November 5, 1998

Muslims feel under siege from Hollywood

Arab groups decry a sinister depiction in ``The Siege.''

Ed Zwick describes The Siege, which stars Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis and opens tomorrow, as a political thriller about "the internecine problems between the FBI and the CIA, as well as a story about weapons of mass dest ruction." But those aren't the issues garnering more attention than the director might have desired.

"The Siege is extremely offensive. It's beyond offensive. We're used to offensive, that's become a daily thing. This is actually dangerous," says Hussein Ibish, of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Insidious and incendiary are a few more words the group has used to describe the movie, which it believes reinforces stereotypes that lead to hate crimes.

"In this film, the Muslims have total disregard for human life," states the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

In The Siege -- written by Zwick, Menno Meyjes and New Yorker correspondent Lawrence Wright, who lives in Cairo -- a rash of terrorist bombings by Arab Muslims creates panic in New York, resulting in martial law and the random incarceration of young Arabs.

While acknowledging that Arab terrorists did, in fact, bomb the World Trade Center, Ibish says that Arab and Islamic groups are upset by "the very strong equation between Muslim religious practices and terrorism. . . . Every time someone goes through the Muslim ablution, the ritual washing of hands everybody does before they pray five times a day, that image is the announcement to the viewer of the presence of vio lence."

Early in production, Zwick met with Arab Americans, who suggested that the story be changed to mirror the situation after the Oklahoma City bombing, when Arabs were immediately assumed responsible. That idea was rejected, and the groups' protests have gr own louder despite the fact that The Siege's villains also include members of the U.S. government.

Zwick isn't surprised by the criticism. "Anytime you talk about issues that touch on religion of any kind, you can anticipate this kind of reaction," he says.

"Should we only present every group as paragons and monoliths of virtue?" Zwick asks. "The movie inspires to engender this kind of dialogue. I happen to come from the school that thinks that movies should not only make you comfortable, they might make yo u think."

There are an estimated three million Arab Americans, many of whom are Christian. The United States is also home to between four million and six million Muslims -- including black Americans and European whites, as well as Arabs. As a relative minority, Ar ab Americans, particularly Muslims, feel singled out when it comes time to cast movie villains. Actor Tony Shaloub -- who is of Lebanese descent and plays an FBI agent in The Siege -- has purposely shied away from roles as Arab criminals. Mostly, he has found work portraying different ethnic characters, including the Italians he's played on TV's Wings and the film Big Night.

A shortage of villains

In the '80s, Arabs were routinely the heavies in Rambo and its spawn, which generally performed well in foreign markets, including those with substantial Arab and Muslim populations. "But they were very silly and one-dimensional," Ibish says. " The Siege purports to be a socially responsible product."

Arnold Schwarzenegger's True Lies also cast Arabs as villains, and the fact that both it and Zwick's film came from 20th Century Fox has not gone unnoticed by protesters.

With the end of the Cold War, the world began running low on villains. When it was no longer acceptable to portray American Indians as villains, filmmakers turned to the Soviets. For 40 years they labored overtime, the perfect cinematic bad guys because they had virtually no organized domestic representation and would never see the movies in their homeland. The Commies could be as nasty as Hollywood wanted them to be.

But almost every other group is concerned about its image. There have been protests about movies that depict Italians as Mafia bosses. The Irish have been upset by depictions of IRA terrorists in the United States. Hispanic organizations have objected to films that cast Latinos as drug lords. And during its production, Basic Instinct was protested by gays for depicting a bisexual killer.

Considering the source

In a period of heightened sensitivity, there have been complaints from virtually every group that has seen one of its members depicted in an unflattering light. Miramax's Priest, whose title character is gay, was resoundingly criticized by Catholi cs. "We did raise a ruckus about that one," says Catholic League president Bill Donohue.

"Kevin Smith is making Dogma, which he said was going to off a lot of Catholics. We'll look into that one. That's Miramax, which is owned by Disney. The more establishmentarian the source of the offense, the more likely we're going to go after it."

Like other groups, the Catholic League considers the movie's seriousness of purpose. "The Catholic Church is treated in a rather insulting manner in John Carpenter's Vampires," Donohue says, "but the reviews were so horrendous, the movie sounds so vile -- the gore, the violence -- I can't imagine anyone in their right mind thinking it will have an impact on culture."

Carpenter recently spoke out about the social strictures that govern filmmaking today. "There seems to be a lot of restrictions on cultural creativity now, so you wind around that the best you can," he said. His response is "you bulldoze over them."

But increasingly, in an era of social correctness, aliens, vampires and nonethnic white guys (lawyers, developers, health-maintenance organizations) are all that's left. They aren't organized. They rarely complain.

As a creator of the 1980s TV series thirtysomething, Zwick was attacked for showing a scene of two gay men in bed.

"We had no criticism from gays, but a lot from heterosexuals -- and there are far more of them," he recalls. "You can anticipate any kind of reaction in these times in which sensitivity seems very high in the culture. I have a friend who says, if you've not offended somebody, you're a nobody."

Last month, the Washington Post apologized for the Rugrats comic strip after Jewish readers complained that the drawing of the grandfather rivaled caricatures in the Nazi publication Der Sturmer. Disney's Mr. Magoo, a live-action fea ture of the near-sighted bumbler, incited criticism from the National Federation of the Blind.

Without publicity, the flames of discontent extinguish quickly. The more attention drawn to a film, the more likely audiences will swell. Not only have the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations been fax ing and calling news organizations on a regular basis, but 20th Century Fox hasn't hesitated to address the fracas. Miramax repeated complaints about Priest. TriStar exploited the protests of Basic Instinct. When women accused Brian DePalma of misogyny in Body Double and Dressed to Kill, the director used it to sell the movies.

There's a scene in The Siege in which terrorists hold a packed bus hostage without making a single demand. CIA operative Annette Bening suddenly realizes that the Arabs haven't been waiting to negotiate, but for the TV helicopters and vans to arri ve. It's not news if no one is watching.

The Arab American groups are aware that their criticism of The Seige may be serving the same role as the helicopters.

"There's no question our calling attention to this movie will probably help them market it," Ibish says. "It may have been part of their calculus. But the other choice was to ignore it. That is the price we pay."

The director, while audibly exhausted, continues to address the controversy, talking more about the complaints than the content of his movie.

"How does it feel to be a lightening rod? It gets the blood going," Zwick says. "I think it's better than being universally ignored. In a culture where there seems to be so much to talk about, it's good to be talked about."

But Zwick's time is limited, he says. A deadline is bearing down for an op-ed piece he's writing for the New York Times, which offers free and prominent publicity for his $60 million movie.
Source: Philadelphia Enquirer on-line.