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Valentino’s Ghost

The burning topic of Muslim (mis)representation in U.S. media is not well served by Michael Singh's amateurish and ill-defined docu.

With:
With: Maz Jobrani, Melani McAlister, Robert Fisk, Niall Ferguson, Aron Kader, Yisroel Dovid Weiss, John J. Mearsheimer, Alan Sharp, Diana Abu Jaber, Jack G. Shaheen, Gore Vidal, Anthony Shadid, Stephen Rohde, Albert Mokhiber, Tony Shalhoub, Ahmed Ahmed. Narrator: Mike Farrell.

The burning topic of Muslim (mis)representation in U.S. media is not well served by Michael Singh’s amateurish and ill-defined docu “Valentino’s Ghost.” Even the title, referencing Rudolph Valentino’s “The Sheikh,” doesn’t work, since few will make the instant connection, and Singh offers a poor reading of this and other historic misuses of the Arab image. Talking heads provide some valuable commentary, drowned out by an avalanche of movie clips seemingly sourced from mediocre videos. Interested auds should instead consult the growing corpus of books on this vital subject, though the theme’s currency guarantees at least VOD exposure.

Singh divides his examination into messy chapters, kicking off with “Romancing Arabia” and the Valentino pics — later he gives a moment to Orientalist precedents without mentioning the concept of “Orientalism” (there’s a shot of Edward Said’s book, but no explanation). Any discussion of “The Sheikh” films as romances without mentioning their function as rape fantasies limits the picture, while throwing in a shot from the Babylonian sequence of “Intolerance” makes no sense.

The helmer is on firmer ground when he compares Hollywood’s treatment of Arabs to “redskins” (“The Four Feathers”), but his inability to contextualize colonialism will leave uninformed viewers with little understanding of the complexities of the period, let alone the propaganda of the time. Even a brief discussion of T.E. Lawrence, using some of his infamous anti-Arab quotes, fails to include, never mind examine, the desert adventurer’s contradictory statements.

Veering from his subject, Singh spends an incongruous amount of time positing Israel’s founding fathers as terrorists in order to question why men like Menachem Begin are considered freedom fighters when no Arab terrorist is awarded the same sobriquet. A potted history of Palestinian terrorist acts follows — hijackings, the Munich Olympics, etc. — with complaints of the mainstream media’s one-dimensional reporting, yet no acknowledgment of the precipitous decline of network news quality in general.

Beleaguered academic John J. Mearsheimer’s assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian discourse in the U.S. remains spot-on, but why present nutty ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist Yisroel Dovid Weiss as a sympathetic expert and then object to Christian Evangelical pro-Zionists, when their Messianic fantasies are flip sides of the same coin? Singh’s complaint that alternate viewpoints are difficult to access in the media is quite a whopper considering the mass of specialized news websites and satcasts catering to every side of the argument.

A barrage of movie clips from the 1980s to now reflect Hollywood’s blatant anti-Muslim prejudices, though of second-rate video quality, will look best on TV. Slapdash editing weakens occasional cogency.

Popular on Variety

Valentino's Ghost

Documentary - U.S.-India

Production: A Michael Singh Prods. production. (International sales: Cat&Docs, Paris.) Produced by Michael Singh, Catherine Jordan. Directed, written by Michael Singh.

Crew: Camera (color, b&w, DV), Mark Shepherd, Barry Conrad, Darren Rydstrom; editors, Brad Fuller, Catherine Jordan, Michael Singh, James Knight; music, Lisa Coleman; sound, Joseph Hudson, Kelly Butler, Michael Boyle, Danielle Lesovitz, Jimmy Westerlund, Josh Boardman. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Venice Classics), Sept. 3, 2012. Running time: 94 MIN.

Cast: With: Maz Jobrani, Melani McAlister, Robert Fisk, Niall Ferguson, Aron Kader, Yisroel Dovid Weiss, John J. Mearsheimer, Alan Sharp, Diana Abu Jaber, Jack G. Shaheen, Gore Vidal, Anthony Shadid, Stephen Rohde, Albert Mokhiber, Tony Shalhoub, Ahmed Ahmed. Narrator: Mike Farrell.

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