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In the Hurt Game, Honesty Loses
Edward Zwick


In the backdrop of the recently released movie ‘The Siege’ directed, written and produced by Edward Zwick, whose films include ‘Glory’ and ‘Legends of the Fall’. (Editor)

‘Insidious, incendiary and dangerous.’ That is how the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee has chosen to characterise my film The Siege in a letter sent to every major media outlet in the country. The group’s objections based on the film’s depiction of radical Islamic terrorists who have chosen to attack the United States.

What the critics are saying, as best as I can understand it, is that any portrayal of the life of Muslims that includes representations of violence – no matter how well documented – is not only offensive, but also inflammatory. Forget the World Trade Centre and the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; their position, simply put, is that all one billion Islamic people in the world can be portrayed only in their most positive aspect.

Even though members of this group who saw The Siege have privately told me they were moved by the film, the organisation’s official position has been to attack it as promoting stereotypes, a stand also taken by other Arab-American groups. But what, exactly, are these stereotypes? The Arab-American community is as diverse and divided against itself-politically, religiously, socially – as any vibrant community in the United States. And this film portrays Arab-Americans as cops, landlords, people with families, community leaders – and, yes, terrorists. In fact, the film (in which growing fear leads to the wholesale internment of the Arab-Americans) is about stereotypes, about what happens when stereotypes are played out to disastrous effect.

Beneath the objections of groups like the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, I sense a fear that the image of Arabs and Muslims in America is so poor that any negative depiction, even if part of a balanced whole, is inherently perilous. This argument has been promulgated before: by Jewish Americans, Italian-Americans and many others. It is a time-honoured expression of the insecurity of any new immigrant group so worried about the pains of acculturation. But the logic, so emotionally persuasive and understandable, is, I’m afraid, finally as reductionist and disrespectful as the imputed offences that it protests.

The single and simple conclusion. The Siege draws is that it is impossible to generalise about Arab-Americans, that the distinction between them and terrorists must be understood before we, as a nation, can grapple with our fear of the ‘other’. Only then, if push ever comes to shove in the new war against terrorism, will we be able to respond prudently, and with conscience. The film makes clear that even in the fight against vicious and committed enemies, the ends, if they include the deprivation of civil liberties to any group, can never justify the means.

If The Siege engenders a dialogue on ethnic stereotyping, on terrorism, on the increasingly cloudy legal landscape between personal rights and the public interest, then it will have accomplished far more than I might ever have imagined for a Hollywood thriller. Movies about aliens and asteroids can’t offend anybody, but neither do they try to hold up a mirror to unattractive aspects of our country. And the truth sometimes hurts. In what a friend of mine calls the new American hurt game, if you’re not offended by somebody, you’re nobody.

These days, it seems, people wake up in the morning not only waiting to be offended, but also hoping to be offended. Central to any multicultural orthodoxy is the notion that, unless you are offended, you have no ontology. I imagine the Army also might be offended by its portrayal in the film. Maybe the C.I.A., and Congress, and Bill Clinton too. But I don’t expect they will protest. They refused to it by now. The beauty of a pluralistic society. I’ve always been taught, is that it can contain the giving and taking of offences.

This over-heated chorus of lamentations began, tellingly, before the film was ever seen. But it is the job of an anti-discrimination organisation to complain. Mine is to make films. I am not accustomed to defending them. What I’m trying to do as a film-maker is to look at the world. And write about what I see. To shrink from any subject because it is hurtful or politically sensitive or politically incorrect, or Islamically incorrect, is to deny one of the most important functions or art, which is to be provocative.

So, I’m sorry if I offended anyone. But I’m really not.

(Courtesy: The Nation, Lahore)

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