Valentino's Ghost currently is screening at Digital Gym Cinema on El Cajon Boulevard. See digitalgym.org for times and details.

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