Director defends his 'Siege' mentality The portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in Ed Zwick's new film has raised more than a few hackles.

November 01, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Thanks to the New York Times, Edward Zwick has come prepared. All day, he's been peppered with questions about his new film, "The Siege," and charges that it plays on racial and religious stereotypes. Some Arab and Islamic groups have complained that its images of Islamic militants murdering hundreds in the name of religion will only exacerbate the fear many Americans already have of Muslims (followers of Islam), Arabs and Americans of Arab descent. To which Zwick's gut response is, have you seen this morning's paper? Right on the Times' front page, there's a report of a group of Arab militants, with ties to the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies, operating out of Brooklyn - the same borough the Islamic terrorists in "The Siege" operate from.

"I didn't invent the world," the director says at the end of a londay of press interviews at Georgetown's Four Seasons Hotel. "I'm merely an artist looking at the world. That's what my job is."

But Zwick's counter to critics of his film - at least those criticwho fear it will unleash a new wave of Muslim-bashing - goes deeper. Anyone who walks away from "The Siege" scared of people in Islamic dress, he stresses, is missing the point.

His film, which opens Friday and stars Denzel WashingtonAnnette Bening and Bruce Willis, includes two sets of villains: Muslim bad guys who blow up buses, theaters and whatever else will get them noticed, and American bad guys who would subvert the Constitution in the name of combating that terrorist threat.

To him, the latter are the real danger - zealots who woulcondone harassing, torturing and imprisoning their fellow Americans for no greater crime than being of Middle Eastern descent.

"By trying to dramatize images of repression and wholesaldeprivation of civil liberties ... those images to me are much more searing and much more central to the movie than the images of terrorism," Zwick says. "I think that those images are going to be painful for all Americans to look at, because I think it asks them about their own prejudices."

But some Arab and Islamic groups fear that's not the messagmoviegoers will take away from the film. Instead, they fear "The Siege" will only reinforce paranoia: that these people are out to get us, that they can't be trusted, that the Muslim religion condones mass murder. That's wrong on all sorts of levels, they note. For one thing, not all Arabs, or people from the Middle East, practice

Islam; for another, most Muslims want nothing to do with thjihad, or holy war.

"It adds to that general burden of stereotyping and bias," sayIbrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations -- (CAIR). "When you see a Muslim wearing a head scarf, it's like, 'Oops, I'd better be wary of this person.' "

As for Zwick's insistence that the real bad guys here are zealoupoliticians who would subvert the Constitution and Bill of Rights, Hooper's question is: Where's a similar condemnation of those who base their hate on the way a person dresses or the shade of his skin?

"The film, although it introduces stereotypes and prejudicenever condemns them directly," he says. "It condemns unconstitutional acts. The lead character has this moving dialogue saying, 'Don't violate the Constitution,' but nothing urging people to resist racist stereotypes."

Most offensive, where CAIR is concerned, is the film's equatioof Islam with violence.

"In the film, you see the wudu, the washing before prayer, anthen the next shot is of a detonator being inserted in a bomb," Hooper says. "You have these shots of violence in the Mideast, and the film cuts to a Manhattan mosque. ... It's the imagery that stays with people."

Such criticisms may seem odd directed at an Ed Zwick film. Hireputation is built on movies that point out the banality of stereotyping, whether the subject is African-Americans ("Glory") or women in the military ("Courage Under Fire"). But Hooper says it's a real problem within Hollywood, which seems incapable of portraying Islam in a positive light.

"If there was any kind of balance in the entertainment industry,he says, "we'd say, 'OK, a film like this comes along, we've got other films to balance this out. We're not so concerned about balance within a film, we're concerned about balance within the industry."

But again, Zwick protests that he's simply dramatizing a conflicthat does exist within Islam.

"That is the issue, because of those people who in the name othe Koran create the notion of jihad, who support what they describe as a holy war, who are using their religion in the name of the justification of violence. I didn't invent that, ... but to not [acknowledge the conflict] would be in some way fatuous, I think."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.