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The Muslim Image: A Cinematic Approach View Comments
by Sister Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.



Western cinema often settles on the stereotype that Arab Muslims are billionaires, terrorists or belly dancers. These films often merge being an Arab and a Muslim together, forgetting that there is a significant, though decreasing, population of Arab Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, as well as Jews, in the Middle East and in countries where Islam is the predominant religion.

One recent film about Palestinian Christians was Amreeka, the story of a woman and her son who immigrate to Michigan after 9/11 and confront many of the prejudices created by stereotypes, as well as genuinely kind Americans.

At this, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is good for us to examine our cultural stereotypes about Islam so that we can reflect and make a positive contribution to Catholic-Muslim dialogue. Some of these films look at Islam from the outside, some from the inside.

Sex and the City 2

This 2010 sequel follows the adventures of Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) as they find adventure in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.

This is a disappointing follow-up to the film Sex and the City (2008) that had the redeeming qualities of friendship, fidelity and family. This film mocked the citizens, culture, religious, moral beliefs and sexual mores of their hosts. In addition, it had no real plot, so being outrageous and offensive was the default for lazy filmmaking.

The Circle

This film won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 2000 and a Special Mention certificate from the Catholic jury for its critical portrayal of how women are treated in Iran.

Director Jafar Panahi uses the metaphor of a circular staircase to show the beginning of life for a girl in Iran, and the desperate end, if she does not belong to a man who makes every decision for her. Nothing changes; life for women is an endless circle. The film is jarring and moving—and is banned in Iran.

The Kite Runner

This 2007 film tells the story of two Afghan boys, Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi), the privileged son of a wealthy merchant, and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), son of a servant. The boys play carefree in the streets before the Soviet invasion and fly kites in tournaments.

After winning a contest for his friend, Hassan is attacked and raped by a local bully. Amir is ashamed for his friend and betrays Hassan by framing his father so that he loses his job. Amir moves to America, but guilt for his betrayal of his friend follows him. He returns to Afghanistan as a young man to look for Hassan and to
atone.

The 2003 best-selling novel on which the film is based was criticized for hampering the West’s understanding of Islamic culture. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Culture banned the film and DVD due to a rape scene, which by American standards was not so graphic. To me, the book and film are both excellent, and the closing scene of the film, where Amir prays in the mosque, is very inspirational.

Malcolm X

Called by some as one of the 10 best films of the ’90s, this biopic features Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington as the controversial Malcolm Little, who became Malcolm X after his conversion to the Nation of Islam.

This religious movement was founded in Detroit in 1930 and sought to empower blacks with belief in their dignity and to improve their lives economically and spiritually. There is an inner struggle for leadership, and Malcolm leaves the Nation of Islam and makes a pilgrimage to Mecca in April 1964. There he sees Muslims of different races, treating one another as equals.

Malcolm repudiates racism and adopts more moderate views, resolving to work for civil rights when he returns to the U.S. He is assassinated six months later. The film is more than three hours long, but with Spike Lee’s direction, based on the book by Alex Haley (Roots) as told to him by Malcolm X, it gives a sense of the accomplishments, struggles and persecution of African-Americans in the 20th century.

What few people realize is that significant numbers of African slaves brought to America were Muslim, so the return to Islam by some African-Americans is a return to their roots.

Aladdin

Disney’s animated hit was released in 1992 and won two Academy Awards for best original song and best musical score.

Based on the Middle Eastern folktale One Thousand and One Nights, the Disney version (followed by two direct-to-DVD movies), tells the story of Aladdin, a street urchin who falls in love with a princess, Jasmine. The princess is on the lam from her father, the sultan, who wants to marry her off. The genie from the magic lamp helps them to overcome everything and live happily ever after.

The American-Arab Anti-Defamation League, however, complained about the lyrics for the opening song: “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.”

Disney changed the lines about the ear and face to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense,” but they refused to change the line about barbarity. The stereotype of the narrator as a filthy Arab was also deemed offensive.

The film may have been deemed entertaining by unassuming audiences, but the film did little to promote understanding between cultures.

The Stoning of Soraya M.

Based on a true story by a Iranian journalist living in France, Freidoune Sahebjam, this 2008 film tells about a woman, Soraya, whose husband contrives to have her convicted by Shariah law (Islamic religious law) of adultery and stoned in 1990. It is a harrowing tale, and I thought it really demonized the men, until I read the book.

Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Soraya’s aunt, told me at a press conference that she’d been waiting 20 years to make a film like this because she herself witnessed a stoning before she fled Iran as a young woman. Shohreh’s message to people of faith that day was: “We see human beings; we can serve the God in them. Take your kindness to the people of God. Treat them the same way you will treat your God.”

Miral

This 2010 film by the artist and Oscar-nominated director Julian Schnabel chronicles the life and good works of a real person, Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass). Hind gathered Palestinian orphans, mostly Muslim, who survived the 1948 massacre of Deir Yassin in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In the film, more children come and she uses her grandfather’s mansion as an orphanage and school. One student, Miral (Freida Pinto), is placed in the orphanage when her father can no longer care for her. She is a rebel, however, and becomes involved in violence to regain Palestine for her people. Her actions threaten the orphanage, and Miral must make a choice. A miral is a small flower that grows along the roads in Palestine. They are so beautiful but so small they go unnoticed. Such are the women of Palestine: beautiful, strong, resilient and unnoticed—for now.

CATHOLIC CLASSIFICATIONS
A-1 General patronage
A-2 Adults and adolescents
A-3 Adults
L Limited adult audience
O Morally offensive

The USCCB's Office for Film and Broadcasting gives these ratings. See www.usccb.org/movies/index.htm.

Find reviews by Sister Rose and others at www.CatholicMovieReviews.org.

Thank you for your comments. Editors will review all posts before they are visible on the website.

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John of Capistrano: It has been said the Christian saints are the world’s greatest optimists. Not blind to the existence and consequences of evil, they base their confidence on the power of Christ’s redemption. The power of conversion through Christ extends not only to sinful people but also to calamitous events. 
<p>Imagine being born in the 14th century. One-third of the population and nearly 40 percent of the clergy were wiped out by the bubonic plague. The Western Schism split the Church with two or three claimants to the Holy See at one time. England and France were at war. The city-states of Italy were constantly in conflict. No wonder that gloom dominated the spirit of the culture and the times. </p><p>John Capistrano was born in 1386. His education was thorough. His talents and success were great. When he was 26 he was made governor of Perugia. Imprisoned after a battle against the Malatestas, he resolved to change his way of life completely. At the age of 30 he entered the Franciscan novitiate and was ordained a priest four years later. </p><p>His preaching attracted great throngs at a time of religious apathy and confusion. He and 12 Franciscan brethren were received in the countries of central Europe as angels of God. They were instrumental in reviving a dying faith and devotion. </p><p>The Franciscan Order itself was in turmoil over the interpretation and observance of the Rule of St. Francis. Through John’s tireless efforts and his expertise in law, the heretical Fraticelli were suppressed and the "Spirituals" were freed from interference in their stricter observance. </p><p>He helped bring about a reunion with the Greek and Armenian Churches, unfortunately only a brief arrangement. </p><p>When the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, he was commissioned to preach a crusade for the defense of Europe. Gaining little response in Bavaria and Austria, he decided to concentrate his efforts in Hungary. He led the army to Belgrade. Under the great General John Hunyadi, they gained an overwhelming victory, and the siege of Belgrade was lifted. Worn out by his superhuman efforts, Capistrano was an easy prey to an infection after the battle. He died October 23, 1456.</p> American Catholic Blog When we are linked by the power of prayer, we as it were, hold each other’s hand as we walk side by side along a slippery path; and thus by the bounteous disposition of charity, it comes about that the harder each one leans on the other, the more firmly we are riveted together in brotherly love. —St. Gregory the Great

 
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