Julie Poucher Harbin is a correspondent based in Cary, N.C.
(RNS) As part of his “Islam in Film” class at the University of Nebraska, religious studies professor Kristian Petersen screens movies such as “The Hurt Locker” (2008), “Argo” (2012) and “American Sniper” (2014) to make the point that depictions of Muslims on the big screen often involve a conflict narrative.
But Hollywood is slowly changing this paradigm as writers, show-runners, producers and directors reach out to cultural advisers and Muslims become part of the creative process. The Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood bureau and other informal networks of academics, policymakers and regional studies experts are increasingly recruited by the movie and TV industry to offer advice on scripts, review raw footage and correct pronunciations for actors.Muslim characters are either terrorists or “good” Muslims trying to overcome “bad” Muslim plots. In either case, they “are still constrained by conflictual framing,” typically around themes such as terrorism, post-9/11 politics or overseas military intervention.
Saudi filmmaker Jassim Alsaady, who served as cultural adviser and Arabic dialogue coach on the fictional Saudi Arabia-set film “A Hologram for the King,” said he was “disgusted” by “American Sniper” and its one-dimensional depiction of Iraqis “as people who want to kill you.”
“Hologram,” a comedy-drama based on a Dave Eggers book, tells the story of a desperate American salesman who travels to Saudi Arabia to pitch a teleconferencing system to the king and ends up falling for his Muslim soon-to-be-divorced Saudi doctor, Zahra.
Tom Hanks, who plays the salesman, said in a video about the the film, “I think that the key to making movies now is to surprise the audience. … I never thought I’d see a movie about a guy who goes to Saudi Arabia and everything works out for him.”
Alsaady, who lives in Jeddah and Berlin, said the German director and crew were welcoming and receptive to his suggestions. He was part of the casting process, consulted on the script and was involved in production and post-production for the film.
It was the desire to see better stories about Islam and Muslims on screen that prompted MPAC Hollywood bureau consultants to work on the 2014 Forest Whitaker/Harvey Keitel film “Two Men in Town” and the 2014 Kristen Stewart/Peyman Moaadi Guantanamo film “Camp X-Ray,” as well as the TV series “American Odyssey,” “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders” and “Tyrant.”
Suhad Obeidi, the bureau’s director, said she began to notice a change for the better in the way Muslims are portrayed in films and TV about five years ago. She’s hopeful the entertainment industry is “turning the corner” but admits “we have a long way to go.”
The MOST Resource project (or “Muslims on Screen and Television”), founded eight years ago, has a similar mission: providing the Hollywood creative community with resources and information on Muslims in America and around the world through TV consulting, a Story Bank and events that bring the policy and creative communities together.
MOST, which works in partnership with the Brookings Institution and Gallup, connects Muslim experts with writers and producers who are seeking advice on anything from pronunciations to character development to more in-depth work on scripts and production.
It has referred experts to several shows, including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Army Wives” and more recently “Madam Secretary” and “Tyrant,” a drama that centers on the youngest son of a Middle Eastern dictator who returns to his homeland with his wife and kids after 20 years of living in America.