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?

Follow me on twitter @husamasi

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Does ‘Homeland’ TV show reflect today’s political reality?

Husam Asi with Claire Danes

Inspite of having been slammed by some for its far-fetched premise, ridiculous plotting and inconceivable characters, Homeland has scored the highest rating on Showtime TV network, enamoured the critics and swept the Emmys and Golden Globes Awards in several categories since its inception. Millions of viewers around the world, including president Barak Obama, have been addicted to it. A third season has just been announced and will commence airing on September 29th.

Beware: a spoiler in the way if you haven’t seen season 2

Based on the Israeli series Hatofim, Homeland follows a bipolar CIA operative Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), who initially warns that a US Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who has been recently released by Al Qaeda after 8 years in captivity, had been turned by his captor, Abu Nazir, against the US.

Indeed, Brody has converted to Islam, but his link to terrorism remains ambiguous. Soon, not only does Carrie end up believing his innocence, she even becomes his lover, as he ostensibly helps her to capture the nefarious terrorist, Abu Nazir, who outsmarts the CIA and blows up its headquarters, killing most of its top officers.

While many critics have hailed the show as a true reflection of reality, some have decried it as an exercise of Islamophobia that lacks factual credibility, pointing out that all the muslims depicted in the show, regardless of their origin, education or wealth are either terrorists or linked to terrorism.  One such character is an Oxford-educated, secular Palestinian journalist, Roya Hamdan, who has unfettered access to congressmen and the head of CIA, yet she works for Abu Nazir and helps him to execute terrorist attacks against the US. Apparently, her motive is to avenge the expulsion of her family from Palestine. Creating such character exposes the ignorance of the show’s makers in Middle-Eastern politics, because there has never been an attempt or a threat by Palestinians, not even by Hamas, to perpetrate attacks on American soil. Furthermore, Islamists don’t trust or work with Arab seculars, as it has been clearly demonstrated in the bloody infighting between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, and the liberals and the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt and Algeria.

The Al Qaeda operative, a Sunni extremist,  is also supported by the shiite group, Hizbullah, an impossible scenario considering the enmity between the two islamic sects. But all of them, including American Muslims, are seemingly united in their vengeful hate of America. The show’s makers also wanted the muslim convert, Sergeant Brody, to blow himself to smithereen and kill everybody around him, including the cabinet and the vice president, but Lewis flatly rejected the idea.

“I went oh, wait a second, we’ve been treading this very nuanced line about the fact that Brody’s belief in Islam, his new faith, was a nurturing force for good for him, and that we were trying hard not to just draw lazy parallels between Islam and violence, because I wasn’t interested in a show that did that,” he says. So the writers came up with a different personal motivation, no less implausible than the former,  for Brody to kill the vice president, which was a revenge for an Afghani kid, named Issa, who he had taken under his wing while in captivity and who later was killed by a US drone attack, ordered by the vice president.

Meeting Lewis, I was awed by the vastness of his erudition and the depth of his understanding of the Middle East and Islam. He has been to several

Husam Asi with Damian Lewis

countries there, where he imbibed the culture and formed friendships. Yet he still believes in the integrity and veracity of the show. “It wasn’t such a clear cut example of US Marine discovers Allah, and decides to go and blow other people up,” the British actor says.

Muslim converts are usually so proud of their religion that they endeavour to spread it around and even take an arabic name. Brody, however, conceals his new faith from his loved ones, colleagues and friends, as if he was a Jew in a Nazi land. Furthermore, he doesn’t conform to any Islamic rules,  drinking alcohol, committing adultery and never visiting a mosque, but we are reminded that he is muslim by his occasional prayers and his inclination to commit a terrorist act. “We made a decision that when he was with his Marine buddies, he would pick up a beer, and yes that was deliberate and it was a mask,” Lewis explains. “And we also found that Brody lapsed when he was in positions of extreme stress, and sometimes he had a beer to calm him down. And he keeps his faith secret from his family because he wanted to reintegrate in family life; there was a lot to cope with for his family.”

And when his peaceful wife catches him praying to Allah, she reacts as if he has committed the most hideous crime imaginable, tossing his Koran to the floor as if it was a piece of a poisonous trash. Were the filmmakers trying to tells us that either Islam is bad for you or Americans are ignorant, intolerant bigots?

Unlike Lewis, Danes didn’t bother studying the intricate politics of the Middle-East or  fathoming the complexities of the Islamic faith. Her only venture to the Middle-East has been to Israel during the filming the show’s second season. “My personal knowledge is not great at all about that,” she smiles. “The writers are very diligent about being as abreast of current politics as they can possibly be, so I really leave that to them. It’s my job to just interpret the fiction.”

But she did read a lot about bipolar disorder and the CIA. “The most valuable thing has been going onto YouTube and looking at testimonials of bipolar people,” she says. “There’s so many different phases of mania. And there is a point on the manic arc where they have superhero powers and then it devolves into a kind of chaos, and they stop functioning. That’s a place [superhero powers] that Carrie is always trying to arrive at and maintain so that she can do her most excellent work and save the world.”

Indeed, the sex-starved, mentally-wrecked Carrie, whose main diet is alcohol and pills, is the guardian of America’s security and the antidote to terrorists. “I think it’s challenging for people with bipolar condition to maintain conventional jobs,” Danes adds. “The amount of stress that she’s put under, my goodness. I think we’re stretching the boundaries of truth a fair amount.”

The CIA, on the other hand, is portrayed as a dysfunctional organisation plagued with personal rivalries, engaged in illegal assassinations and devoid of any moral codes. The most powerful spying agency in the world is so inept that an Islamist terrorist manages to infiltrate it with the most primitive means and then blow up its headquarters, killing most of its top officers. They probably need to pay  a psychiatric hospital a visit and  recruit more mad Carries in order to keep them and America safe.

Luckily, there is the good Jewish guy, Saul, the head of counter terrorism and Carrie’s mentor, who acts as the voice of reason, the compass of morality and the conscience of humanity. He also recites the Jewish prayers over the bodies of those who were slain by the “abhorrent” Muslims.

Many critics have described the show as a reflection of today’s reality, but Danes disagrees. “This is a heightened reality that we’re creating. It’s not directly parallel by any means to what would really happen in life. It’s make believe.”

Hence I am addicted to it. Because it’s a great fiction and any attempt to link it to reality will inevitably spoil the joy of watching it. It’s tautly written, underpinned by compelling, flawed characters and thrilling plotting, and benefits from riveting performances. It has created its own dramatic reality and worked within its frame and abided by its rules. It’s a reality where all Muslims are terrorists, the CIA is a corrupt and an incompetent organisation, Americans are ignorant Islamophobes, a devout muslim resorts to alcohol to calm his nerves, madness produces excellence and Jewishness is the only beacon of reason and morality.

The problem with the show is that the plotting has become repetitious and predictable. In the first episode of the third season, Carrie is kicked out one more time from the CIA. But I am sure the inept CIA will have to bring her back to keep us entertained by her madness and save our world from the wicked ‘Muslims.’

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Da Vinci’s Demons exposed in a new TV show

Lara Pulvar, Tom Riley, Laura Haddock, Husam Asi, Blake Ritson and David Goyer at the Michelangelo-designed Villa San Michele hotel

Every time I walk down the historical streets and alleyways of Florence, I marvel at the masterpieces of art dotted in the different piazzas. This is the city that gave birth to the Renaissance, and to the men behind it. I was invited to Florence by the US TV network, Starz, to attend the premiere of their new show Da Vinci’s Demons, about that era and the man who epitomised it, Leonardo Da Vinci.

A painter, a sculptor, an anatomist, a geologist, a cartographer, a botanist, a geologist and a writer, Leonardo Da Vinci has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance Man. He is perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived. He is mostly known for his paintings, particularly the Mona Lisa, the most famous and most parodied portrait and The Last Supper, the most reproduced religious painting of all time, his drawing of the Vitruvian Man  regarded as a cultural icon and reproduced on varied items including the Euro, textbooks and T-shirts. But he was also a great scientist and engineer, conceptualised a helicopter, a tank, a calculator, a concentrated solar power and much more.

Da Vinci’s superhuman qualities have piqued the interest of Hollywood screenwriter, David Goyer, who co-penned the screenplays of other superhumans, Batman and Superman, from a very young age. “My first introduction to Leonardo Da Vinci was at about 8 or 9, reading in a comic book that Bob Kane, the creator of Batman had based Batman’s cape on Leonardo’s ornithopter,” he tells me when I meet him in Florence, where Da Vinci grew up. So when Starz asked him to do something historical, Goyer suggested Leonardo Da Vinci, and they acquiesced. “We were amazed that no-one had ever featured him as the lead in a movie or a television show before, and I just thought he’s probably the most famous man in history other than Christ, and fascinating and interesting. His name is synonymous with mysteries and secret societies and I thought who better to base a series around,” Goyer enthuses.

Indeed, hundreds of books have been written about the Italian genius, yet his life is still shrouded in mystery. He was born out-of-wedlock in the city of Vinci in the province of Florence to a wealthy Florentine legal notary and a peasant, whose identity is a still in doubt. Some even suggested that she was a Turk, and recently some scientists inferred from analysing the pattern of his fingerprints that he ought to be from an Arab descent.  Historians have also debated his whereabouts from the age of 28-32; Da Vinci claimed to have been working for the Ottoman Empire in Syria and Armenia and Egypt, but others claimed that he was joking. “When you have gaps in a famous person’s history, that’s kind of gold for a creator because it gives you the creative license to invent things,” Goyer exclaims.

So if you are expecting to see a docudrama about the greatest genius ever born, then you will be disappointed. “This is a historical fantasy,” Goyer concedes. “I felt that I was beholden to history in terms of portraying the spirit of the times or the spirit of the characters and the relationships but I was trying to re-contextualise it in modern terms.”

Free from the shackles of history, Goyer imbues the show with sex and violence, feeding the insatiable appetite of the modern audience for frivolous entertainment. Da Vinci, played by British thespian Tom Riley, is a batman without the bat costume; he is undefeated swordsman and a womanizer, though there has been substantial evidence that he was a homosexual. In fact, he was accused of sodomy and never married to a woman. Goyer, however, insists that was a misconceived claim made by Freud. “My personal opinion is he was probably bisexual,” he says.

Riley concedes that Da Vinci’s sexual affair with the mistress of his boss, Lorenzo Medici, was merely a dramatic necessity. “She is primarily a means to an end and he uses her to get where he needs to be as far as war engineering is concerned.”

Like Da Vinci, the rest of the characters in the show are played by little-known British actors, including Elliot Cowan (Lorenzo Medici), Laura Haddock (Lorenzo’s mistress), Lara Pulver (Lorenzo’s wife), and Blake Ritson (The Pop’s nephew), while Wales stood in for the province of Florence. Preparing to inhabit those historical Italian characters, the actors devoured books about the Italian Renaissance and fed their eyes with the copious paintings from that era.

Lara Pulvar took another step further to endow her character with authenticity, spent some time in a rural area in Italy in order to imbibe some of the people’s mannerisms. “I would just spend a few days just literally going around into churches and seeing how people prayed, seeing their spirituality, seeing their faith, seeing how they felt they needed to cross themselves and what I found kind of unique is that it’s individual and I think it was just as much back in Renaissance Italy,” she says.

Nonetheless, however hard the production team endeavour the capture the spirit of the that era, the show, with its fantastical narration, is just another fairy tale that aims to entertain rather than educate. Goyer, however, hopes that it will inspire more interest in the great man, who is perceived by the young generation as a boring old man, telling his son, who had been completely uninterested in Da Vinci, went and bought books about him after visiting the set.

“If you read Vasari’s Lives Of The Artists, he was almost 6′ tall, he was very good-looking, he was described as a flamboyant dresser who Michelangelo berated for his dress constantly. He was known to be a good swordsman. He was ambidextrous. He could fight with both hands. He was known to be a good horse rider. He was famous for his paintings, his inventions, but also his magic tricks, his practical jokes. He has almost universal appeal,” says Goyer.

Indeed, Da Vinci sounds as appealing as Batman and Superman.

Hollywood is seeking God

The Bible is the most watched Cable TV show of the year in the US

Atheist and critics alikes are perplexed by the overwhelming success of the new TV series The Bible, that became the cable TV’s most-watched telecast of the year on its March 3rd premiere on History channel, pulling in $13.1 million viewers, with its next two episodes holding strong at 10.9 million, in spite of an incoherent narrative, wooden dialogue, mediocre acting and cheap-looking special effects.

The producers of the show, British-born Mark Burnett (the producer of reality shows Survivor, Celebrity Apprentice, The Voice and Shark Tank), and his wife Roma Downey (who plays Virgin Mary), admitted that it was a low budget production and that their goal was merely to alleviate “Bible illiteracy.” The results of their efforts, however, didn’t impress either TV critics or Bible scholars, who accused the producers of presenting a misconceived vision of the Bible in order to please the Christian evangelicals,  casting white Americans and Europeans for the roles of the ethnically-mideastern prophets and black actors in the roles of Satan and Samson.

Regardless of the educational and production merits of The Bible, the above rating figures have prompted ungodly Hollywood to reassess its relationship with God and recognize his power in the box-office and TV rating. “We believe the audience continues to have a hunger for life -and faith- affirming films,” said Michael Langdon Jr. who is writing and producing the new TV version of Jesus of Nazareth. “The monumental success of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible just underscores that.”

To feed the masses’ hunger for faith-based stories, several TV channels are offering a feast of godly shows. Showtime is developing The Vatican, Lifetime has a hit reality series called the Preachers’ Daughters, GSN is airing a Bible themed game show and several networks (TLC, Discovery, National Geographic) have sparked to the Amish.

More religious-themed movies will also hit the big screen soon, most notably Darren Aronofsky’s epic Noah, starring Russell Crowe. The film has already stirred devout christians to condemn it for not being in line with the Biblical account of Noah’s ark and the flood. This kind of controversy is inevitable when it comes to faith-based movies, for everyone has his own interpretation of the word of God. In 2004, Mel Gibson was accused of anti-semitism for depicting the Jews as the persecutors of Jesus in The Passion of The Christ, though he insisted that he had faithfully adhered to the Gospel.

Unfortunately, such arguments have sometimes spilled blood instead of ink, as was the case with the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated in 2004 for making a short movie, Submission, in which he showed text from the Quran superimposed on women’s naked bodies. Nonetheless, filmmakers are undeterred. In fact, two epic movies about the prophet Muhammad are currently in production: one in Iran and the other in Qatar. The two movies are bound to incite controversy and probably bloodshed, considering that one is a Shiite version and the other is a Sunni one.

Filmmakers often hire theologians and historians to help in their endeavour to tell their divine stories with the utmost veracity and without hurting the feelings of the faithful, but in vain. Faith, after all, is a belief that is held with lack of, in spite of or against reason and evidence, hence any attempt to rationalize it is futile.

Some would argue that since the dawn of history, religion has been a source of conflicts and adversity that lead to the perishment of millions of souls, destruction of prosperous nations and annihilation of great cultures. The faithful  however, would certainly contend that religion has brought harmony where there was a discord, an order where there was chaos and enlightenment where there was ignorance. The gap between these two statements seems too wide to ever be reconciled, however hard filmmakers try.