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Interview: Michael Singh, Director Of ‘Valentino’s Ghost’

Standing In The Shadow Of Valentino

Michael Singh is a Hollywood-based documentary maker and producer. Born in India to a Sikh father and an American mother, Singh has spent his professional life documenting and working on stories that illustrate the human condition and challenge established narratives.

Above: Michael Singh, director of the documentary, "Valentino's Ghost"

— Tall and slightly greying, Michael Singh loves Rudolph Valentino’s exotic/erotic “The Sheik,” but isn’t too happy about the film, “Exodus.”

“People take ‘Exodus’ to be the truth (about Palestine),” Singh said.

“That should haunt Paul Newman. No quarter for Paul Newman, he can keep his salad dressing.”

Singh is only half-joking, sitting elegantly in his office, tucked in the Hollywood Hills, but he and fellow producer Catherine Jordan are quite serious about examining how American media has helped shape an anti-Arab/Middle Eastern narrative and how U.S. political interests and its policy towards Israel benefit from that narrative in their documentary “Valentino’s Ghost.”

Singh, who has worked in Hollywood for almost 30 years, said he first became aware of anti-Arab sentiment in the media when working on a documentary about prophecies for two Israeli filmmakers.

“While I was watching a rough cut screening based on my script, a section came up where my script had called for images of the Antichrist… the producers showed three Arabs (sic) as the Antichrist: Yasser Arafat, Gadhafi and Khomeini. They thought this was quite funny.”

Singh said he asked them to remove the images. When they refused, he quit.

“And that was the start of my journey.”

Soon Singh was noticing what he considered a disturbing trend in representation and description of Arabs and the Middle East from Disney’s “Aladdin” to the evening news.

“At first I would point it out in conversation, but you know, after the cocktail party, it all dissipates so I decided to make a documentary."

After 9/11, Singh said he "decided it was time to talk about the bigotry” and take a closer look. The trajectory, Singh said, runs from initial contact in the early 20th century to the discovery of oil and straight through to the founding of Israel and post-9/11.

What Singh and producer Jordan found during their research surprised them. Jordan discovered that although early depictions were often exoticized, the representation of Arabs in the mainstream U.S. cinema and media was not overly negative in the 1950s-60s. The turning point, Jordan found, was the assassination of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

And “Exodus” starring Paul Newman?

“Oh, Exodus!” Singh said. “A propaganda piece for Israel, conceived by a Madison Avenue ad man, and promulgated by MGM. Leon Uris was paid to write that rubbish. 'A land without a people for a people without a land.' Nonsense. There were plenty of people already there. In fact, Arabs of Palestine go back some 6,000 years.”

Singh and Jordan are well aware that some viewers will be uncomfortable with sections that discuss the U.S. interventions that overthrew democratic governments in the Middle East (Iraq, Iran) or the participation of the Hagganah and the Irgun in the expulsion of Palestinians from their villages in Israel, according to Singh.

And they know viewers might be even more uncomfortable when Anthony Shadid of The New York Times cautiously explains some of the motivation behind 9/11 or when John Mearsheimer(University of Chicago) states that U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories is one of the main reasons there is a terrorist problem.

But Singh is quick to point out that the film makes a clear distinction between Israel and Jews and he stands behind his research on the documentary, saying “no one who studies the subject seriously, concludes that ethnic stereotypes and bigotry towards the Middle East do not play a major role in the media and U.S. policy.”

It is this constant diet of stereotypes that re-enforce the public’s attitude and makes cultural and political disasters like the abuse scandal in Abu Ghraib possible, according to Singh.

To ease into the film, Singh and Jordan start off with a funny and unexpected comedy segment by two Middle-Eastern-American comedians, Maz Jobrani and Aron Kader.

“It’s going to be a lot of new, preconception-challenging information, so we want viewers to have a little fun,” Singh said.

The film then takes a chronological look at the changes in attitude and catalogs the images in sections like “The Obedient Arab, The Arab As Victim, and so on.”

In every era you find the same themes, “explained Singh- like the idea of cowboys and Indians/X and Indigenous Arabs- “and representation and race applies apply to every section.”

Singh, Jordan, and their team identified more than 100 Middle East experts, media specialist writers, religious leaders, filmmakers and comedians of interest.

“It was hard,“ Singh said, but they kept winnowing it down and down.

The result is a densely informative documentary with analysis by some of the heavy hitters of commentary on the media and the Middle East such as the late Anthony Shadid of The New York Times, Robert Fisk of The Independent and writer Diana Abu Jabar.

“We would have included (the late writer) Edward Said (Orientalism), but he was too sick at the time,” Singh said.

One commentator, the Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, was a surprise, Singh said, who encountered the rabbi unexpectedly at an Arab-American Anti-Discrimination conference.

“We interviewed him right then and there.” The rabbi stayed in because his views on Zionism and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians go against stereotype.

“All the footage we used was fair-use,” including scenes from “Aladdin,” “Three Kings” and “Argo,” Singh added.

For Singh and Jordan, one of the hardest tasks was creating a coherent, accessible narrative out of all these interviews and visuals.

“We would edit, show it (to an audience), take notes, edit and show it again.”

Editing took almost two years because “we were sometime too immersed in the subject, it needed to be clear and understandable,” Singh said.

And the piece was not without its problems.

At least one network executive pulled back from it, fearing it would anger funders of his station who were supporters of Israel. One assistant editor quit, a well-known senior editor refused to take on the job, and a graphic designer turned the project down due to the film’s content.

Another issue was funding, according to Singh. While the film received 10 grants from major funders like the Park Foundation and the California Council on the Humanities, they spent “about 70 percent of our time on funding,” Singh said, “but I heard a lot of documentary makers spend more time than that, so that’s OK.”

And like many of those documentary makers, Singh and Jordan have been sending their work out and making the rounds. Overall, Singh is pleased with the reception. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival to a standing ovation and was an official selection at Doha Tribecca. Major U.S. newspapers such as The New York Times have taken laudatory note.

And Singh?

Singh sighed.

“We’d like to get it out there more to help open up a debate” about the intersection between American media, U.S. support for Israel and the narrative the shows Arabs and the Middle East as a backwards enemy.

"We all have a vessel inside of us for prejudice. And I was taught to speak out when I see injustice," Singh said. "The key to peace is justice, and we see these images as a direct barrier to peace. If viewers recognize the politics behind these images, they won’t be fooled so easily.

"Valentino's Ghost" screens this week at the Digital Gym on El Cajon Boulevard at 7 p.m.

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