‘Valentino’s Ghost’ makes comeback after 4 years of suppression

US Politics
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In the years since the first U.S. bombing of Iraq more than two decades ago, Arab Americans have been producing films that confront the negative portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood films and U.S. culture in general.

Hollywood Harems, directed in 1999 by Tania Kamal-Eldin, focuses on the cinematic positioning of Arab and Muslim women as erotic, exotic, and dangerously alluring objects of the orientalist gaze. Her film was followed in 2006 by Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, which examines the preponderance of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes in the U.S. commercial mediascape. The more recent The Muslims Are Coming! (2013), directed by and starring Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah, provides a comedic illustration of mainstream preconceptions and prejudicial attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims in the United States, while A Thousand and one Journeys: The Arab Americans, a 2015 release produced and directed by Abe Kasbo, stands to counter the contemporary proliferation of anti-Arab/-Muslim stereotyping and attitudes through interviews with prominent Arab Americans from a range of social positions and professions.

These films are as groundbreaking as they are rare, but not even the most renowned of them has received more than a modicum of the public exposure which this crucial subject matter demands and deserves.

Into the matrix steps Michael Singh’s Valentino’s Ghost: Why We Hate Arabs (2015), an epic documentary that resituates the whole question of anti-Arab/-Muslim stereotyping as a matter of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel. Subtitled originally “The Politics Behind Images” in an earlier version released in 2012, Valentino’s Ghost argues that negative and otherwise offensive images of Arabs and Muslims are not simply tropes of a culture war that may be undone with a strong dose of human understanding, but are the deliberate products of state-sanctioned propaganda made to appear entertaining and innocuous (to the perpetrators) while having become so indistinguishable from the present-day military-industrial-media war machine that the path to their undoing is clearly that of a much larger project.

Valentino’s Ghost is unique for its willingness to forego superficial analysis and conservative multicultural banalities that would have made the film more marketable. It interweaves substantive interviews with John Mearsheimer, Anthony Shadid, Melani McAlister, Robert Fisk, Tony Shalhoub, Niall Ferguson, and Gore Vidal, among others, building a narrative that segues from images to politics and back again, mapping a dialectic between media makers and anti-Arab/-Muslim stereotypes that unmasks deep-structural contradictions in U.S. foreign policy which point clearly to Zionism’s role in determining so much of it. Going against conventional wisdom, according to Valentino’s Ghost the genuine kernel of truth of an anti-Arab/-Muslim stereotype is the system of ideology—here the nexus of Zionism and U.S. imperialism—enabling the production of the overdetermined images visible in Hollywood cinema and network television broadcasts and eventually transforming their function from that of advertisements for war (20th century) into actual mechanisms of war (21st century).

. from Michael Singh on Vimeo.

For its daring to investigate and critically expose the relationship between Hollywood’s derogation of Arabs and Muslims, and the political alliance between Israel and the United States, Valentino’s Ghost far surpasses the more widely known Reel Bad Arabs and has in turn suffered censorship and suppression. The film received a standing ovation at the 2012 Venice Film Festival and a successful screening at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. It was the top box-office draw at the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar and managed week-long runs at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, both respected art-house venues. This initial enthusiasm quickly devolved into a seemingly endless series of reactions and rejections of the sort which, ironically, the film works at length to critique. In an exclusive e-mail interview, Singh told me:

News of the Venice standing ovation spread to AFI, SWSX, Tribeca, Chicago, and many more, who all solicited DVDs. And then once they saw the film, none of them even bothered to say “no thanks.” It was summarily rejected by every single A-list American film festival. Only Palm Springs had the guts to actually say that they liked the film—but that it would alienate their Jewish membership. A Sundance selection committee member e-mailed a mutual friend of ours that Valentino’s Ghost was “by far the best documentary” that year, but that they could not show it because it was “politically too hard-edged.” The New York Times [“Hollywood does Arabia, from A to B,” Andy Webster, 16 May 2013] gave it a very positive review, calling it “engrossing” and “an invaluable entry in the national dialogue on the subject [of the Middle East]” and designating it a New York Times Critics’ Pick. The Village Voice [“Valentino’s Ghost [NR],” Ernest Hardy, 17 May 2013] gave it a rave, called it “thrilling.” The Hollywood Reporter [“Valentino’s Ghost: Film Review,” John DeFore, 17 May 2013] gave it a positive review, and the Los Angeles Times [“Review: ‘Valentino’s Ghost’ hits media’s portrayals of Arabs, Muslims,” Barry Goldstein, 16 May 2013] called it “Provocative, absorbing, intriguing.” But the other trade magazine, the famous Variety [“Review: ‘Valentino’s Ghost,’” 9 September 2012], trashed it. Written by their film critic Jay Weissberg, who was at the Venice screening and did not even mention the standing ovation, totally ridiculed the film, pouring out his contempt, dismissing it as amateurish, etcetera.

In blatant contradistinction to the tenets of academic freedom, Library Journal (Andrew Horbal, 1 October 2012) warned its readers that adding Valentino’s Ghost to their library collections might require them to justify its purchase to disgruntled patrons! But perhaps the most troubling instance of the film’s censorship was evidenced by Singh’s encounter with PBS’s David Fanning, creator of the highly regarded documentary series, Frontline. Singh and co-producer Catherine Jordan not only envisioned Valentino’s Ghost being shown on PBS’s Independent Lens or POV, but felt assured that it would be when they were told by a chief programmer at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting affiliate which pitched Valentino’s Ghost to PBS, that Valentino’s Ghost was going to be the network’s “flagship film.” “And I believe it would have been splashed everywhere on PBS as a highly acclaimed film,” Singh told me, “if we had omitted Israel/Palestine and done the sort of benign film that other PBS documentaries on ethnic imagery have been.” Yet such was not to be. Singh simultaneously transcribed one of his revealing telephone conversations with Fanning, which subsequently became a diary entry that Singh graciously shared with me:

FANNING: I agree with your premise and your arguments, but I will do everything I can to block the broadcast of your film on WGBH or in fact any other PBS affiliate in the country.

SINGH: Why is that?

FANNING: Because it’ll piss off my rich Jewish friends.

SINGH: So this huge subject will remain under the rug.

FANNING: It’s not a huge subject. You can cover your premise in about four minutes. What will you do for the next 50 minutes?

SINGH: I actually have enough material for a three-hour miniseries.

FANNING: How are you going to fund that?

SINGH: I don’t know. Get grants.

FANNING: And if you get Arab money, I’m going to find you out.

SINGH: What about Holocaust films made with Israeli money?

FANNING: That’s okay. Not a problem.

SINGH: That’s a double standard.

FANNING: Yup. It’s a double standard, and you’re going to have to get used to it.

SINGH: That’s hypocritical.

FANNING: Well, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

SINGH: That’s the exact opposite of PBS’s mission. In fact, it is a violation of their charter for the money people to influence filmmakers editorially.

FANNING: That’s the way it is, and if you quote me, I’ll deny it.

Michael Singh

Michael Singh

Indeed Fanning told me in an e-mail that he does not recall this conversation or Michael Singh or anything to do with the film that became Valentino’s Ghost, and that he in fact supports the broadcasting of independent films like Valentino’s Ghost on PBS. He also acknowledged the “double standard” regarding Arab and Muslim perspectives in U.S. media.

Contrary to Fanning’s insinuations in Singh’s transcribed conversation with him, however, Valentino’s Ghost manages gracefully and intelligently to preempt any potential accusation that it is rehearsing the sort of antisemitic discourse for which the media, banks, and international relations are all controlled by an abstract cabal of “world Jewry.” Yet certain responses to the film seem deliberately to have missed its point, including those by two of its funders, the Skirball Foundation and the Hartley Foundation, which requested that their organizational names be removed from the film’s credits. Singh did not—was not obligated to—comply. “I don’t believe in hiding money,” he said. Although, according to Singh, “no responsible critic, reviewer, or scholar has smeared us [as anti-Semitic], viewers have, but none of them has been able to come up with an iota of evidence in the film itself. I’ve asked for retractions, and gotten none.” Valentino’s Ghost did end up being broadcast on a few PBS affiliate stations through the National Television Communications Association, but in a truncated, 54-minute version in which much of the material on Palestine/Israel is censored out. Even so, the film was attacked by Stand With Us, a Zionist watch-dog group (see “‘Valentino’s Ghost’ Spooks Some Viewers,” Joel Kaplan, CPB Office of the Ombudsman, 14 July 2014).

Of course for many readers familiar with the concerted, pervasive and ongoing silencing of voices critical of Israel, Zionism, U.S. policy, and Palestinian perspectives on those matters within the U.S., Valentino’s Ghosts’ tribulations will come as no surprise. Still it would be a cynical mistake to disregard the film’s experience of censorship and suppression, no matter how typical or predictable. The real strength of Valentino’s Ghost is its refusal to frame the political history it is interested in exposing as though it were simply a landscape or background passively reflected by malign images and tropes. In Valentino’s Ghost, the struggle for and against Zionist influence over U.S. media and policy is not just a context but an integral and intereffective element of the film’s argument, which according to Singh operated under a single premise: “T. Sher Singh, a Sikh who runs sikhchic.com, visited my edit bay when we were just starting out and kept asking me what the film’s premise was. I did a lot of talking, until he came up with the premise, and we’ve stuck with it: Distorted images lead to injustice. So the very premise of the film focuses on injustice, which is a political phenomenon.”

The 2015 re-release of Valentino’s Ghost condenses the film’s earlier version by 15 minutes and adds 20 minutes of new material, including segments regarding the Israeli bombing of Gaza, the Charlie Hebdo murders, the Hollywood film American Sniper, the San Bernardino mass shooting, and Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim crusade, while redirecting the 2012 version’s attention to the Arab Uprisings, toward the current phenomenon of ISIS. The updated Valentino’s Ghost is starting slowly to be picked up by small independent film festivals in North America, where the need for its viewing is most urgent, and continues to seek a distributor.

Update: David Fanning, the Frontline founder, has since responded to this post here, avowing that Singh’s representation of his conversation with Fanning is wrong and hurtful. –Editor.

About Terri Ginsberg

Terri Ginsberg is a film scholar and Palestine solidarity activist presently based in Cairo. She is author of Visualizing the Palestinian Struggle (2016), co-author of Historical Dictionary of Middle Eastern Cinema (2010), author of Holocaust Film: The Political Aesthetics of Ideology (2007), and co-editor of A Companion to German Cinema (2012). Her edited collection on cinema of the Arab world is forthcoming.

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41 Responses

  1. Mary T
    December 27, 2015, 11:41 am

    The premise of this film is absolutely valid; I have observed it for years. I am not surprised at all at the PBS response; it lost its credibility with me years ago, and I resent my tax dollars going to fund it. My husband and I are dealing with a similar issue regarding our local library and the state inter-library loan system. Many important – even seminal – books that explore the I/P issue in an even-handed, scholarly manner are not available through our library, even through inter-library loan, meaning they are not available in public libraries in the entire state. We have purchased these books in order to read them.

    We directly approached our local librarian about this, and she did agree to purchase a few recent books, largely, we believe, because we donate to the library every year. Alison Weir’s book, Against Our Better Judgment, is available in only one library in the state. It is listed as a book that cannot be circulated; it can be read only at the library. My husband has been in correspondence with the librarian of that library for three months, trying to get this book’s status changed.

    I would be surprised if other libraries nationwide are not like ours.

    • JWalters
      December 27, 2015, 7:28 pm

      Thanks for your efforts and your report on your local library. I’ve had suspicions about my local library. It makes sense that censoring libraries would be a part of this information tyranny strategy.

      I’m wondering if local libraries might be more responsive to grass-roots pressure than news outlets, since they are owned by the communities rather than a few wealthy individuals. Perhaps your experience could be leveraged by other communities.

      • MRW
        December 29, 2015, 10:52 am

        There is also a concerted effort to eliminate controversial and historical library books by dumping them with Goodwill and other charities who sell them online. I’m trying to buy up as many of them as I can before they get pulped.
        ============================

        Congratulations to Michael Singh for exposing Fanning. And thanks to Ginsberg for writing this article. These “rich Jewish friends” types and their covert need (and sense of entitlement) to impose their insular tribal proclivities and views on the broader society are getting tedious. But I guess their parents and grandparents couldn’t read the English on the Statue of Liberty or understand the language of constitutional rights.

  2. Citizen
    December 27, 2015, 1:03 pm

    FANNING: Well, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
    I guess the partnering homily is One Hand Washes The Other.
    meh

  3. Marnie
    December 27, 2015, 2:42 pm

    Reel Bad Arabs was excellent.

  4. John Douglas
    December 27, 2015, 6:45 pm

    I recall being pleasantly surprised when I saw that the film Miral was playing in a town north of Boston and close by. When I got to the Lowes theater I was turned away. It could not be shown because of a problem in the projection room.

    • JWalters
      December 27, 2015, 7:31 pm

      They’re very well organized, and can afford to field agents 24/7.

  5. phylliprezzel
    December 27, 2015, 6:53 pm

    I refer to PBS as “Palestine? Be Silent” and NPR as “No Palestinian Reporting.” I, too, gave up supporting them years ago.

  6. RoHa
    December 27, 2015, 6:54 pm

    And when will any of these films be shown on prime time TV?

    • a blah chick
      December 27, 2015, 9:36 pm

      Isn’t Moonves Ben Gurion’s nephew?

      • Kay24
        December 27, 2015, 11:33 pm

        Yes he is the grand nephew of Ben Gurion.

    • Susan A
      December 28, 2015, 10:55 am

      See my comment below as to where you can see it now. I think its the 2012 version. It was on Al Jazeera English…

    • Susan A
      December 28, 2015, 11:01 am

      RoHa: Ha Ha Ha!

  7. JWalters
    December 27, 2015, 7:40 pm

    Thanks for the information about this film. It sounds fascinating and important. I’ll definitely make a point of seeing it.

  8. Qualtrough
    December 27, 2015, 9:21 pm

    The first line of defense when people pointed out the overwhelming Jewish influence over the film and TV business was that this was an antisemitic canard. Then when it became impossible to deny, the second line of defense was ‘So what’, as if it didn’t really make any difference (http://articles.latimes.com/2008/dec/19/opinion/oe-stein19). As this documentary and the others mentioned here show, it makes a huge, huge difference in the way Americans view Arabs, Israel, and the Palestinian issue. Image how differently the American public might feel about those issues if they were viewing films based on the Nakba on an almost weekly basis and saw Arabs portrayed as something other than terrorists and madmen? Imagine if the hundreds of films dealing with the Holocaust (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Holocaust_films) had instead been about the Nakba?

    • Stephen Shenfield
      December 28, 2015, 10:03 am

      The author of the article is a film specialist and Jewish but I don’t think she has influence over the film and TV business.

      A challenging and worthwhile topic for a film would be the Holocaust, the Nakba, and the links between them.

      • Terri Ginsberg
        December 28, 2015, 10:59 am

        Check out The Flat — and for more information, see this review: https://electronicintifada.net/content/new-film-nazi-links-zionism-sidesteps-toughest-questions/11811

      • Mooser
        December 28, 2015, 11:43 am

        “A challenging and worthwhile topic for a film would be the Holocaust, the Nakba, and the links between them.”

        An entire feature film? I don’t know, commenter “Jeffb” managed to dispose of it in one chilling sentence which I will never forget:

        “The Holocaust justifies the Nakba, completely”

      • MHughes976
        December 28, 2015, 3:45 pm

        That Nakba justification was pretty startling, though I think it’s probably a minority view among Zionists, who really still look to the Bible.
        It’s a paradox that we are not supposed here to deny the Nakba or trivialise it but we are allowed to justify it. In parallel, we don’t admit the deniers who say that the Holocaust was all got up by postwar propagandists – imagine if someone said ‘It all happened as Hilberg said and a good thing too’.

      • Mooser
        December 28, 2015, 5:23 pm

        “I think it’s probably a minority view among Zionists…”

        I must’ve dragged that sentence out a half-dozen times, in case anybody missed it, and nobody seemed to find it at all exceptional. Just one of the operating axioms.

      • Qualtrough
        December 28, 2015, 9:03 pm

        @Stephen Shenfield -I didn’t claim the author had any influence. I was just citing his article in which he points out the influence and his basically saying ‘so what?’

  9. a blah chick
    December 27, 2015, 9:38 pm

    Here’s something to ponder, when have we ever been presented with a Jewish Israeli villain?

    • Stephen Shenfield
      December 28, 2015, 9:58 am

      Valley of the Wolves. It’s a Turkish film.

      • MHughes976
        December 28, 2015, 5:22 pm

        There was the UK television series about the last days of the Mandate, broadcast in 2011′, by Peter Kosminsky, called The Promise. It was denounced by Howard Jacobson, that prizewinning satirist, for presenting Jewish people in little other than a villainous guise. It was shown in France, I understand, to protests from CRIF but in the US only on certain minority channels or to Jewish community groups.

      • RoHa
        December 28, 2015, 6:08 pm

        The Promise was shown in Australia. It was, predictably, received with the usual noises from the undergrowth.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Promise_(2011_TV_serial)#Australia

    • Steve Grover
      December 29, 2015, 10:09 am

      One film that fits your bill Blah is “When the Levy Breaks”. A biopic about Gideon Levy.

  10. Annie Robbins
    December 28, 2015, 1:23 am

    this is a great read and a fantastic review. and what an interview! i just want to know where i can see the film.

    • MRW
      December 29, 2015, 11:07 am

      Ditto. I want to know where I can buy it.

      • Michael Singh
        January 1, 2016, 6:08 am

        Thanks for your interest! If you’d like to purchase a DVD of the film please contact me at michael[at]valentinosghost[dot]com.

        ~ Michael Singh, writer/dir, “Valentino’s Ghost”

  11. calm
    December 28, 2015, 2:38 am

    A few days ago I read an article at Counterpunch …..

    How Cannon Films Demonizes Arabs
    By Andrew Stewart
    December 25, 2015
    http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/12/25/how-cannon-films-demonizes-arabs

    The above mentioned article mentioned …..

    Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_Boogaloo:_The_Wild,_Untold_Story_of_Cannon_Films

    It can be found at Daily Motion.
    Part I of II
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x378dmw
    Part II of II
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x378ee9

    Reel Bad Arabs
    Transcript:
    (PDF Document)
    https://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/412/transcript_412.pdf
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reel_Bad_Arabs
    (Vimeo Flash Video)

    Many of these films can be found on UseNet
    http://www.binsearch.info

    Valentino’s Ghost came to my attention about 2 years ago and I attempted to find it On-Line but did not. However; this story reminded me again and I searched for it on UseNet but it was unavailable. I did a Google search it it (2012 Version) which can be viewed at YouTube. (But yuh gotta put up with some translation text)
    (YouTube Video)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XK7EAHW9_9g

    Calm

    • Susan A
      December 28, 2015, 10:51 am

      You can find it on Al Jazeera English website. http://www.aljazeera.com Sorry American’s I understand you can’t get it! Anyway, for those who can, write the title in the search engine, and it will come up along with ‘featured documentaries’. I went onto featured documentaries and then ‘advanced search’. Scroll down and you’ll find parts 1 and 2. I recorded it (2012) version, I think, last August, but only watched it recently and realised that I only had part 2! Anyway, happy to have found it again so I can watch it all!

      • MHughes976
        December 28, 2015, 12:29 pm

        I would welcome a film about Zenobia, the Arab businesswoman who turned her camel firm into an irregular armed force which, by raiding the supply lines of the invading Persians c.260 CE saved the Roman East and provided the West with a continuing bastion. Her main ideological supporter was the Christian Paul of Samosata, who liked a pretty face. She suffered from the ingratitude and mistrust of the new Emperor, who could be portrayed as a rather racist Westerner. Many Christians turned on Paul, whose interest in women was denounced vehemently – perhaps Dan Brown coukd contribute to the script. The audience of Cannon Films seems, from calm’s links, to like stories of militant women, so here could be an Arab heroine for them.

      • Mooser
        December 28, 2015, 12:37 pm

        “I would welcome a film about Zenobia, the Arab businesswoman who turned her camel firm into an irregular armed force which, by raiding the supply lines of the invading Persians c.260 CE”

        Man, so would I! I am tired of sandal operas featuring a hero who has a bigger bust than the love-interest.

      • gamal
        December 28, 2015, 1:18 pm

        apart from Zenobia and the Palmyrenes films about the following might serve a pedagogical purpose all round.

        Fatima b. al-qasim abd’al rahman al sharrat

        Razia Sultan

        Lubna of Cordova

        Rabi’a al Adawiya

        Khawla b al Azwar, apparently on the field of battle the better of any man she encountered.

        Cleopatra in Islam:

        “In the same vein, it is interesting to note the Islamic view of Cleopatra of Egypt (b. 69 BCE). Arabic sources referred to her as a strong and able monarch who was very protective of Egypt. These sources focused on her talents but made no reference to her morals or seductive power. They focused instead on her learning and talents in management. This Arabic image of Cleopatra is in direct contrast to that presented by the Greco-Roman sources which presented her as a hedonist and seductive woman [2].”

        http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/womens-contribution-classical-islamic-civilisation-science-medicine-and-politics

        and here are 55 important women of the east, though they can not all be said to have been western bastions none the less they are not without merit.

        http://www.academia.edu/7426175/Outstanding_Women_Scholars_of_Islam_8th_century_to_20th_century

      • diasp0ra
        December 28, 2015, 1:34 pm

        @Gamal

        For people who are fans of shows such as Game of Thrones, do you not think that Shajar al Durr would make a prime candidate for an epic film?

        It would have everything, love, power, lust, betrayal, politics, destruction of an old empire with a new one forged from its ashes, the defeat of the crusaders for good in Egypt, the humiliation of Louis IX.

        Seriously, just read her wikipedia page, it would make a blockbuster.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shajar_al-Durr

  12. Bumblebye
    December 28, 2015, 6:39 am

    One version, probably not the updated one and w Spanish subs:

  13. Ossinev
    December 28, 2015, 6:41 am

    @ a blah chick
    It has been scientifically proven by leading educational institutes that Israeli Jews are genetically incapable of contemplating or committing criminal acts or being nasty in any way whatsoever. To hint at the possibility of there being a Jewish Israeli villain reveals your deep anti-semitism.

    Shame on you !

  14. karendevito
    January 9, 2016, 4:14 pm

    “Distorted images lead to injustice.” Indeed. Last night in Vancouver a group of Syrian refugees were pepper sprayed at a Muslim community centre at a celebration to welcome them. Children were overcome, adults were temporarily blinded as they choked on the potent spray.
    We’re bringing Valentino’s Ghost and Michael Singh to the Vancouver JUST Film Festival. It has been chosen to close the festival Saturday February 13th, with discussion and reception to follow.
    You can arrange a screening in your cities too. This is an important film.

  15. calm
    March 2, 2016, 6:48 pm

    AlterNet has Valentino’s Ghost up for a week.

    http://www.alternet.org/media/valentinos-ghost-why-we-hate-arabs

    (Vimeo Flash Video)

    Calm

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