Films seek to defy Arab, Muslim stereotypes

A brace of English-language features tackling East-West relations, pics that have been labors of love for their Arab helmers, are finally making their bow.

“AmericanEast,” directed by Hisham Issawi and “Whatever Lola Wants,” by Moroccan helmer Nabil Ayouch both preemed at the Dubai Film Festival (Dec. 9-16) last week, marking the end of a three-year-long process for both filmmakers to get their visions up unto the bigscreen.

“AmericanEast,” which stars Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) and rising star Sarah Shahi (“Life”; “The L Word”) details the struggles of a Muslim Arab-American family living in Los Angeles against the backdrop of elevated terror alerts and suspicion from the FBI.

“Whatever Lola Wants,” which was fully financed to the tune of $12 million by French outfit Pathe, tells the story of a Gotham dancer (Laura Ramsey) who travels to Egypt after falling in love with an Egyptian man, and becomes a belly dancer.

Both films seek to defy stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims living in the West and challenge the depiction of Middle Easterners in Hollywood entertainment. “AmericanEast,” for example, includes one character, Omar, an aspiring actor played by Kais Nashef (“Paradise Now”), who rails against being typecast as a terrorist.

“We hope this film will offer an initiative for Arab-Americans to get more involved,” Issawi says. “We are a minority that’s not involved or active in the film business or even in American society. We’re sitting on the edges. We need to get more active critically, culturally, socially and economically. As long as we are not, then we are not going to have a market. Once we step out of the shadow, we can be some sort of a consumer power.”

Issawi raised the coin for the $1.2 million project independently via U.S.-based shingles Distant Horizon and Zahra Entertainment, an Arab-American production company making its feature debut with “AmericanEast.”

Shalhoub, who is of Lebanese descent, also was crucial to the project’s existence by taking on the pivotal role of Sam, a Jewish businessman, who wants to open a restaurant with Mustafa (Sayed Badreya, who co-wrote the script), a Muslim Arab-American, despite the objections of both men’s communities.

“I wish that in the near future we could get to the point where we’re not even talking in these terms like Arab-American, Muslim-American, Jewish-American,” Shalhoub says. “The problem is that when we start using these labels, it’s almost like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, because ultimately we’re only just talking about separation again and different groups. What we need to be talking about is the common ground.”

Not that the only problems lie in the West.

Ironically, Ayouch found his last film, “A Minute Less Sunshine,” banned in his native Morocco because of its sexually explicit scenes. The Moroccan maven, who has a track record of pushing boundaries with his own projects as well as nurturing up-and-coming Moroccan helmers through his Ali N’Prods. shingle, spent years convincing skeptical French investors that the Arab-American dimension was essential to the plot of “Whatever Lola Wants.”

“All these American films that are now talking about Arab people always have a strong dramatic situation with war and terror. We’re not only that,” Ayouch says. “This equilibrium is very important to correct the image of us in the rest of the world as people capable of only extreme things.

“Sometimes it’s harder (to change perceptions) in your own country, because the mentality there isn’t prepared for it. We are circled by red lines. Sometimes you have to make a jump with one foot outside to be heard inside.”

While Shalhoub, who has forged a successful career playing roles not pigeonholed by ethnic origins, concedes there is still some way to go in terms of Arab-American portrayals and participation in Hollywood, there are encouraging signs.

Sarah Shahi, for example, is a born-and-bred Texan of mixed Persian-Spanish origin. Her culturally kaleidoscopic roots, and willingness to embrace all aspects of it, may offer Arab-American auds their best chance of a crossover star with whom to identify.

“The only way we can break those barriers are by Arab artists and filmmakers (speaking up) and (stirring the) pot as much as they can,” Shahi says. “Hopefully, over time, we’ll become the next big pop culture thing.”

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