The strong influence of cinema is undeniable. It is today the most powerful cultural and political tool to manipulate people's perception of the world. Although the dominating usage of the film industry is to make money as easily and quickly as possible, it still seeks to affect people's taste. This taste is leveled according to the sake of profits whether they are political, economical or cultural. Hollywood empire exports most of the movies and through them imposes ways of perceiving the world and even living. A movie could have a positive influence on one person and a negative one on another depending on the viewer's age, maturity level and knowledge of the outside world. In this essay the objective is to shed light on how Morocco is portrayed in American cinema through one of the most awarded films "Babel". Landscape, people, eating habits, clothes and dialogue all give a very negative image of Morocco to the viewers around the world who, after watching such a movie, may reduce Morocco to a mere primitive country which they would never like to visit.I will call into question the stereotypes which characterize the movie and discuss how the issue of terrorism is touched.
Cinema is undoubtedly the area of American popular culture that offers the richest and most detailed picture of the American stereotype of Arabs, throughout its historical development during the twentieth century and into the new millennium. Most of the movies carry stereotypes which penetrate a society to become part of its culture. In American movies there are negative images of a number of ethnic groups namely Irish, Russians, Blacks, Italians, Germans... but there are positive ones as well. However, Arabs and Muslims have always been badly portrayed in movies with few rare exceptions. Before the tragedy of September the eleventh, Americans and most people in the world knew very little about them. Arabs were usually associated with deserts and camels or recently with poor neighbourhoods and prostitutes. For years the only positive character in a movie was Alladin in the Disney cartoon film and even this fictional character projects a number of bad characteristics. The opening song sets the tone:
" Oh, I come from a land,
From a faraway place, Where the caravan camels roam,
Where they cut off your ear If they don't like your face,
It's Barbaric, but hey, it's home."
It is not a surpirse that such stereotypes have entered American popular culture given the conflicts between the United States and Middle Eastern countries particultarly since the first and second Golf wars and the present struggle against AL-Qaeda which is not to end soon. Through movies America projects evil character and intentions on Arab people and incarnate those images in the viewer's mind. America avoids portraying Arabs in normal environment as other human beings but they are always the villains opposite the American good guys.
According to Jack Shaheen, a Lebanese-American media analyst and author of the best seller Reel Bad Arabs:How Hollywood vilifies a people "Arabs remain the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood. Malevolent stereotypes equating Islam and Arab with violence have endured for more than a century". He has documented 900 Hollywood movies portraying Arabs in a negative and offensive manner among which are: Rules of Engagement, True Lies, The Mummy, Patriot Games... and more. Only very few films have positive Arab Characters: Three Kings, The 13th Warrior Party Girl, A Perfect Murder... Filmmaking is mainly for political purposes and the US government has had a hand in sending this negative image until it has become a stated belief. Stereotypes emerging from the cinema foster government policies because movies reach the mass. In his book, Shaheen adds that Arabs in American movies are described either as violent terrorists, oil billionaires and tribesmen who kidnap blond Western women. Women from the Middle East fall into one of two categories: either the submissive slave or the mysterious belly dancer. In recent years however, they have mainly been portrayed as terrorists.
After the attacks on the United States in 2OO1, the image of Arabs and Muslims has become even worse. The government has established strict policies in airports and all across the country in order to check the Arabs and watch them in every little move. Images are a powerful force in shaping the national world view. Most Americans have never met an Arab except through movies but allow themeselves to ask questions such as: are Arabs not really terrorists? Did they not kill five thousand people in New york on September the eleventh? The real question is whether is it fair to generalize about all Arabs from the action of some people?! The relentless stereotyping of Arabs as terrorists resulted in a situation in which any terrorist act was automatically attributed to Arabs but are there not also terrorist groups among Americans, Europeans and others? Yet, they are not portrayed in movies as such. Laurence Michalak claims that stereotyping is universal "Since not all of us can know everything about the peoples of the world, all of us stereotype. Just as Americans stereotype Arabs, so also Arabs sometimes stereotype Americans too. I have encountered Arabs who think that Americans are rich, violent, and sexually promiscuous. However in many cases the source of their stereotype is our own American movies and television programs, such as "Dallas." A stereotype is a simplified image. It can be a first step to understanding, as one learns more about unfamiliar peoples and parts of the world and develops more complex understandings, but negative stereotypes lead only to misunderstanding and dehumanization." The events of September the eleventh were a disaster for the image of Arabs and Muslims in America and false ideas are set without any critical thinking.
Among the films which have been a success after September the eleventh events, tackling terrorism among other issues is Babel. The film was released on November 10th 2006, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are leading actors together with other actors from Morocco, Mexico, and Japan. It was directed by Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu who concluded with Babel his trilogy which consists of two other movies Amores Perros( 2000) and 21 Grams(2003). Babel won the Golden Globe award for best motion picture and was nominated for seven academy awards including best picture, best director and two nominations for best supporting actress. Babel has earned $34,302,937 in North America, and $101,027,166 in the rest of the world.
The title is a biblical reference to the story about the tower of Babel where people attempted to build a city and a tower whose top may reach into heaven. God punished the people for their audacity by dividing the world with thounsands of languages. Thus, the builders of the tower were unable to understand each other and their project failed. Pitt and Blanchett play American tourists in Morocco. They are plunged into tragedy when Blanchett's character is shot while on a tour bus in the desert. In the US the couple's Mexican nanny takes their children across the border to a family wedding when she cannot find a babysitter for the infants. Meanwhile in Tokyo a young deaf and mute Japanese schoolgirl is struggling to come to terms with the suicide of her mother. At all turns the barriers of language - but more importantly the barriers of stereotypes and prejudice - result in tragic outcomes. Babel is a babble of languages, cultures, voices, attitudes and expressions all bonded outwardly by nothing more than an elemental desire to be heared beyond the fascinating fusion of politics, culture and religion that forms the framework for all contemporary inter-personal relationships.
The film is shot in four countries, Morocco, Mexico, America and Japan. The first part is all about the accident when two Moroccan boys Ahmed ( Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait Lcaid) out with the goats, have been given a rifle to scare off the predatory animals that have been thinning out their goat herd . The boys decide to test the weapon's range by shooting at a bus far away. They try it out on rocks and cans, and then, interested in the idea that the gun is supposed to hit targets at great distances, take a couple of pot shots at the scarce traffic on the road beneath them. Susan (Cate Blanchett) who is with her husband (Brad Pitt) on holiday, travelling through a harsh Moroccan landscape is badly wounded when a bullet is fired through a bus window hitting her in the neck and soon she is bleeding severely. What follows is a chain of events that link this American couple to the Moroccan boys and accidental crime. Four stories all connected by this single gun converge to reveal at the end a complex and tragic story of the lives of humanity around the world and how people need only to listen to understand each other.
Any time a scene involving the desert or Arabs need to be filmed, Morocco is the number one destination for film producers because Morocco is a country that still looks like an Arab country in most parts, unlike Saudi Arabia or other parts of the Middle East.The first scene is at the edge of a Moroccan desert which seems extremely hot. The nature is colourless and everything seems so dry and harsh. The mud huts of Morocco and rolling hills of the countrys desert-like environment are experessively shot and show how devoid of vegetation and modern technology the country is. An image in contrast with the rich household of Richard and Susan. The couple is used to a wealthy lifestyle with all of the amenities available in the United States. Yet they find themselves surviving in a mud-brick domicile with no furniture and nearly no modern conveniences. For a viewer who has never seen or heared of Morocco the image does not sound appealing. The whole story about the Moroccan family is shot in villages. Although the film to a great extent presents reality about these remote areas, the Western viewers who are not very familiar with Morocco may miss the point that the film depicts only one small part of Moroco while the rest can be very different.
The two young boys live in a miserable house deprived from the basic necessities. Their clothes are so shabby and dirty, their faces have not been washed for a long time and their beds fit only part of their bodies. The father Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi) is a poor man who submits to a miserable life . Women are portrayed as helpless creatures who do not utter a sound, but are consumed in their household work. Even at meal times, the father and his children eat while the mother is left alone in the kitchen. Outside the house, women are coverd in black costumes with their heads down not daring to look at anybody. To relate this to history is to say that Moroccans in this movie are portrayed in the same way as North Africans in the American writings about the so called " Barbary wars" with their primitive manners and ignorant minds. Children are encouraged to try guns and hit targets as pirates used to target ships. Morocco witnessed terrorists attacks in 2003 and such images show that it is an entire terrorist culture which is behind those events.
Other primitive images continue to appear throughout the movie. Yussef who is peeking through a hole in the stone wall at his sister who is undressing. Ahmed scolds Yussef for watching his sister and Yussef says that the sister knows he is peeking and that she lets him watch. About the Moroccan brothers Irritu remarks " when values crumble, nothing makes sense anymore. When a link is broken, it's not just the link that breaks but the whole chain." The family, especially the boys, have stopped listening to moral instruction, they disrespect moral laws, and consequently experience a breakdown in moral communication.
There is no sign of education or book and their fate in life seems already determined. After Susan being shot, Richard sees a car coming and he runs out and begs them to stop but the car keeps on driving by. Richard who contacts the US embassy using the village's only phone while a noisy music is coming out of the radio. When the guy in a uniform who comes to tell Richard that an ambulance is not coming for them and that the embassy stopped the ambulance from coming because they want to bring a helicopter,Richard gets frustrated and yells at the uniformed guy to do something because this is his 'place'. However, even the other tourists are not helpful as well. They are more concerned about being hot and taking their medicine on time, rather than waiting with the injured woman.When the bus reaches the village to rescue Susan, children run after it as if they have never seen one, excited at the arrival of a stranger. They are more excited at the view of the helicopter. The village is deprived of any medical care;this idea is clearly expressed by Richard's screaming, cursing and threatening and demanding " where are cell phones, ambulances, Western doctors, diplomatic envoys?" His suspicious looks at the only doctor of the village who is in fact a veteranian are very expressive. Richard and the tour guide have to hold Susan down when the doctor takes a nasty looking needle and starts sewing up her wound. Since he is Brad Pitt and his wounded wife is Cate Blanchett, most Americans will identify with them, even though the Berbers are sympathetic and try to be helpful. The policemen beat Hassan up- the man who sold the rifle to Yussuf's father- in a chocking way. The message that the viewer may get is that foreigners are not to be trusted, since the film's story centers around a stereotypical white family being abused, injured, and nearly killed by the well-meaning cultural stupidity of some primitive Moroccans.
In an interview with the novelist and the award-winning film reviewer Jeffery Overstreet, Alejandro Irritu says "I spent one year trying to really assimilate, absorb, and be very respectful with every culture. I tried to not judge them, or portray them as stereotypes or cartoonishyou know, the misbehaving Muslims, or the lazy Mexicans, or the selfish Americans. Compassion is the word for this film." To explain how the movie transformed him from talking about what separate humans to what unite them he adds "I want the audiences to forget that they are watching a foreign-language film, about a foreign culture, and realize that they are just watching human beings. I want Brad Pitt to blend in with humanity, so he's not Brad Pitt anymore. It's not about celebrities." For him, one of the most beautiful rewards was watching his children play with kids from Morocco without their understanding each other. Language was not a barrier; childhood united them. "It's as adults that we are spoiled with prejudices and stereotypes," he said. Even if we assume that the director's intentions are as noble as he claims, not all viewers will get this message as wishes them to. After watching all that misery, stereotypes could not be avoided unless the audience have a high level of critical thinking.
However, there are images of positive contact between the American couple and people of the village (the village is named Tazarine in the film). The Moroccan guide Anwar( Mohamed Akhzam) is presented as as a helpful and kind-hearted man who does not only help rescuing the life of the American woman by looking for the village doctor but also volunteers to stay with the American couple till the arrival of the helicopter. A beautiful friendship is quickly established between him and Richard even shows him the photos of his kids and asks him about his. There is a wonderful scene in which Richard is leaving with his wife heading to the helicopter and insisting on the Moroccan guide to take his offered money while the guide refuses with a beautiful smile. This shows a high level of compassion and kindness and the noble nature of those poor people. In spite of all their differences Richard and Anwar give the impression that they could make good friends. When Susan lies in excruciating and never-ending pain on the dirt floor of the Moroccan hut, it is an old woman, who can not understand a word of what she says, who relives her pain with a smoke pipe that kills her pain and helps her to relax. The old woman's action creates a deep connection and understanding with Susan.
Although Babel is not a paritcularly political movie, political messages connected to US policies about terrorism, border control and firearms, are also strongly present in in the movie. For the part shot in Morocco, it is all about the bullet which hits Susan, an event which has been interpreted in a false way. The United States government interprets the crisis as an act of terrorism which threatens to doom Susan to bleeding to death in a small remote town in the desert and pressures the Moroccan government to apprehend the culprits. The American TV reporter who says " we'll find these people, wherever they are we'll find them" already classifies it as an international deplomatic scandal. Local police exercise little restraint as they try to put a cap on what rapidly becomes, given the current climate, an international incident. The Moroccan policemen frightened at what happened and rushing to find the "terrorists" give more weight to this interpretation. However, the kid with the gun is playful and innocent. He is not trying to cause any international incident. It is all about misunderstanding and misinterpretations. Discussing the event from another standpoint, Harry Benshoff states the following
Some people say it's a very Hollywood-type film because it puts the white star couple at the forefront of its story even though it was made by a Mexican filmmaker and is also about the Middle East and Japan, but that's the point. It makes a political statement about how white people get treated as compared to those of other nations and races.
It is worth mentioning that in this essay only the part shot in Morocco is covered. The three other stories in America, Japan and Mexico are also heavy of sterotypes that should be questioned. However, the focus is mainly on the Moroccan scenes and how the issue of terrorism is tackled. Babel is credited for being among the few films that convey a complete different view of terrorism. The violent attack in the movie is simply accidental, a consequence of the irresponsibility of two village boys and it has nothing to do with terrorism.
To conclude, movies have been around now for more than a century and will continue to impact the future generations. The way Babel presents Morocco to the world is horrible but some may say is it not the truth? Morocco is a third world country but there are good things to film as well. Hollywood makes people believe that North Africa is still the same since the " barbary" times and through a movie like Babel makes them fearful of visitng it. Otherwise, they may be victims, just like the nice Susan, if not of a terrorist attack, of a stupid barbarous action expected from stupid people. Susan asks her husband at the beginnig of the film " why are we here?" By the end of the movie, it seems that the answer is that the unhappy couple are there to reconcile, revive their love and start over. It is in that desert while going through those bad moments that they succeed to recover from the pain of losing their child. Hopefully this may encourage others to think of Morocco as a land of reconciliation and peace rather than a mere primitive country or an area where nice white Americans may be victims of terrorism.
- Shaheen, G.jack.Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.The annals of political and social science, 2003.
- Jack Shaheen's book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People appeared just a few months before 11 September 2001.
- Writer of a number of articles about Arabs in the USA.
- University of North Texas film professor Harry Benshoff says the film's nominated for Golden Globe Awards demonstrate the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's preference for movies that engage viewers in contemporary political issues.