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Hollyworld: Why are Arabs always the bad guys?

Directors and critics in the Middle East are divided about how Hollywood portrays Arabs.

Khleifi explores his people's film tradition in "Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory" (Edinborough, 2008), which he cowrote with Israeli Nurith Gertz.

Khleifi says that outside Hollywood, directors from North Africa and southern Europe are beginning to portray Arabs on film in a more flattering, less sensationalist style. Still, he says said, until recently those films were never shown in America.

"Now there is a parallel circuit that enables films from the Middle East and North Africa to be screened in the States," he said. "There are movie houses that specialize in quality films, foreign films. And there are several festivals — a Palestinian film festival, an Egyptian one and an Arab film festival that takes place in the States, in Chicago and Boston."

Bakri, too, sees an improvement in Arabs on American screens. It began with American films reimagining the Vietnam War, he said, and continued with a reconception of the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, and is finally progressing to the portrayal of Arabs. Bakri points to "Rendition" (2007), starring Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhall, in which an Egyptian man married to an American woman is wrongly captured and tortured on charges of terrorism.

"It had a lot of criticism of the CIA and their ways of behaving with Arabs," Bakri said. "At least the film showed the victims of prejudice of the American system that thinks all Arabs are bin Laden. That prejudice unfortunately continues until today."

For Farid, his biggest complaint about Arabs on film is in who is behind the camera. Consider "Lawrence of Arabia," the epic four-hour film about the legendary British explorer and archaeologist who commanded Arab irregulars in World War I.

"Arab directors must be ashamed that the best film on the culture of the desert is made by David Lean and Sam Spiegel," he said.

'The Arabs have had cinema for 100 years," Farid continued. "They have directors, money, everything. Instead of saying the Americans don't understand what Arab culture is, first you have to ask the Arab directors to do it."