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Saudi Ventures in American Entertainment are Promising, But Bigger Changes are Needed (Guest Column)

Sue Obeidi, director of the Hollywood Bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, offers her thoughts on the ramifications of Hollywood becoming more involved in the Saudi Arabian entertainment business.

Next month, after over three decades of going dark, the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) will allow commercial movie theaters to reopen in a move that would be viewed as progressive — if it weren’t the 21st century. AMC Entertainment and Saudi Arabia have joined in a cinematic venture together, and the Kingdom will be investing $500 million in WME holding company Endeavor. This is part of a larger initiative that the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia is implementing, which will focus on the entertainment industry.

Personally, I have never been a fan of many of the policies coming out of Saudi Arabia, largely due to the devotion I hold for my Islamic faith. It has always been an anchor in my life, as it teaches love, compassion, patience, and a deep reverence for arts and learning.

Unfortunately, a great number of people outside the Muslim community only know a distorted caricature of Islam, coming mainly from the Wahhabi movement in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has caused tremendous damage to the image of Islam and Muslims at large. It is in Wahhabism that you find the institutionalized subjugation of, and oppressive rhetoric towards, women, ethnic minorities, intra- and inter-religious minorities, and LGBTQ communities.

Islam was founded in Mecca, Arabia in 610 CE and because of this, the kingdom has felt an “ownership” of Islam and viewed itself as the gatekeeper of Islamic practice. But rather than uniting the Muslim world, the KSA’s embrace of Wahhabism has divided our faith into warring factions, each laying claim to being the “true” Islam.

Enter the present day, where we find a Hollywood that has helped perpetuate these same derogatory stereotypes of Muslims since the first director yelled “Action!” The imagery and narratives common throughout the industry have made the work of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)’s Hollywood Bureau that much harder. For decades, audiences have been fed a steady diet of misinformation about Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and so many others at the hands of the industry. But in truth, Hollywood is also amplifying the distorted versions of Islam coming from a few Muslim-majority countries like the KSA, which have compromised the image of Muslims as a compassionate people.

But what will all of this mean to filmmakers, including screenwriters, producers, and directors,  and how will this impact the dominant narrative about the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims?

Here are four ways Saudi Arabia could help change the narrative about Muslims in film, TV, and digital platforms:

1.  Identify and invest in American Muslim screenwriters, producers, and directors who have stories with mass audience appeal. In order to help change and counter the dominant narrative in the industry, American Muslim storytellers should tell the stories that they want to tell, but also that audiences will want to see.

2. Create partnerships with American TV networks, studios, and production companies, where established producers, directors, and screenwriters can work with emerging American Muslim talent as creative advisors.

3. Establish scholarship and fellowship programs with the producers, directors, and writers guilds in order to give American Muslim talent opportunities to hone their craft.

4.      Fund projects in Muslim-majority countries that could be viable contenders in the American entertainment industry. One of this season’s most-watched dramas, ABC’s “The Good Doctor,” was based on the 2013 South Korean series of the same name. There are other examples like “Homeland” and “In Treatment,” both from Israel.

Ever since Donald Trump announced his intention to run for President (and perhaps in reaction to it) we have seen a slight swing of the pendulum toward better inclusion and representation of Muslims in media, especially on television, and particularly in commercials. We still have a long way to go of course, but we are at a turning point and there is real momentum in the industry to more authentically reflect our community.

Saudi Arabia has an opportunity now to help change the narrative around Muslims in the entertainment industry, righting some of the wrongs that it helped perpetuate for so long. We hope that the millions of dollars it will be pouring into the industry will be used to promote narratives that better reflect the reality of Muslims living around the world, and offer more freedom to filmmakers to present more authentic, nuanced, and inclusive portrayals. But whatever path the kingdom takes, my team and I at MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau will continue our work here at home to combat the negative stereotypes because our faith and the responsibility for its portrayal does not belong to any one country. It belongs to all of us.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council consults on TV and film projects and connects American Muslim talent to decision-makers — both on the creative and business sides of the entertainment industry. MPAC does not accept donations from foreign governments.

(pictured: Saudi Arabian film “Wadjda”)

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