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).
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.
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.