Arab, Muslim actors shed stereotypes

Wave of Middle Eastern films offers freedom

It’s a good time to be an actor from the Middle East. The upcoming glut of Hollywood films concerning the region has seen a dramatic increase in opportunities for thesps of Arab or Muslim origin. What’s more, films like “The Kingdom,” “A Mighty Heart” and “The Kite Runner” are giving these thesps the chance to play the good guys for once and even upstage their more famous American co-stars.

Take “The Kingdom.” Peter Berg’s adrenaline-fuelled actioner, about an FBI forensic team led by Jamie Foxx who ventures to Saudi Arabia following the bombing of an American compound, features two Palestinian actors, Ashraf Barhom and Ali Suliman, in prominent roles as Saudi police officers. The two actors previously appeared together in “Paradise Now,” the Oscar-nommed pic about would-be Palestinian suicide bombers. While they played militants in the Arab film, the two play heroes in Berg’s $70 million American studio movie, with Barhom’s police officer sharing almost equal screen time with Foxx’s character.

“It was so important that this character had a heroic dimension and that we showed an Arab character who was heroic, altruistic, wants to do right and cares about his family,” says “Kingdom” producer Scott Stuber. “I think American audiences want to know, and need to know, that there’s good people everywhere.”

In “The Kite Runner,” based on Khaled Husseini’s bestselling epic tome spanning a quarter of a century in Afghanistan’s recent history, the lead character of Amir is played by Khalid Abdalla, last seen in the role of 9/11 hijacker Ziad Jarrah in Paul Greengrass’ “United 93.”

Abdalla’s promotion from terrorist to heroic protagonist in the two films reflects the growing depth in the depiction of Arabs and Muslims to be found in Hollywood fare. “I don’t know if this is a conscious wave, but there does appear to have been a sea change in more complex depictions of people from the Middle East,” says Abdalla, himself of Egyptian origin but born and bred in the U.K.

With the Middle East, be it the war in Iraq, Israeli-Arab conflict or general political upheaval in the region rarely out of the headlines, Hollywood’s appetite for pics dealing with the hot spot continues to grow seemingly unabated.

While a number of these pics, such as “Grace Is Gone,” “In the Valley of Elah” and “Stop Loss,” primarily concern the impact of the turmoil on American families, many others are venturing out beyond the U.S. to lense in the actual countries portrayed onscreen.

Michael Winterbottom shot sections of “A Mighty Heart” on the same Karachi streets where the ill-fated hunt for Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl took place. Similarly, “The Kingdom” was the first U.S. studio pic to lense in Abu Dhabi, the closest that Berg could get to Saudi Arabia, where cinemas have been banned for three decades.

This desire to achieve authenticity and delve deeper is one reason for the more three-dimensional representations.

“Once you open the door, that’s when you get into what is the film’s signal achievement, which is the flesh and blood behind the headline news,” says Michael Mann, who also served as producer on “The Kingdom” after Berg recruited him in 2003. “It’s the beating heart that really goes on. All the life and the families, mothers, fathers and siblings of everybody that you see as a body count on the headline news and humanizing it and putting it into context.”

Sometimes, just having actors from the region on set can influence a film’s look, tone and narrative. The bravura opening title sequence of “The Kingdom,” a partly animated primer on Saudi-American relations that does in 90 seconds what “Syriana” tried to do in two hours, came out of conversations that took place between the ethnically diverse cast and crew.

“People usually tend to talk about who’s dating whom, and what’s happening at what studio, but because of all the different nationalities and religions working on this film — we had Sunnis, Shias, Iraqis, Syrians — we’d have these great geopolitical conversations,” says Stuber. “Pete realized from a Western perspective that people really need to understand what’s going on right now. That opening sequence came out of all those conversations.”

Far from simply being cursory cameos, the roles played by these thesps — many of them established stars in their native lands — are actually giving them openings not otherwise available in their domestic film biz. Indian actor Irfan Khan, for example, plays the crucial role of the investigation-leading captain in “A Mighty Heart.” While Angelina Jolie may have generated the lion’s share of ink about the film with her thoughtful, understated performance as Marianne Pearl, it is Khan’s character — a magisterially world-weary center of decency and quiet courage — who walks away with most every scene. “I get to play roles which I never would have if I had just stuck to Indian films,” says Khan, next to be seen in Wes Anderson’s “Darjeeling Express.”

The prominence of their roles may lead to a breakout perf, and perhaps an ensuing crossover career in Hollywood for one of these thesps, something that’s eluded Arab thesps at least since Omar Sharif delivered his career-defining turn in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” back in 1962. While Sharif would go on to transcend any attempts to straight-jacket him in strictly Arab roles — playing characters who were Jewish, German, Russian and even Che Guevara — the road to Hollywood stardom has been far bumpier for others in his wake. That may soon change, however.

“I’ll never forget the call from Pete after he met Ashraf. They met in Hong Kong and Pete calls me saying, ‘This guy’s Robert De Niro,'” says Stuber. “It was as excited as I’ve ever heard him. He said that Ashraf was exactly like Robert De Niro in ‘Taxi Driver.’ He’s got that same intensity, the same face, the same eyes.”

Not that all the thesps in question are clamoring to get on the first plane to Hollywood. “When I went to make the film, I didn’t know who Jamie Foxx or Pete Berg were,” says Barhom. “When I work on anything, I come to do my job and leave. I wanted to do a good job regardless of whether it’s an American film or not.”

Whether American auds are as hungry for these complex portraits of the region’s conflicts as film execs are remains to be seen. “A Mighty Heart” garnered glowing reviews but underperformed at the box office in the manner of “Munich” and “Syriana” — both released in 2005 and noteworthy for their mature political discourse.

While those earlier films were essentially boutique pet projects for the talent involved with it, Universal and Paramount have big commercial and awards hopes for “The Kingdom” and “The Kite Runner,” respectively.

While their box office performance may determine how long Hollywood’s interest in the Middle East continues, that Arab and Muslim thesps are able to portray their region in all its intricacies is a positive development.