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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