Beyond stereotypes: Muslims, movies and the Mizan project
The Arab terrorist, the submissive veiled female; the stereotypical representation of Muslims in the media is well known to most of us, and that's when they make an appearance at all. However, a new volume of work called Muslims in the Movies, edited by Kristian Petersen, looks beyond Hollywood's lens at how Muslims reveal themselves in films worldwide.
It's part of a series by the Mizan Project looking at interdisciplinary scholarship on the history, culture, and religion of Muslim societies and civilisations.
The book's curators have sought to learn from global cinema in mainstream and indie circles. In some cases, the results expose the usual typecasts, while at other times, interpretations are surprising and more nuanced. In particular, Muslim stories by Muslims themselves, including from the Muslim world, provide new depth to this topic.
"Popular culture reveals how communities are narrated and presented to public audiences but also how communities imagine themselves... So, it is critical to examine the circulation of mainstream images because they have real social effects"
"Muslim-ness can be constructed and expressed in radically different ways across various cultures and Muslim cinema allows viewers to see how filmmakers imagine this range of possibilities," says Petersen, speaking with The New Arab.
From this analysis, films are being used to ask questions about Muslims in modern society. It also comes at a time when there have been public calls for greater visibility of Muslims on screens and initiatives to support Muslim filmmakers and writers.
Among the anthology, you'll find Michela Ardizzoni's essay on Muslims in mainstream comedic films in Italy, showing how Muslims are still culturally "foreign" to public audiences.
In Laughing at the Other: Muslims in Italian Comedies, Ardizzoni draws out the way Muslims are portrayed on screen as "the other" as a broader reflection of their representation in public life.
With Islam lacking the recognition of Christianity or Judaism in Italy, while the post 9/11 environment and increased migration has further shaped public discourse and attitudes to Muslims and Islam, both have been viewed as incompatible with Italian culture.
Contributing significantly to this discourse were media events like the publication of Oriana Fallaci's divisive La rabbia e l'orgoglio (The Rage and the Pride, 2002), proclaiming Islam as "an ahistorical, undifferentiated monad, without distinctions or internal tensions worthy of analysis."
In addition, was the headlining conversion of the country's best known Muslim intellectuals Magdi (Cristiano) Allam, in 2008, from Islam to Catholicism.
Instead of reversing negative reductions, contemporary mainstream comedies have reinforced stereotypes by caricaturing Muslim identities. For example, in the 2007 film Lezioni di cioccolato (Chocolate Lessons), the character of Italian contractor Mattia dresses up as his Egyptian illegal worker, Kamal, when the latter is injured at work, taking his place in a chocolate-making competition. He tries to pass for Kamal by accentuating so-called Egyptian behaviour, clothing and accent.
In 2011's Che bella giornata (What a Beautiful Day), the story involves a security guard of Milan's Duomo cathedral who falls in love with a Maghrebi woman Farah. The love interest pretends to be an architecture student to access the cathedral, using the relationship to plant a bomb in the building to avenge her parents' death in the Gulf War.
As in Italy, the media reaction to political events has had a rebounding impact on filmmakers in the UK. Author Claire Chambers casts her gaze to a different period and events, however, in her essay, Then It Was 1989, the Year the World Changed': Shifting Representations of British Muslims Before 9/11. She says the "Rushdie affair" of the late 1980s, rather than 9/11, was the geopolitical event that drew out otherwise invisible Muslims in the UK from the broader category of "British Asians."
In recap, the event involved Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses causing outrage among Muslim communities in Bolton and Bradford, which she describes as ethnically divided, for alleged blasphemy, triggering a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini. It also increased their representation in films, and Islam became a general fascination, particularly "fundamentalist" dispositions.
Some of the negative interpretations, however, had come from Muslim writers themselves. Hanif Kureishi, who wrote My Beautiful Launderette, released in 1985, and was a friend of Rushdie, put centre-stage bicultural, gay British-born Omar with a Pakistani father as the screenplay's protagonist.
The themes in the film span class, sexuality and racism with plenty of cultural references, but religion is never a prominent feature. Chambers says that Kureishi, like other Muslim authors in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, took Muslimness as a form of identity for granted. That would change after the fatwa and Kureishi became the first British writer with Muslim heritage to address violent extremism in the name of Islam through comedy.
Other films like East is East, post-Rushdie and pre-9/11, also explore specifically Muslim concerns for the first time rather than South Asian issues.
"For filmmakers to be authentic, they need to be able to express their unique and quirky lives while also feeling free to criticise issues in their communities. And in the end, this might not be the representation many Muslim spectators are looking for"
"When Muslim filmmakers are able to represent themselves, it opens up a spectrum of narratives," explains Petersen. "However, some ways of portraying Islam are not welcomed by all Muslim audiences. This is the dilemma – more varied Muslim stories expand how Muslims are seen by broad audiences but also introduce self-reflection and critique of one's own experience of being Muslim.
"For filmmakers to be authentic, they need to be able to express their unique and quirky lives while also feeling free to criticise issues in their communities. And in the end, this might not be the representation many Muslim spectators are looking for."
In Subverting Stereotypes through a Saudi Film: Wadjda, Gender, and Islam, by Elliott Bazzano, the author reflected how the film, which was an anomaly in a conservative country with an almost non-existent film culture, challenged harmful stereotypes towards Muslims and Arabs. It was done while acknowledging the complex gender dynamics that can disadvantage women.
One interesting observation is how emotion can make it difficult to keep hold of harmful stereotypes associated with a character's many layers, referring to one or more scenes of tenderness between Wadjda and her mother. The film is also described as "subversive," for instance, by moving beyond the visuals of women as submissive characters in veils in outside society to depict their vibrant personalities inside the home.
"Popular culture reveals how communities are narrated and presented to public audiences but also how communities imagine themselves," says Petersen, reflecting on the volume. "So, it is critical to examine the circulation of mainstream images because they have real social effects. But we can't forget to consider how Muslim creatives want to present themselves and reveal the spectrum of stories that can be told."
The essays in the 20-chapter volume also reflect the diversity of the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. This diversity spans from the realities of being a Muslim woman in the Philippines and how Muslim filmmakers counter stereotypes in this region to the cinematic genealogy of the figures of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, two of the most well-documented American Muslims on film. The anthology is just a drop in the ocean, which Petersen hopes to expand on in future works, including the upcoming Cinematic Life of Muslims:
"There is so much more to consider about how interpretations of Islam shape narratives, filmmakers, and audiences in Muslims majority societies."
Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights, particularly across the Middle East.
Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram