Is Cinema dying?

cinemaSince its release 3 weeks ago, Furious 7, has been breaking one record after another at the box office, scoring the second-biggest worldwide opening of all time ($397.2 million) behind only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, and recently has become the fastest to reach the $1 billion at the global box office. Since its launch in 2003, the car chase franchise, Fast and Furious, has collected over $3.5 billion in the global box office.

The phenomenal commercial success of Furious 7 has been attributed to the public’s curiosity in the recreation of its star, Paul Walker, who was killed in a car accident before completing the shoot. Of course, there are other factors, chiefly the thunderous special effects and the out-of-this-world stunts that unstoppably hammer the senses of the audience from beginning to end. Amazingly, in spite of their incredulity and absurdity, these senseless effects have become the most compelling and attractive elements in movies for today’s audience, who flock to cinemas seeking fleeting excitement rather than an engaging dramatic narrative that underpins the art of cinema. The question is: can we consider watching Furious 7, a cinematic experience?

Vision:

Cinema as an art is a specificity of vision, the vision of an artist -the director, who expresses his own thoughts, beliefs, ideas and emotions and engages with audiences’ sensibilities through the aesthetics of visual images. The director develops the screenplay, sometimes with a writer, and chooses his own cast and crew, whom he trusts in achieving his own vision, without the interference of a third party. This of course is not the way blockbusters, such as Furious 7, are made in Hollywood.

When I asked Furious 7’s director, James Wan, about the ambitions he had when he embarked on this project, he said: “The most important thing for me was satisfying the franchise’s fans and audience.” You hear these kind of statements from a baker or any other trader, whose goal is to fulfil the needs of his customers, not an artist who wishes to express himself through his art.

The truth is that the studio didn’t hire Wan to colour the film with his own vision or to reflect on his conception of the meaning of life, but because he had perfected the Hollywood formula in his horror movies, such as Insidious and The Conjuring, which yielded a very impressive box office figures. So all he needed to do was studying the previous Fast and Furious movies in order not to stray from the winning formula, because Hollywood is too wary of the inherited commercial risks of original ideas.

Wan had also to adhere to a screenplay that had been developed by studio writers, who receive their orders, not from the -mostly defunct- development department, but from the international marketing and publicity departments that care little for the artistic merit or integrity of the final product,  concentrating instead on its potential commercial profitability in the increasingly dominant international markets, such as China and Russia, whose audiences are avariciously  hungry for gratuitous violence, absurd action  and special effects.

This shift in Hollywood filmmaking philosophy prompted its critics to argue that what Hollywood has been making in the last 3 decades is not cinema, but rather commercial products called movies. These movies are not helmed by auteurs, but  made by groups of business executives, financiers, lawyers, publicists and marketers, who are ignorant in the art of cinema but excellent in the business of producing and selling commercial products, as they did with Furious 7, which, in spite of lacking vision and substance, has been a commercial miracle.

Substance:

In the early years of cinema, movies consisted of rudimentary scenes, like a train thundering forward or raging ocean waves or swarming crowds in a public gathering. But as the language of cinema evolved, filmmakers were able to tell stories by using actors, music, lighting, cuts in different size and of different angles, and editing to create a coherent narrative, driven by drama, suspense and thrill. All the new cinematic innovations were used to create complex characters who take the audience on a thrilling emotional journey as they endure challenging life experiences such as romance, war, crime…etc.

Of course, characters in movies can be fictitious, invented by the screenwriter or the director, and exist in an illusion of reality, but they are often drawn from the spectator’s reality and act like him in dealing with their challenges and solving their life problems, which makes it easier for the spectator to immerse himself into their world and empathise with them in their predicaments. These stories inflame emotions, provoke thoughts and enlighten the minds, and linger forever.

In contrast, Furious 7 lacks any meaningful substance or compelling characters to emotionally connect with. Instead one leaves the theatre exhausted and indifferent to the chaos that has been witnessed. Obviously, the goal of the film was not telling a story or exploring characters, but rather fleetingly exciting the audience with gratuitous digitally-enhanced action sequences.

Undeniably, cinema creates fake realities, but each reality should be based on some logical rules in order to be accepted by the spectator, and that’s what is frustratingly missing in Furious 7, which features stunts, created by computers, that defy all the rules of logic and physics, stretching the limits of plausibility beyond human acceptability, such as the head-on crash of two speeding cars, rendering them into a twisted wreckage, yet the drivers emerge unscathed and ready for a fight, or the car that tumbles from a precipice of a cliff down a steep valley, disintegrating into metal pieces yet its flesh-made passengers leap out of it in perfect physical condition as if they had just come out of a make-up session. It seems that the filmmakers were so tempted by the infinite possibilities of effects that computers can provide that they lost interest in the logic and credibility.

I am not against the fantastic, but they have to reflect the film’s reality and conform to the laws that underpin it. For instance, it’s not unreasonable to see the application of laser swords in Star Wars battles, because their use is congruent with the space reality that the director created. But the characters of Furious 7 are earthlings made of flesh and blood, not of unbreakable metal, hence it becomes harder to empathise with them when you strip them of their humanity. Therefore, instead of embarking on an emotional journey with the film’s characters, the spectator’s mind is overwhelmed by the racing cars that survive all calamities and sometime fly in the air, without even having wings.

Evidently, the purpose of these effects is not serving the film’s narrative or deepening its characters, but numbing the spectator with inane entertainment, and that was what Vin Diesel, the star and producer of the film, confirmed to me. “Our goal in this film is to innovate the newest and most complex special effects in order to please our fans.”

The Form:

As mentioned earlier, the director utilises a variety of visual tools, such as the size and angle of the shot, editing and music score, to create and enhance the drama in his movie. Sometimes, he extends the shot to give the characters time to reflect or do a seemingly mundane but revealing action in his own environment, giving the spectator the chance to connect and empathise with him. For instance, the long shot in Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” in which the commander inspects his soldiers in their trenches on the front, introduces the commander to the audience through his reactions and the environment that he had to deal with. On the other hand, We can’t connect with the commander in Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” when he arrives to inspect the Japanese bombardment damage because the director cuts too fast for the sake of the fleeting sensationalism, which has become the norm in the current Hollywood movies.

Furious 7 abandons the principles of visual drama and relies on the constant movement at a breathless pace,  igniting temporary sensation rather than emotions and engagement, leaving the audience with vague memory of having been briefly excited rather than the enduring contentment of scenes playing again and again in one’s head.

Hollywood:

Hollywood stands accused, by its critics, of sacrificing the art of cinema for commercial profits, deculturation of movies and the casting away of all manner of dramatic cunning laboriously built up over decades. This is not surprising, because Hollywood is not run by filmmakers but by business people, who answer to their investors in Wall Street. “My job is to keep my company profitable and ensure that my employees provide food to their families. I am a businessman, not an artist,” a studio boss tells me. His statement makes a lot of sense. Then is it right to blame Hollywood for the degradation of cinema?

Hollywood executives’ answer has invariably been: “We just fulfill the public need. As long as there is demand for our movies, we will continue to make them.” Granted, but some charge Hollywood with conditioning the young generation to find the absence of emotions pleasurable by constantly hammering their sensory systems with special effects. But one must not forget the impact of the technology and the internet that has given rise to a new generation that wants everything instantaneously without waiting. This generation demands constant excitement and is easily bored by reflection and contemplation. Will they ever develop a taste for narrative, for character, for suspense, for acting, for irony for wit, for drama? Isn’t it possible that they will be so hooked on sensation that anything without extreme actions and fantasy will just seem lifeless and dead to them?

So it seems that humanity, in its entirety, is regressing and becoming possessed by the machines that provides our needs with astonishing efficiency and speed, whether it’s supplying information via internet searches or producing sensational special effects in Hollywood movies.

Solution:

“If you want substance storytelling then go TV,” a studio executive tells me. Indeed, with their movies failing to compete with Hollywood blockbusters in cinema theatres, many of the great directors and screenwriters have moved to working on TV shows, where they find a creative environment, free of the constraints of Hollywood’s filmmaking. So will TV replace cinema for visual storytelling, and will the cinema theatres transform into special effects venues?

 

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Sundance movies explore the terrifying impact of authority on human behaviour

Israeli author Amos Oz listens to the Voices he recorded 45 ago.

Israeli author Amos Oz listens to the Voices he recorded 45 ago.

Participating movies in the Sundance film festival are usually made on shoestring budgets and often by first-time directors, but they are rich in their substance, bold in their themes and unique in their subjects. This year, movies have touched on controversial issues such as nature vs nurture (Stockholm, Pennsylvania), homosexuality (I am Michael, D Train), teens in pornography (Hot Girls Wanted), religious cults (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) and more. One topic that grabbed my attention was the perplexing transformative impact of authority on human mind and behaviour.

My interest in the topic sparked when I saw the Israeli documentary “Censored Voices”, which exposes atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers during the 6-day war in 1967, which ended with the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai peninsula, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. The disturbing revelations were made by soldiers from the left-leaning Kibbutzim in interviews conducted with them by renown author Amos Oz and editor Avraham Shapira, 10-12 days after the conclusion of the war. This is the first time that the Israeli army consented to release them.

While the western world was praising their heroism for defeating the “monstrous” Arab armies with an astonishing speed, the Israeli soldiers were busy murdering Arab civilians and war prisoners and uprooting villagers from their homes and creating a refugee crisis in the Middle East. One of the interviewees says: “We were told not to show mercy, and to kill as many Arabs as we can.” So they did, shooting at soldiers and civilians alike. “We saw people walking in Sinai; they were not running, so we shot them. We could see them falling, but they didn’t run. So we killed them all,” another soldier confesses.

The first moral shock hit these soldiers when they met the Egyptian captives. “They were just kids. They kneeled down kissing our feet and begging for water. They were not the monsters we had imagined. Suddenly, we started to feel bad for them, but at the same time I thought that they would’ve done the same to us, had they been in our position,” the soldier says. He also reveals that Egyptian prisoners were forced to dig their own graves before they were executed and buried in the desert.

Another interviewee says that he witnessed a paratroopers’ battalion apprehending the men in one convoy of Syrian villagers, who were forced out of the Golan Heights to Syria, and executed them, leaving the women and children with their heavy chattel and domestic animals. The Palestinians in the West Bank were not spared either. The soldiers killed anyone who dared pop his head from a window or a roof top. “I said to myself ‘they are civilians, should we kill them or not? I didn’t think much about it. Just kill! Kill anyone your eyes could see,” the soldier says.

The interviewees sounded so traumatised by their own actions, that they compared their behaviour to the Nazis, who drove the Jews out of their homes to death camps. “We are not killers, but the war turned us all into killers,” laments one soldier. Interestingly though, the film’s director, Mor Loushai, firmly rejects this comparison when I speak to her, insisting that, unlike the Nazis, Israeli soldiers feel the pain of the other side. And when I suggested to her that the Israeli soldiers were acting then in the way that Islamic State (IS) fighters do now, she was loath to compare the two. Admittedly, unlike the Israeli soldiers, IS members gloat about their crimes. But that makes no difference to the victims; who are either dead or refugees. “War corrupts the human soul,” Loushai concedes. “But you must know that our soldiers had no choice and were fighting to defend their homeland from the attacking Arab armies.”

The truth is that each side in every conflict believes that they are just in their deeds. Do the Israeli soldiers possess higher innate moral codes than the rest of humanity or are they just as flawed as everybody else?

This question was tackled in two other Sundance’s movies: Michael Almereyda’s “The Experimenter,” and Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Both movies are based on real scientific experiments conducted in the early 1960’s and early 1970’s respectively.

“The Experimenter,” tells the story of a Jewish psychologist, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), who devises an experiment in

Stanley Milgram shows that obedience is too powerful for humans to resist

Stanley Milgram shows that obedience is too powerful for humans to resist

Yale university in order to answer the question of whether we could call the Nazi soldiers, who were following orders, accomplices in the Holocaust?

There are three participants in Milgram’s experiment: the Experimenter (the authority figure), the Teacher (the volunteering subject) and the Learner (a confederate, who informs the subject that he has a heart condition). The Teacher punishes the Learner, who sits in an adjacent room, with an electric shock every time he fails to answer a question correctly.  The intensity of the electric shocks increases gradually to 450 volts (the death blow) until the Learner provides the right answer. The Experimenter instructs the Teacher to proceed in fulfilling his role in the experiment in spite of the Learner’s screams of agony and pleading for mercy. Astonishingly, 65% of the subjects continued to electrocute the Learner until the death shock, albeit they did express their dismay at the experiment. The rest didn’t stop before the 300 volts shock, which inflicts excruciating pain. Furthermore, not a single one of them deigned to check on the Learner’s well-being before they had left.

Similar results of the same experiment were observed in different countries. All subjects, regardless of race, creed or gender, acted the same way, prompting Milgram to conclude that human nature can’t be relied on to prevent cruelty and immoral behaviour, when it’s instructed by a corrupt authority. The majority of people are willing to carry out actions, incompatible with their principles or morality, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment,” which features a psychological experiment headed by Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), goes a step further in exploring the impact of Authority on human behaviour in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.

Twenty-four male students are selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in the prison. The guards are provided with actual prison guards uniforms, wooden batons and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact with the prisoners, who wear uncomfortable ill-fitting smocks and stocking caps, as well as a chain around one ankle, and their names are substituted by numbers, which are sewn on their uniforms.

Guards acted sadistically towards prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment

Guards acted sadistically towards prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment

From the first day of the experiment, the guards, who are granted absolute power, act callously towards the prisoners. And when the prisoners rebel, the guards respond  sadistically with varied forms of psychological torture and humiliating practices, such as spraying prisoners with a fire extinguisher, depriving them of their meals, forcing them to urinate and defecate in a bucket in their cell, and then placing the bucket next to their dinner table, taking away their mattresses from their cells, leaving them to sleep on concrete, arbitrarily locking them in a solitary confinement and stripping off their clothes in order to degrade them. The prisoners react in three ways: resistance, total collapse or complete obedience, but all express their willingness to forfeit their pay in order to leave. Matters deteriorate to such an extent, the experiment has to be halted after 6 days. Disturbingly, the guards are disappointed.

At the end of the movie, a prisoner asks one of the guards: “Why did you act like an asshole?”. The guard replies: “I was doing my job, and I wanted to experiment with it, and see how far can I go. I am sure you would’ve done the same. Authority changes you.” And that was what the scientists confirmed: it seems that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants’ behaviour.

Interestingly, one of the Israeli soldiers in “Censored Voices” reveals that the authority that the war has bestowed upon him over his Arab victims filled him with a sense of invincibility, and he derived joy from harassing and humiliating them. He was surprised by their total obedience even when they were ordered to leave their own homes and do the most degrading acts, adding that the Jews also submitted to the Nazis when they led them to the death camps.

This soldier was as young as the volunteering students in the Stanford Prison experiment. Is he a war criminal, or a victim of the situation or is he just obeying the commands of his superiors? And is he different  from a Nazi soldier or an ISIS terrorist or the infamous American Sniper or a Syrian soldier who murders his own people in order to save the throne of his president?

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How painful was this summer for Hollywood?

Guardians of the Galaxy tops summer 2014 box office

Guardians of the Galaxy tops summer 2014 box office

With weak performances at the US box office over the course of the this summer, it’s not a surprise that the final box office total gross from May to August is only $4.1 billion. That is 15% down from summer 2013 ($4.75 billion) and the lowest total since 2006 ($3.37 billion). And if we adjust for higher ticket prices and estimate the number of tickets sold, we end up with the weakest summer since 1992, when we had 400 million admissions compared to this summer’s 500 million.

These grim figures have sent pundits scratching their heads this week, trying to figure out what went wrong, and some reaching  foreboding conclusions, predicting the end of the Hollywood as we know it and suggesting that kids are so preoccupied with video games and social networking in the comfort of their bedrooms that they have neither the time nor the energy to make the journey to cinema theatres. These gloomy predictions sound like a plot from a dark Hollywood movie, but do they match reality?

Numbers don’t lie, but let’s not forget that unlike last summer, when we witnessed the slaughter of gigantic blockbusters, such as White House Down, After Earth, Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger, this summer was relatively bloodless. Bruised and wounded from last summer’s calamities, Hollywood studios have tightened their belts, eschewed originals and deluged the market with it box-office safe sequels. The strategy has paid off. There wasn’t one single tentpole flop this summer and all the sequels, except Expendables 3, which was a victim of piracy, made a profit. So where is the problem?

For a start, for the first time since 2001, none of these sequels grossed more than $300 million in the box office. Perhaps there is indeed a sequel fatigue, because audience flocked in droves to see an original blockbuster, The Guardian of The Galaxy, which topped the box office with $253 million and is predicted to pass the $300 million mark. Hence, it’s reasonable to suggest that had Pixar released its new originals, Inside Out or The Good Dinosaur, this summer, the box office would’ve fared better.

In fact, this summer didn’t offer any of Hollywood’s mega-franchises, with several studios pushing the release of their flagship movies to next year, such as Fast and the Furious 6, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic Park reboot and Fantastic Four. With titles like these, the box office is sure to rock and roll.

Of course, there could be other factors that kept the audiences away from theatres this summer. With football becoming popular in the US, millions of Americans were glued to their TV watching the World Cup in late June and early July, the hottest summer time for Hollywood movies. Furthermore, wars in the Middle East and Ukraine may also distracted moviegoers with the daily supplies of gruesome images that movies don’t dare show.

But the most pressing question is: Is the US box office still relevant with nearly 75% of the global box office intake coming from the international market? In fact, Hollywood is so reliant on overseas markets that it invest more in selling its movies there than in the US. Hence, a 15% fall in total gross is a small drop in a big ocean. With production cost down and expanding international market, Hollywood continues to be a profitable enterprise.

Follow me on twitter @husamasi  /  Facebook

China is on the path to take the lead from the US in the box office

Since its release 4 weeks ago, Transformers: Age of Extinction, has racked up over $850 million in the global box office, breaking the record in China where it grossed over $280 million – 65 million more than in the US, where it drew $215 million.

This is not the first time that the Chinese box office has beaten the North American one. Last year, The People’s Republic saved sci-fi Pacific Rim, which had cost $190 million to make, from a certain commercial failure, infusing its coffers with a much needed $111 million, after it had eked out only $101 million Stateside. Impressed by the movie’s triumph at the Chinese box office, Warner Bros, the producing studio, decided to make a sequel, with production due to commence next year. Evidently, the potential commercial success of a project in China and other foreign markets is increasingly becoming the impetus to greenlight it in Hollywood, regardless of its projected performance in the US market.

Indeed, in the last few years, international markets have surpassed the North American market, making up over 70% of the total global box office gross, according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Consequently, this commercial reversal has precipitated a fundamental change in the movie-making business in Hollywood.

In the past, studio bosses relied on their gut feelings and the feedback of their development departments to greenlight a project. Recently, however, development executives have ceded their power and influence to the  international marketing and publicity departments, who have taken center stage in greenlighting a project, based, not on its creative or artistic merit, but on its potential commercial profitability in major international markets, such as China, Russia, Latin America and the rest of Asia.

This shift has lead to a surge in production of big-budget, special-effects driven blockbusters, that are filled with superheroes and waring monsters, and to a palpable decline in making dramas and comedies, prompting cinema critics and filmmakers to charge Hollywood with dumbing the masses with its superficial and inane movies that lack substance and artistic integrity.

The problem, Hollywood executives say, is that dramas and comedies rely heavily on dialogue, which doesn’t translate well in non-English speaking markets, hence their feeble box office performance often fails to cover their production cost. In contrast, the stories of the big blockbusters are told with extravagant action and digital effects, which transcend the boundaries of language, nationality and culture.

In its pursuit of luring the the broadest audience overseas, Hollywood also endeavors to feature foreign characters, played by international actors. Hence, these days, we often see Chinese, Indian, Russian and other Asian characters in major roles that don’t conform to the negative stereotypes of the past, when the good guys were invariably white and foreigners filled in for the bad guys. In fact, Hollywood has become so sensitive to Chinese sentiment that it doesn’t dare show Chinese characters in negative light and responds swiftly to Chinese concerns, even if that entails changing the film’s story. Last year, the antagonists in Red Dawn were digitally altered from Chinese to Northern Korean following a protest in the Chinese media.

In addition, blockbusters are increasingly being speckled with further Chinese elements, such as merchandise and story subplots, even when they are completely irrelevant to the movie, in order to pique the interest of the Chinese audience. Last year,  a Chinese space station was featured in the Oscar-winning Gravity. And the Chinese version of Iron Man 3 received an extra subplot featuring a Chinese doctor treating Iron Man with acupuncture. Needless to say, both films swept the box office there.

Speaking at San Francisco International Film Festival last year, director Steven Soderbergh argued that Hollywood was not making cinema anymore but producing commercial movies for public consumption, because “cinema is a specificity of vision, and isn’t made by a committee, by a company or by the audience.

Granted, but one should not overlook the positives in this new development, because it’s evident that Hollywood is no longer a centre for promoting the virtues of the white American and vilifying everybody else, but rather has become an international hub where all nations, races and cultures are respectfully and fairly presented and where negative stereotypes of the “others” are fading away, thanks to the producers’ efforts to study and understand the cultures featured in their movies before they embark on making them, lest they hurt anyone’s feelings and consequently lose their box office tickets. Hence one could counter-argue that Hollywood is actually being enlightened rather than dumbed down.

In spite of these noble efforts, Hollywood is still struggling to penetrate a fiercely protectionist market such as China, which often takes steps to safeguard its local productions by the permitting only 32 foreign movies to be exhibited there in one year and by giving them unpalatable release slots. Hence Hollywood studios have resorted to forming partnerships with local companies and filming in China itself, as the director of Transformers, Michael Bay, did, shooting parts of the picture in Hong Kong, casting Chinese star Li Bingbing in a key role and partnering with the country’s largest distributor and film promoter, China Movie Media Group.

One studio, DreamWorks animation, was able to pave its way into the Chinese market, thanks to its business savvy and politically-connected chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who announced three months ago the opening of DreamWorks Oriental in Shanghai. Having been monitoring the explosion of the Chinese market in the last decade, Katzenberg is confident that it will overtake the US market in the very near future. “It’s obvious,” he enthuses. “They have $1.5 billion consumers, which is $1.2 billion more than the US, so you can’t take these figures lightly. Of course, we want to be there. The Chinese people love Hollywood movies and we will cater to their need.”

In fact, there is a broad agreement in Hollywood that China will take the lead in the global market within less than 5 years, which should not be a surprise, considering that 13 cinemas are being opened every day there. Hence, it’s not inconceivable that we could see a Chinese superhero in a Hollywood blockbusters in the near future.

Will “Tyrant” reflect reality in the Middle East? – interview

While the Middle East rages with popular uprisings and civil wars and its people are being butchered by their leaders and terror groups, American and Israeli filmmakers are seeking to capture this harsh reality on TV.

Last week, I spent a few days on two film sets in Israel: Tyrant and Dig. The first tells the story of Bassam Al Fayed (Adam Rayner), the son of an Arab dictator, who after spending 20 years in the US where he practiced medicine and lived with his American wife (Jennifer Finnigan) and two children, reluctantly returns home to his fictional homeland, Abudin, in order to attend his nephew’s wedding. But the death of his father and the attempted assassination of his brutal brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhoum) force him to stay. Meanwhile, Dig follows an FBI agent as he tries to unravel an international conspiracy and investigate a murder within the confines of the old city of Jerusalem.

Both shows were created by Israeli writer/producer Gideon Raff, who was behind the TV show “Homeland,” which was inspired by his Israeli show “Prisoners of War.” Recently, however, he has dropped out of Tyrant’s production, due to creative differences with the show’s runner, Howard Gordon, a veteran of “Homeland” and “24.”

I met Raff on Dig’s set in the old city of Jaffa, where he was shooting a scene in a Palestinian house, which used to be owned by a sheik named Kassem until 1948 when the Israeli Army took it over and turned it into an interrogation centre. I asked Raff, why would an Israeli be telling stories about the Arab and Muslim World?

“I was born and raised here and if you walk down the street here you have no idea who is Arab and who is Jewish,” he enthuses. “We are exactly the same. It’s your culture and you know it and I am interested in it because I find this neighbourhood to be rough one, but a fascinating one. What we tried to do with ‘Tyrant’ and with ‘Homeland’ and definitely with ‘Prisoners of War’ is actually not to tell one perspective, but to see what the other side feels and thinks and humanise it. I think we did something right with that.”

Well, “Homeland” didn’t impress Arab and Muslim commentators, who accused it of presenting a stereotypical and perverse image of their people, who were shown as evil-doers and their countries as hubs of terrorism. Nonetheless, “Homeland” was phenomenally popular, even in the Arab world, and collected multiple accolades, including Emmys and Golden Globes for best TV series.

Undoubtedly Raff is a brilliant storyteller and deserves his accolades, but his stories don’t seem to say more than what is told on US TV news, which continues to perpetuate the prevailing clichés about  Arabs and Muslims, leaving the American people with the misconception that the Arab culture is nothing but a source of evil.

So when Canadian-American actress, Jennifer Finnigan, landed in Morocco to shoot the pilot of Tyrant, she was astonished by the kindness of its people and by the beauty of their culture. And after spending 5 weeks there, meeting natives and eating their food, her views of the Arab and Muslim culture has changed dramatically.

“It was an eye-opening experience and daunting and scary at first,” she says. “I am avid news watcher, but when you think about how Americans are subjected to the sort of Muslim culture, it’s through the news, which is not necessarily positive all the time. I had negative connotation about something like call to prayer. The first time I heard it, it shook me because I associated it with something negative, and then it completely evolved into something different, and now when I hear it I find it beautiful and enchanting. It grounds me 5 times a day to sort of take a minute and think and be grateful. There’s something about the Arabic culture that I find very, very beautiful.”

Finnigan’s Arabian experience was cut short by moving Tyrant’s shoot to Israel, because, according to Raff, Morocco was not equipped for this kind of production, albeit it has been a major hub for Hollywood’s productions. But he revealed in an interview with the Israeli daily, Haaretz, that his goal was to build a filmmaking infrastructure in Israel that would compete with neighbouring countries in attracting international projects.

With the support of the Israeli authorities, a complex of sound stages, costing $30 million, was built in Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv, where a pseudo Arabian palace was erected. The production designer, Ido Dolev, admits that he has little knowledge of Arab decor and culture so the palace’s design was the fruit of his own imagination. “Not necessarily Arabian,” he confirmed. He did, however, import the palace’s decoration from Morocco.

For the show’s British and American actors, Tel Aviv is no different from other western cities and lacks the Middle-Eastern vibe they had felt in Morocco. “Tel Aviv is not a huge leap culturally for me in terms of how your day-to-day life works because there isn’t a language barrier – everyone speaks brilliant English,” exclaims British actor, Adam Rayner. “Morocco feels much more different than Tel Aviv. You are far more immersed there in the style of life of Middle East culture in all of those sort of connotations than being in Tel Aviv.”

The question is how could these actors convincingly portray Arab characters with all the cultural nuances and complexities, in such circumstances, particularly when the script was co written by an Israeli and an American, and the show is being directed by British David Yates, known for directing the last part of the Harry Potter franchise?

“I think when you are in the arts, the fact that American writers are writing for you can only open your mindset differently,” says Israeli actress, Moran Atias, who plays Jamal’s wife, Leila. “I prepare a lot and I watch films with people and to be honest I can ask one Arab woman how it is to be an Arab woman and she will give you one answer and you ask the next Arab woman and she will give you a completely different answer. So again I am representing one voice, and for me, to bring the character I am taking some stuff from Hillary Clinton, and she’s not Muslim, but a political figure that my character aspires for.”

On the other hand, the Arab actor, Ashraf Barhoum, who is aware of the Middle-Eastern reality, tries to concentrate on the artistic merit of the project rather than its political relevance. “The writers are doing a very good job, but they write from their side, the other side. I live in a different place, and see things from a different side, so there’s a place in the middle that we communicate and where I think the series is going; it’s something that is not defined by a specific reality or one thing.”

Having heard all that, one doubts “Tyrant” will be able to aptly and authentically reflect the reality of the Middle East, and will inevitably fall into the stereotyping trap that has plagued many Arab-related Hollywood’s projects. And that was exactly what many of US TV critics felt after watching the first episode, which was premiered last week. They have accused the show of being superficial, having offered nothing new that we haven’t been told by news bulletins.

Frankly, it’s naive to expect Israeli and American writers, sitting in comfortable offices in Hollywood and Tel Aviv, to shed a new light on the intractable problems of the Arab world. Their goal was most likely not to edify or educate the masses about the Middle-East, but to entertain and make some money out of it. In fact, once you get into the show, you forget that you are even watching a show about the Middle East: No one speaks Arabic, the sets could be from anywhere, the lead character is a Brit who acts like one and everybody else seems too westernised.

Evidently, the show’s makers made a great effort to Americanise “Tyrant,” which unlike “Homeland,” is not set in the US and most its characters are foreigners. The question is: will this be enough to tempt American audience into watching it?

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Sam Mendes uses two different parts of his brain for Theatre and Cinema

Originating in ancient Athens, theatre had dominated human culture for nearly 2500 years, offering its audience a live performance of actors who communicated their experiences to them through a combination of gesture, song, speech, dance and music, until the advent of cinema, an illusion of moving images that gained a hold on the public imagination.

Unlike theatre, which is confined to a stage and hence often limited to exploring mainly inter-personal conflicts, cinema is able to drop its characters into different environments  whether it’s on earth or space, expanding the scope of conflict and drama.

Since its inception, cinema has ventured to distant lands, the oceans’ abyss and faraway galaxies, reimagined the past and dared to explore the future, and it has even inspired new scientific discoveries. Nonetheless, theatre still remains a formidable and prestigious art of storytelling, and even produced some of the best performers and directors in the world of film. One of them is British Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, who tells me when I meet him at the Meridien Hotel in New York that Theatre and Cinema are two completely different beasts. “It’s two different parts of my brain,” he says.

Mendes began directing plays in his early twenties at Cambridge university where he studied English literature. Aged 24, he directed Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in London’s West End, starring Judi Dench. Soon, he joined the Royal Shakespeare company, then the National Theatre before he took the helm of the Donmar Warehouse and ventured, as far as Broadway in New York, becoming one of the most prominent stage directors in the English-speaking world.

In 1999, he made the leap into film with American Beauty, which gained him the Oscar for best director. Ironically though, he doesn’t attribute his success in film to his experience in theatre. “There are certain similarities about film and theatre, but there are many more dissimilarities,” he explains. “I mean, there are similarities in that you’re working with actors and you’re working with a script and you’re working with your visual imagination, but it’s a completely different process in so many ways. Filmmaking is so slow, and it’s not organic.”

Indeed, while plays are made in chronological order, enabling the character to grow and evolve as the story progresses forward, film is usually shot nonlinearly in separate segments, which the director assembles later in the editing the room. “You try to put it all together whereas theatre emerges all at the same time,” he adds.

One wonders then, why so many theatre directors end up migrating to making films?

“The joy of movie as opposed to theatre is it’s 360 degrees, whereas in theatre you’re staring at one perspective,” Mendes expounds. “So the joy for me of getting on a set or location with an actor and be able to circle them and find the best place to shoot them from. It’s a huge gift for a movie director coming from theatre.”

Hence, theatre is commonly regarded as a playwright and actor’s medium, whereas, with its vast reservoir of technical tools and visual techniques, cinema offers the director limitless powers and full control over his creation that he could only dream about on the stage.

One of the filmmaking aspects that Mendes finds liberating is the ability to capture an actor doing several shots in different ways and then choose the propitious performance in the editing room. In contrast, actors repeat the same stage performance that was agreed on in rehearsals for months, and he, the director, can do nothing about it.

Nonetheless, theatre teaches its directors how to sustain audience’s commitment for two hours or more, by changing the rhythm of the evening and by learning to tell a story.

“That’s very important in an era where commercials and music video  directors get to direct movies often,” Mendes stresses. “They’re brilliant visually but one thing they are not used to is holding an audience’s attention and that’s something that you have to do in theatre without recourse to close-ups, or special effects.”

Thus, it’s not uncommon for theatre directors to surpass other veteran film directors in their cinematic achievements, most notably Orson Welles, whose film Citizen Kane (1948) is still considered one of the best films ever made.

Having excelled in making movies, including the Oscar-nominated Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road and Skyfall, Mendes turned his attention to TV, producing the BBC series Call the Midwife in 2013, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful this year.

“TV is where my two parts of the brain (Film and Theatre) meet,” Mendes enthuses. “This is where you’re able to take the time that you would in theatre to develop characters, to let scenes play out over real time, to not rush, to not drive things forward excessively, but at the same time, also to use everything you know about shock tactics and surprises and narrative twists and dramatic cuts that you learn from movies.”

In spite of the differences, in terms of creative methods, presentation and level of control, among these mediums of storytelling, Mendes finds them equally fulfilling as an art of self-expression. “When I finish a play, I can’t wait to start a movie and when I finish a movie, I’m desperate to do a play again, although these days I just feel like all I need is a holiday,” he laughs.

Who could blame him? Other than producing Penny Dreadful, the 48-year-old director helmed three major plays in the last couple of years, Richard III (2012), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2013) and King Lear (2014). These days, he is preparing for the next Bond movie.

Why was Ellen Page afraid to come out as gay?

With Ellen Page

At the age of 15, Ellen Page knew that she had a sexual propensity to women, and she thought that she was bisexual until she turned 20, when she became sure that she was gay and embarked on a romantic relationship with a woman, a fact that she kept secret for 6 years until February when she came out in an emotional speech at a crowded Las Vegas LGBT conference, splashing headlines around the world.

When I met Page in New York, where she was promoting the X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which she plays mutant Kitty Pryde, whose powers allow her to pass through solid matter, she said that being closeted all those years was excruciating. “It’s painful to not be able to fully express who you are,” she reflects. “I think it’s really toxic. You think of how 40% of homeless youth in America are LGBT youth. That is staggering statistics and you think of the depression rates and suicide and the struggle. It absolutely needs to change, and now the freedom I experience and what’s been lifted from me is…I don’t even have words for. Every aspect of my life feels better and I feel more excited and creatively inspired than I felt in a long time, so I am nothing but thrilled about it.”

The question is why would someone, like Page and other gay actors in Hollywood, endure so much suffering and go to a great length to deny who they are, in a town that is known for its liberal values? John Travolta and Tom Cruise were furious and deeply offended when Ricky Gervais insinuated that they were gay at the 2012 Golden Globes ceremony, as if he had accused them in committing murder. The following year at the same ceremony, Jodie Foster, who had lived in denial for decades, could hardly spell the words clearly when she made that nebulous coming-out speech.

The truth is that as gay as Hollywood is, it has to pretend that it isn’t. It welcomes and nurtures gay and lesbian lifestyle but goes to great pains to keep its dirty little secret from the heterosexual viewing public, a strict tradition that tinseltown has maintained since its inception. Some cases, however, blew up, like Rock Hudson, one of the biggest stars of the 50’s, whose homosexuality was kept secret until his public announcement that he had contracted AIDS in the mid 1980s.

Surprisingly, The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s had little effect on the secretive nature of Hollywood, inspite of the emergence of movies, like Midnight Cowboy, that began to push the sexual envelope and raise the issue of homosexuality, which was followed over the years with other successful gay movies such as Brokeback Mountain, Milk and Single Man. To this day, Hollywood still operates the same way with many actors’ and actresses’ questionable sexuality splashed across the tabloids as if it was a bad thing.

When Hugh Grant was caught cheating on his girlfriend with a prostitute in Hollywood in the early 90s, his popularity spiked and his image as a ladies man was cemented, because his act squashed the gay rumours about him. But when actors were caught with other guys, like Paul Ruebens or Rupert Everett, their career suffered severely. Hence, no wonder gay actors, like Page, who broke through playing a pregnant teen in 2007’s Juno,  fear facing the world with their true identity.

“I was afraid, which had to do with my career and what you’re told about that you basically can’t, and also your kind of own shame and your own growth what you’re dealing with as a gay person. But recently, I was done feeling like I couldn’t be myself. I was done feeling worried about it and afraid. I was done having to be in relationships and keeping them hidden. Yes, there’s been a lot of progress but there’s still total suffering and inequality,” the 27-year-old star stresses.

Hollywood insiders contend that the majority hetero viewing public won’t be able to relate to their leading men and women if they were gay, particularly when they play romantic roles.

Ironically though, in the last 30 years, straight actors, like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia or Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra, who inhabited homosexuals have been rewarded with the highest accolades. Meanwhile, gay actors struggle to get leading straight roles. Until there is a shift in people’s consciousness towards homosextuality, most gay and lesbian actors will probably remain in the closet.

“Hopefully people will continue to evolve and get rid of whatever issue they have with the LGBT community,” the Oscar-nominated actress says. “As a gay person, it’s hard for me to fathom why you would hate me because I am gay, so I hope that the more time goes on, the more people realise that we’re just human beings living our lives and falling in love, which to me is a very beautiful and rare thing, and why would you not want that for someone?”

For the moment the 5-foot actress is flourishing, with X-Men: Days of Future Past opening this month and starring roles in two indies in preproduction, Freeheld and Into the Forest, which she is producing, and a potential Fox studio franchise on the horizon. But the big question is how will Page’s revelation affect her professional standing in the long run?