Today's date:
Spring 2006

Will Groundbreaking Movies Move the Middle East?

Graham E. Fuller is former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA; his latest book is The Future of Political Islam.

Vancouver , Canada—As wrenching and bloody events across the Middle East proceed apace, three films have appeared in the last few months suggesting signs of a possible turning point in the entrenched black-and-white perceptions of the combatants. The films are Paradise Now by Palestinian film director Hany Abu Assad, Syriana by Stephen Gaghan and Munich by Steven Spielberg. All three films have stirred great controversy in Palestine, Israel and America—appropriately and beneficially.

Unquestionably, all three societies have undergone their respective traumas, especially since 9-11. The United States still struggles to make sense of the event even as the global American military response against terrorism continues. Arabs and Israelis have been locked in tragic combat and trench wars for several decades, but the emotional gulf between them has never been deeper. Israelis feel under siege from guerrilla and terrorist acts against the state and its citizens, while the costs in anguish and blood of occupying Palestinian territory since 1967 remain unabated. And Arabs feel that the Bush administration’s global war on terror takes direct bead on all Muslims, their religion, independence, sovereignty and dignity.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, all three cultures—American, Israeli, Palestinian—have now regressed from their more universal and positive elements to a psychological circling of the wagons, a reversion to the certitudes of super-patriotism, “my country right or wrong,” in search of the elemental strengths of inflated nationalism in a time of trouble. But any culture perceiving itself under siege grows less receptive to open-minded and self-reflective examination of its security problems. As a result, none of these cultures has been ready to settle for anything less than “complete victory” cast in an elemental framework of good versus evil. Alternative perspectives that might shake certainty in the total virtue of one’s own position and policies have been quite unwelcome. Yet, this psychological mindset could not be more damaging to prospects for any ultimate accommodation, reconciliation or resolution.

Here is where the willingness of all three films to depart from super-patriotic and simplistic certitudes becomes most striking. For Americans, Arabs and Israelis, security solutions have never been more distant than today. But by now people from these cultures may be more open to acknowledging the gray complexities of issues in which demonization of the enemy no longer facilitates solution. 

The actual “accuracy” of any one of these films will, of course, be debated by partisans for years, but that is not the issue. What matters is the vision of three directors who attempt to rise above the narrow patriotic certitudes and routine demonization of the enemy to suggest an examination of events at the human level and the reasons for why the “Other” is doing what he is doing.

In Munich Spielberg asks whether the horrific terrorism of Palestinian guerrillas does not have deeper roots in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. The film asks whether a policy of continued violence by the state is successful or ultimately counter-productive.

Above all, the film humanizes both Palestinians and Israelis—even those engaged in acts of violence and assassination on both sides—in a confrontation that only corrupts the state and deepens the divide. “Is there not some other way to deal with this?” the film asks. Some viewers will be offended at anything that to them smacks of “moral equivalence” between state violence and that of the enemy, or that undermines patriotic solidarity in a manifest struggle against evil. But Spielberg calls for a broader view that grasps the humanity and grievances of the enemy as an escape from the hellish logic of violent response to a series of events whose moral antecedents are shaky.

In Paradise Now director Abu Assad, while demonstrating the physical and psychological suffering of daily life in occupied Palestine, also suggests that the process of recruitment, training and dispatch of young suicide bombers in the name of religion is often cynical, manipulative, banal and inglorious.

The fundamental wisdom of resorting to violence and suicide bombing to achieve Palestinian goals is brought into question. This is hardly the film that the average Palestinian firebrand or fundamentalist cleric wants to see. Abu Assad, too, suggests that a certain course of madness is under way here. But most strikingly the film offers a glimpse into the physical and psychological environment that produces young Palestinian suicide bombers impelled toward meaningless and horrible slaughter. We are offered understanding of their logic, even if we reject their ultimate actions.

Finally, in Syriana—again not to judge the politics of it—director Gaghan offers insight into how poor and exploited laborers in the Gulf oil fields can be radicalized and turn to anti-American suicide operations. Whether we agree with US policies or not, Arab perception of the American role in Arab politics and the whole US war on terrorism becomes understandable. We can no longer view our policies in terms of the good and evil that our overheated patriotic rhetoric might have us believe. Human faces and ground realities offer a more complex vision, the necessary starting point for greater policy wisdom and resolution.

Public opinion in each of these three societies has been far from ready to accept the messages of these films, perhaps understandably. Ideological super-patriots oppose any compromising of ideological simplicity and clarity by inconveniently complex reality. They seek to fight the good fight in the name of a Muslim, Jewish or Christian God and the civilizational values of each. Most citizens are worried and frightened and support war as the safest response.

But now all three directors offer a cutting-edge vision that challenges the simple vision of blood in the name of self-preservation. Their films may bring about needed reflection in all three societies on the efficacy of violent policies. They may represent the opening wedge of a vitally needed turning point. None of these societies could have been ready for such films a year or two ago. Now they may be met with greater receptivity—and hopefully spark greater wisdom.