Toronto Star 11/15/98
Toronto Star
page D19

Well-meaning and dangerous

By trying so hard to seem sensitive, The Siege becomes all the more insidious anti-Arab propaganda

Commentary by Jian Ghomeshi

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The Siege is not a film that should be inviting protestations from people of Middle Eastern descent. Enough already. This is an intelligent, non-polemical film that goes out of its way to present a balanced perspective. There comes a time when we need to accept that unsavoury characters in our films who may correspond with ethnic stereotypes sometimes simply reflect the reality of contemporary society.

At least, these are the sentiments that form the subtext of a glowing review of Edward Zwick's latest film in an upstate New York newspaper last week. And the writer is not wrong when he suggests that the movie seems to be presenting an objective and balanced case around Arab terrorism and American reactions.

Though many critics and commentators have been less generous with their reviews of the film as a whole, they have all pointed out how Zwick and his team have taken pains to appear culturally sensitive throughout the story and have even ostensibly made a film that preaches tolerance.

Very late-'90s, indeed.

And that's exactly why The Siege should be exposed for its insidious racial stereotyping and concomitant propaganda.

Hollywood has a problem these days. Making a jingoistic action film that has the U.S. military triumphing over a well-known enemy composed of racist caricatures is not as easy as it once was. Not when you want credulity, not when you want to be taken seriously, and not in the racially ad sexually "correct" late-1990s.

It was less than a decade ago that a blatantly racist film like Sally Field's Not Without My Daughter (all Iranian people - bad; all white American people - good) passed itself off as a "true story" and enjoyed success at the box office.

Enter The Siege, the story of the imposition of maritial law in New York City after it is overrun with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

The film positions itself as a virtual docudrama, preceded by testimonials like "terrifyingly real!" in its ads. Yet there is a Hollywood movie that appears to have its makers repeatedly apologizing for living up to the very tradition of its genre.

It cloaks its offensive typecasting and hawkish ideas in the veneer of a well-meaning liberal sensibility. It advances a right-wing agenda with a skilled and experienced liberal approach, not unlike the Clinton administration. Are we to consider this progress?

The upshot is a film that lets conscientious Americans feel good about harbouring racist stereotypes of Middle Eastern people. It takes aim at dovish and educated elements of the U.S. public and it uses the facade of tolerance to excuse itself for doing the opposite: demonizing an ethnic group, playing on racist myths and fears and underscoring intolerance against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent.

It's hard to believe that The Siege could have done a more fastidious job of casting toward liberal sensitivities. Everyone's favourite NAACP-endorsed hunk Denzel Washington plays FBI special agent Anthgony Hubbard - impeccably caring, moral, and self-conscious of racial concerns while he endures devastating Arab terrorist attacks on his city (sounds like a typical FBI guy to me, no?).

We are consistently led to believe that Hubbard/Washington and his remarkably ethnically diverse FBI office would never to anything to offend cultural sensibilities - after all, this is the same guy who was Malcolm X a couple of years ago.

The CIA and the army - in spite of the spin being advanced by some uncomfortably defensive-sounding cast members - don't fare so badly either. With the exception of a madly aggressive American military leader (played annoyingly by Bruce Willis), everyone is reassuringly self-consious. The troops get sent in only when there appears to be no other option.

In fact, more fair-minded on-screen depictions of the FBI and the CIA - a notoriously and historically terrorist American organization in its own right - would be hard to find.

To play Washington's assistant, the filmmakers wisely employ Lebanese American actor Tony Shalhoub. Here they rest on the old cunning, and transparent, device "some of my best friends are . . . ." After all, they can't be guilty of negative stereotyping if they've got an Arab on "our side," can they?

Throw in avowed Hollywood Democrat Annette Benning as a confused and bumbling CIA sexpot (very progressive), a number of disclaimers from the characters about how not all Arabs are bad people, then portray some Muslim Americans as internment victims who truly love the United States and you're off the hook, right? Wrong.

The truth is, the negative portrayals of some Muslims and Arabs in The Siege are so heinous that the perfunctory attempts to soften them and provide balance fail miserably.

It is no secret that Islamic fundamentalists have replaced the "Russkies" as the manufactured enemy of the West in the post-Cold War era. We are regularly reminded in our daily media of an evil element in the Middle East that threatens our Western freedom and virtue. Accordingly, The Siege plays directly into the no-doubt delighted hands of an American military-industrial complex that depends on continuing to engineer public far of an Arab/Iranian enemy to ensure their defence budgets remain intact.

First, in a few crucial scenes, the film marries Islam and Muslim practices with terroristic violence. Where are the writers' liberal sensitivities when they meticulously depict a Muslim Arab completing a deeply religious act by strapping bombs across his torso and terrorizing a female hostage?

Aside from a few oblique references to a kidnapped sheik, we never learn the motives of the Islamic terrorists. Why the hell are they bombing innocent people in New York City? This is just how deeply engrained the racist demonization of Middle Eastern people is, that the filmmakers feel no need to explain why some of them want to terrorize North American civilians.

In Zwick's "balanced" world we're told there are a bunch of good Arabs and a few bad Arabs, but we should truly fear the bad ones because they're demons who enjoy committing murderous acts for no apparent reason.

It's true that if Zwick and the team behind The Siege wish to be culturally sensitive, they are facing a losing proposition. In the absence of positive depictions of Middle Eastern people in Hollywood, it may be impossible to make a film with starkly negative portrayals of Arabs without being guilty of racial typecasting.

The Siege represents the paradox faced by the makers of jingoistic Hollywood thrillers in the late '90s: It is possible to credibly present racist stereotypes only beneath an anti-racist and sensitive facade.

This should not be mistaken for progress. Rather, it is a more insidious and thereby more dangerous form of propaganda.

The protests against this film should continue.

Jian Ghomeshi, whose background is Iranian, is a Toronto singer/songwriter and a member of the group Moxy Fruvous. He is completing a North American tour.

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