Four Documentaries on Middle East Political History, Movie Review Example

The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs (1998)

The PBS produced documentary, The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs (1998) is a five hour series that examines the volitile historical conditions and events that have surrounded the nation of Israel since its founding in the years after World War Two. The film was directed by David Ash and runs for 300 minutes. One of the most crucial issues about the film as with any film dealing with the same subject matter is whether or not there is any kind of propogandistic side to the movie. And, if there is a propoganidistic side to the film, does it favor the Israeli or Arab side of the conflict. The first quality of the fiom that refveals itself is that the filmmakers have definitely atttempted to present a balanced and historical account of events without taking a particular side.  That said, it is still possible for an observer with a particular perspective to see the fim as biased in either direction. This is, in fact, one of the msot intersting aspects of a documentary of thiws nature: that it is virually impopssible to rpesent an entirely objective statement of historical facts.

Also interesting is the film’s use of a non-linear type of perspective to show the linear progression of events. The documentary is comprised of interrviews with elading figures of the Arab and Israeli conflict, including Benjamin Netanyahu, Hafez al-Assad, Bill clinton, and Yasir Arafat among many others. This lends an air of comprehensiveness to the filma nd also helps to bring out a feeling proportion and balance. The documentary attempts to show not only all of the various “sides” of the conflict, but also the various levels that exists within these sides. So, for example, while the film includes interviews with notable heads of states such as those mentioned above, it also includes interviews with leaders of guerillafactions, field officers in the armies, and intelligence agents. The conflict between the Israelis and Arabs is therefore given as much of a human face as is possible by showing the various roles that were played throughout different stratas of society.

In terms of the linear history that is conveyed in the film, the documentary begins with the U.N sanctioned partitioning of palestine in 1947 and continued through the war for Israeli statehood which was achieved in 1967. From there, the film recounts the evolution and growing influence of the Palestine Liberastion Organization. The final episodes of the documentary include an account of the Yom Kipper War, the Palestinian uprising in the 1980’s and accounts of teh various ttampts at peace agreemetns including the Camp David agreement and the Oslo Agreement. Due to the fact that the documentary examines both the violent warfare and intricate diplomacy that have been associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict ove rthe past decades, it is an accurate statement to say that the film is objective in its vision of the conflict’s range and impact. in other words, the film in no way elevates the aremed conflict about tye diplomatic and political struggle or vice-versa. Instead, the film attempts to show how violent conflict, political struggle, diplomacy and economics are intrivately entwined over the fifty year struggle between the Arab and Israeli states.

From a technical standpoint, the fim’s comprehensive approach is effective but slightly overwhelming. As mentioned previously, the desire to repsent the subject in an objective way seems to have been one of the guiding principles of the film’s composition. For example, when the film shows an account of Arab armies overrunning the Israeli borders during the early years of israel’s sovereignty, the story is presented, in part, by Yitzhak Navon, who is a former Israeli President. during this segment, the narrator of the documentary mentions that many Jewish civilians were killed by Arab soldiers. In other words, the film seems to be deliberately attempting to show a sympathetic view toward the Israelis while simultaneously casting a negative light on the Arabs. Whether or not such a segment in the film is simply a consequence of the wide-scope of the film or whether it reflects a desire to slant the documentary toward a certain perspective is debatable. Either way, this segment shows the technical difficulty of dealing with the long Israeli-Arab conflict in a film.

Similarly, a person who was looking at the documentary to find signs of bias toward the Arab side of the conflict might cite the film’s portrayal of the growth and activities of the PLO. For example, the documentary downplays the role of the PLO as a pseudo-state particularly in regard to the PLO’s role in Lebanon during the 1970’s. The documentary includes accounts of the PLO’s bombings of Israeli civilians but seems to avoid portraying the group as a terrorist organization. The overall impact of these two aspects of the coverage of the PLO is to “soften” the PLO’s historical impact and its influence over both military and political conditions in the Middle East. That said, the documentary actually functions as an objective record of the many of the most significant events and players in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obviously, since the appearance of bias in the film can be argued form either the Arab or Israeli perspective, the apparent biases in the film are due more to the massive scope and breadth of the historical material and data than to the intentions of the filmmakers to create propaganda.

For this reason it seems obvious that the film is an outstanding resource for teachers, students, historians and  anyone else who is interested in learning about the Fifty Years War. The film is applicable to any perspective on the conflict, whether intended to emphasize the political or military side of the events. The sheer scope of the film and its attention to historical detail and diverse voices is enough to ensure that its is a worthwhile viewing experience. However, as mentioned previously, the length and scope of the film may prove to be an obstacle to some viewers. There is no way to further streamline the material, obviously, without losing the degree of objectivity and historical completeness that are part of the film’s power and appeal.  Due to this fact, it would seem as though the film should be rated quite highly as a record of the diplomatic and political history of events.

The shortcoming of the film, in my opinion, is that it reveals next to nothing about the social and cultural context of the conflict. There are no real stories of regular citizens and the way that the conflict has shaped and impacted their lives, furthermore, there is not enough cultural history and evidence offered to clearly define the reason for the continued conflict between the Arab and Israeli  people. That is not to say that the film fails to provide a historical context and even motivation for the conflict, simply that the conflict is not illustrated with cultural and social materials. Even though this is the case, the film is still highly commendable for its bringing together so much archival footage and evidence to place the events of the conflict in logical context. The subject matter is deeply complex and the film is energetically comprehensive which is a very good combination.

Documentary – Promises (2001)

The film Promises (2001) was directed by B.Z. Goldberg and examines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by interviewing a handful of children from both sides. Goldberg, who also appears in the film, is careful to construct a film that allows the innate emoitnal impact of the children to shine through. The obvious tension in the film is between the innocence of the children and the gravity of poltical, social, and military tension that is part of the world around them. Obviously, the native innocence of the chidren is contrasted against the violence and complex world of adults in order to show the essential superiority of the world of innocence. The film seems to be suggesting that, if children on either side of the conflict can learn to play together and understand one another, then their example should lead the way for the rest of humanity. Although the film focuses on only seven children, the inference given by the film is that these children represent the larger population, or venthe universal experience of all individuals who grow up in a war-zone.

Many viewers might find the premise of the film sightly disturbing because it is such an immediate emotional topic. However, this is precisely the intention of the filmmaker. The use of children to both catch the ineterest of the audience and to gain audience sympathy is a device that is an essential part of the film. This is because what Goldberg is actually trying to do in the film is to get each viewer of the film to get in touch with thier own innocent satte of their own vision of child-like hope and accepatnce. This is an overtly romantic notion and one which seems deliberately intended to try to counterbalance some of the  long-term cynicism that has been associated with the conflict and with numerous attempts to resolve the conflict on peaceful terms. The presence of the  children in the film brings to immediate attention the question of the future and also brings into sharp focus the most devestating cost of the conflict which is beyond merely material loss, and extends to the loss of innocence and childhood potential on both sides of the conflict. Rather than probe into the abstract poltical and culutural motivations for the long-term conflict, the film hones in on the specific, personal experiences of the children and their familes. This enables the viewer to see that the larger conflict in the story is actually comprised of individual emotional and familial responses to real-world events, rather than abstract religion or ideology.

As such, the film is best understood as an emotional plea for understanding the human toll of the conflict. In fact, the film seems to wilfully dismiss the underlying political and ideological aspects of the conflict as if to suggest that these ideas have become so complex and difficult that a resolution through those lines is unlikely. What is a potneital resolution to the conflict is to stoop the process of passing the violence and conflict along from one generatiion to the next. This is shown in the film basically by portraying the children as the heart of each scoiety. therefore their innocence whihc is already being chipped away even at such a youong age, rpersents the loss on both sides of the conflict, and bvy expotension to evryone who is involved at any level at all.

The film shows a definite arc from portraying the childlike perspective of the kids in the film to a “contaminated” vision that is shown to be broiling in each of the kids. For example, one of the Jewish boys shown in the film remarks that the settlement that he lives in is one where people hate Arabs. The boy, whose name is Moishe, rides his bike in a Palestinian neighborhood as though he is defying their independence. This sense of detachment and even defiance is shown even more clearly when the boy says that he hopes the Israeli military’s firing range outside of the village will have a “bad” shot which accidentally hits an Arab.

A similar effect is created by a scene on the Palestinian side of the story when a grandmother and her grandson visit the destroyed house of their family. The house was turned into rubble by the  Israeli army in 1949. As the grandmother shows the child the paperwork and keys that go to the house, the boy insists that he will see it rebuilt someday along with the entire village. What this scene shows is that the sense of struggle that is felt on both sides of the conflict is personal rather than merely ideological. This approach to showing the conflict must be seen as the most humanistic perspective that could be brought to view the conflict. As such, Goldberg also escapes any charge of sentimentality despite his use of children as a subject for the film because scenes such as the two described above show how sentimentality and “group-think” are actually associated with one another in the context of the conflict.

It is, in fact, the combination of sentimentality and conformity that actually give continuing fuel to the fire of the conflict. The film can be seen as being made-up of three sections. The first section is the introduction of the children and the basic circumstances. The second section is the exploration of how the historical events are based in deeply personal experiences as shown by the immersion of the children in the more weighty issues of the conflict. The third segment of the film is one where Goldberg begins to appear more frequently in front of the camera. He also begins to voice his ideas about what might be the result of trying to bring children from opposite sides of the conflict together.  This potential underscores the basic theme of the film which is the way in which the innocence of the past and present are being sacrificed right along with the hope for the future in order to keep the conflict and escalation of violence in full  motion.

In some regards the film is also an attempt to put a dent in the viewer’s own sense of innocence because it is likely that many viewers of the documentary will expect that the children, once exposed to one another, would readily discard their differences and learn to relate at a more pure and unaffected level. In fact, the conclusion that is expressed by the film is almost the opposite: which is that the children on both sides of the conflict have been so indoctrinated by the propaganda on both sides that their status as innocents in the conflict is specious. The viewer can see clearly that children on both sides of the conflict have been initiated into the violence and hatred and, in fact, their self-identities are to some terrible extent based on their experience of the conflict. The importance of family, culture, and peer-acceptance all play a role in shaping the successive participation of each generation in the conflict.

It’s difficult to say which aspect of the film is more tragic, the fact that the children are portrayed as being so heavily indoctrinated into war and conflict, or the fact that the conflict’s greatest toll seems to be on generations who may or may not even understand the original historical basis for the violence and hate. These ironies are actually articulated with great skill by  Goldberg in the film. He is able to keep the emphasis of the film on an emotional level while simultaneously making a very deft intellectual statement. That statement is that the origins of any conflict and reasons for it are of little consequence when measured against the human cost of the conflict. the cost involves not only the loss of life and property, but the loss of humanity. The fact that the youth of multiple generations have been “sacrificed” to the ongoing war between the Israelis and Palestinians is the greatest tragedy that can be seen as associated with the conflict. This is because the loss of youth and innocence that is conveyed in the film is symbolic of the loss of future hope that a resolution to the conflict will ever be attained.  This is obvious due to the fact the the children of the Middle East are  not only symbolically associated with the future of the region, but the literal inheritors of the region and the associated conflict.

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

            Sut Jhally’s film: Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2006) examines the way in which Arabs are portrayed in Western culture and specifically how Arabs have been shown by Hollywood films throughout many decades in America. The film is narrated by  Jack Shaheen who also wrote the book on whihc the documentary is based. One of the themes of the film is the treatement of Arabs by Hollywood, while another one of the themes of the film is the theme of stereotypes in general and that way in which the urge to create stereotypes about all races and not merely Arabs is a defining characteristic of Western culture. In this sense, the film can be seen as a critcism of Westernb society, but in a larger sense, the film is a criticism of prejudice and cultural chauvanism in any manifestation.

The film traces the practice of prejudice against Arabs in American cinema all the way back to the early days of silent movies. The film follows this early use of stereotyping and shows how it has maintained a continuous presence in Aerican movies right up to the present day. The narrator of the film instructs the audience to understand that the stereotypes and prejudices about Arabs that are present in American films are not an outgrowth of cultural understanding and objective realism, but a mean-spiritied and deliberate attempt to slander the Arab races. The usual ways in which Arabs are stereotyped in American cinema is as badits, rogues, belly-dancers, thieves, and corrupt shieks. There are litte to no depictions of “good” Arabs in American films. Arab women are almost alwyas shown as supplicant slaves to their male overlords and many young Arab men are portrayed as rifle-weilding terrorists in American movies.

One of the key things to keep in mind regarding the film is that it shows that the prejudices that are exhibited against Arabs in American films are not only intentional and designed to inspire fear and hatred against Arabs by Westerners, but that these delinerate attempts to create racial prejudice and racially based tension are actually effective. In other words, a greater degree of racial hostility and racial intolerance between Arabs and Westerners has been established due to the influence of stereotyping. This means that the film is actually exploring a very important historical issue which is the way that racial prejudice can be manufactured, or at least intensified, through the use of media and propoganda. The question that  Shaheen puts in the mind of the audience is whther or not the racial stereotyping is designed for a specific purpose and if so, what purpopse?

The answer to tyhat questiojn is the basis for one theme of the film. One thought offered in the film is that the dispariging idenitty of Arabs as portrayed in American cinema is not only an influence on Western ideas, bit on Arabs’ self-perception. The stereotypes and prejudices that are disclosed in the films are evidently intended to diminish the humanity of the Arabs by showing them as greedy, lazy, and ignorant. While reviewing some of the prejudiced depictions of Arabs in Hollywood films the film’s narrator suggests that the motivation for the distorted portrayal of Arabs in Western films is to a large part based on politics. That is to say, the films are articulating a political agenda, rather than expressing an innate suspicion of dislike of Arabs that exists in Western society. This s a highly significant observation because it shows that teh conflict, prejudice, and racism that is extant between Arabs and Westerners is to a very large extent being manufactured through propoganda and media influecne rather than coming out of a natural sense of racial conflict between two cultures.

One of the conclusions that is therefore reached by the film is that Hollywood and Washington DC are actually so deeply connedcted aas to serve each other’s interests completely. This might be suprising news to many Americans who probably belive that their media is “free” and created primarily for the purpose of making money. If, in fact, the primary purpose of certain stylistic conventyions in Hollywood movies, such as its portrayal of Arabs, is for political rather than cultural or economic purpposes, then how many other conventions and ideas that are shown in Hollywood films follow the same pattern?  Such ideas can be regarded as the true intention of the film as the evidence is shown to teh viewer that the connection between American politics and Hollywood stereotypes is far from accidental.

Some of the steretypes that are examined in the film show a nefarious quality when they are viewed in connection to the kind of foreign policy that America has exhibited toward Arab nations over time. For example, the depiction of Arabs as being “pre-technological” and often shown with camels and tents, wearing turbans and holding women as slvoes portrays the Arab as a  primitive, almost subhuman figure.  The danger of thsi kind of stereotyping is not only that it distorts the reality of Arab cultures but that it effectively creates a prejudiced reflex, almost an unconscious processing, of distrust adn dislike of Arabs by Westerners. The fact is that Hollywood films have such a significant impact over the conscious beliefs of the American population, that the constant portrayal of Arabs as primitive and threatening is a recipe to create racial prejudice against Arabs among Americans.

In reacting to the film as an American, there are several components of response. First, there is the shock of realizing that Hollywood and Washington D.C. seem to be without much doubt collaborators in the service of a shared agenda. That agenda seems to be to use the medium of film as a way to direct adn shape the racial beliefs and persepctives of an entire nation. Another aspect of the reaction to the film that comes with viewing the film as an American is the feeling of “discovery” that comes from beginning to see the pattern of portrayal that promotes racism against Arabs. As such, te film is a bittersweet experience for a typical American viewer. Probably, most Americans walk around beiveing that their films and media are without a speific governmetn agends. However, as shown in Reel Bad Arabs nothing could be further from the truth. Yet another apsect of responding tot he film as an American is a feeling of anger, because the film helps one to realize the way in which fiom has been used as a medium of control and propoganda by the powers-that-be.

The reaction of horror that I felt — personally — to the film came from realizing that so much of the real-world prejudice, toture, murder, and persecution of Arabs by Westerners is as a result of the kind of prejudicial programming and propaganda that was demonstrated in the documentary. Since the film was careful to show that the prejudicial portrayals of Arabs in American films was part of children’s programming ans well as adult programming it really seems to be that there is a “brainwashing” agenda happening in reggard to creating racial tension between Arabs and Westerners.

The film offers little in the weay of proposed soultions to the rampant prejudice that is being coded into American moives. The best way to approach the proboem, according to the film, seems to be to simply raise awareness about the propogandastic practices.  Maybe, just as the prejudiced films helped to create real-world prejudice, authentic media about Arab cultures and Arab people can helpt heal the wound created by the racially prejudiced media. this still elaves the world, and particularly America, with a very significant problem which is to find out who, specifically, is directting the propagand machine of Hollywood, and for what specific purposes? Since the portrayal of Arabs as threatening and subhuman by Hollywood has played out in the actual world by way of multi0ple wars with millions of deaths, it seems like it might be a good idea for the American people to look behind the curtain and demand to know who is accountable for the racial propoganda that is being served to them as innocent entertainment.

TV Documentary Inside Mecca

National Geographic’s TV documentary Inside Mecca brings an intimate portrayal of both the sacred city and a number of individual Islamic pilgrims who take part in the Holy days of the Hajj. The film is an exception to many centuries of tradition where the  city of Mecca and the Hajj were closed to outside audiences and prohibited from being observed by non-Muslims. One of the first things that it is made clear in the film is that the Hajj is not an exception to the daily routines of those million-plus residents of the city, but is, in fact, the reason for daily life in the city. The entire Meccan culture is based around the Hajj season and consists of either preparing for this time or recovering from it.

The film shows that Mecca’s history is inextricably bound to the Hajj and the city’s stature as a sacred place. The city has been in existence for over one-thousand years. As an important trade center and religious site, Mecca has occupied a significant and profound status in relation to the history of the Middle Easy which continues now in modern times.  In terms of geography and climate, mecca is not a particularly desirable space of land in the Arab peninsula because it is arid and hot. The lack of precipitation makes modern agriculture difficult in the area. in the past, simply maintaining an adequate water supply for the inhabitants of the region was a challenge.

In modern times, it is the season of the Hajj which allows the Meccan economy to survive. the annual Hajj is responsible for drawing upwards of 100 million dollars into the region. This is such an important source of revenue that the Saudi ruling classes also spend at least 50 million to support the annual Hajj. Therefore, as the movie indicates quite clearly, the identity of Mecca as a holy place for Muslims is not only a religious issue; it is an economic (and therefore also political) issue and one which is indistinguishable from the way mecca functions and is perceived by the world at large.

The film also takes into account the long history of Mecca’s mystique. Rather than exploring idea of occult or religious power that may be associated with Mecca, the film instead addresses the fact that the city’s ban on on-Muslims is the primary reason for the city’s mystique particularly among Westerners. In fact, according to the film, the sacred stature of the area that is now known as Mecca stretches back far into deep history. Therefore, the exclusion of non-Muslims from the city can be seen as an extension of previous bans against hunting, tree-cutting or warfare that have been a part of the region for centuries. The reason that the deep history of Mecca is so important to understanding its modern stature is because it is actually the link between modern Islam and Islam’s roots.

This shows that Mecca is not only an important religious, financial, and political city, but that it is actually a cultural pillar in that it stands at the center of Islamic society.  Most religions have a sacred place or places that serve as pillars for their theology and history. this is, in effect, how Mecca functions in relation to Islam but to an even more profound degree. It is  hardly an exaggeration to suggest that the city of Mecca is, in reality, the “heart” of Islamic culture.  One of the more highly effective aspects of the documentary is to show not only that Mecca is the heart of Islam but that as such the city exerts a multifaceted influence over Middle Eastern culture.  The typical Western vision of Mecca as a mystical Holy city tell only part of the true story of the city. The reality is that Islamic culture is soo deeply tied to mecca in functional ways as to make the sacredness of the city almost mandatory, regardless of religious conventions.

Of course separating, or attempting to separate, Mecca’s role as religious center from its role as a financial or cultural center is a foolish pursuit. This is precisely the point of the film which seeks to demonstrate how mecca functions in a way that is decidedly different than Western cities. It is both traditional and highly modern; spiritual and political, diverse and exclusionary. The film, in attempting to depict the city and multiple levels through diverse perspectives, is an invitation to Westerners not only to partially experience the city and its history, but to broaden their scope of understanding about Arab culture and the Islamic religion. In this sense, the film is not only a cultural and historical view of Mecca, but an active study of comparative culture meant to bring about a greater depth of mutual understanding.

One thing that may disturb some viewers of the documentary is that the film concentrates much more on the hajj. If a particular viewer is expecting to see a detailed history of the city, they may be disappointed when viewing the film. The concentration on the Hajj is a strategy meant to show that the religious cultural and day-today lives of Muslims are intimately tied to each other. Whereas in  the West, ideas of urban life, spiritual life, history, and culture seem to be separated  from one another in the average person’s mind, these aspects are united in the Islamic world.

In my opinion one of the most interesting aspects of the film was the fact that it showed multiple pilgrims to Mecca, including a profile of an American citizen who converted to Islam, as well as black Muslim and an Asian Muslim. The attempt to present Islam as a racially diverse faith si not wholly effective but it is surprising to a person such as myself who, prior to viewing the film, believed that most if not all Muslims were of Arab descent.  Another highly interesting aspect of the film is the way in which the camera crews are able to follow individual pilgrims through the various segments of their respective journeys to Mecca. This allows the documentary to achieve a first-hand  feeling as well as being able to choose from a range of profiled characters to identify with an individual pilgrim.

The film actually avoids any kind of cumbersome details about Islamic philosophy or tradition and gives the viewer just enough technical information and background to follow the action on the screen. One thing that might surprises Westerners about Mecca and its pilgrims is the extreme physical exertion that is part of the experience of the pilgrims.   Without the film, it is obvious that most Westerners would have no vehicle by which to visually experience the rites of passages that are associated with the Islamic pilgrims to Mecca. In final analysis, the movie functions as a sort of  visceral “primer” on Mecca, its inhabitants, and the pilgrims who annually voyage to the city.

For those who hold little or no previous knowledge about Mecca or Islam, the film will exert a profound, eye-opening experience. For those who are more familiar with the history of mecca and Islam, the film will provide a very tactile visual experience of the city.  For the average viewer, the film will function as introduction to a culture and religious tradition that has for many centuries only been know by its veneer of secrecy.  The film suggests that by divulging the realities of mecca to Westerners, a further degree of cultural tolerance and understanding might be achieved.