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`SIEGE' MENTALITY; ARABS' PORTRAYALS IN MOVIE DIVIDE FILMMAKERS, ACTIVISTS.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Daily News Film Writer

Twentieth Century Fox knew it had the makings of a minor jihad on its hands when the studio began running trailers for its new terrorist thriller, ``The Siege,'' this summer and saw the phone lines light up.

The trailer's images - New York City going boom juxtaposed with Islamic believers praying in mosques - didn't sit well with Muslim and Arab-American groups who criticized Fox and director Ed Zwick for perpetuating negative ethnic stereotypes. This was after the organizations - the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) - read the film's script in April and faxed a list of 60 objections to Zwick and ``Siege'' producer Lynda Obst.

In the end, the filmmakers only made ``minor'' alterations, says CAIR national communications director Ibrahim Hooper, leaving a finished product that is ``extremely damaging and insensitive.''

``The trailer is a work of sensitivity compared to the movie itself,'' says Hooper, who saw ``The Siege'' twice in October. ``Negative stereotypes about Muslim characters are introduced and continually reinforced. When people walk out of the theater, they will think worse of Islam and Muslims than ever before.''

CAIR leaders plan to counteract that by distributing informational leaflets outside theaters showing ``The Siege.'' The group will also be sponsoring open houses at mosques in Santa Barbara, Garden Grove, San Diego and Riverside in an effort to expose people to Islamic beliefs and practices. (An open house at a mosque in Hawthorne is also a possibility at press time.)

For those involved with the film, the criticism feels like ``unfortunate political correctness.''

``These days, there seems to be a sensitivity to any kind of textured portrait,'' says Zwick, who also co-wrote the movie. ``I suppose this is part of some kind of Islamic correctness, and I won't be party to it. I'm sorry that people are offended, but I'm not sorry for what the movie says. I think it's the most kind of tolerant statement for the rights of this group that has ever been made on behalf of their culture.''

Such a sweeping statement would seem to be at odds with the bevy of objections directed toward ``The Siege.'' But then Zwick, Obst and screenwriters Lawrence Wright and Menno Meyjes appear to have approached the film with good intentions only to see them (pardon the expression) blow up in their faces.

``The Siege'' stars Denzel Washington as an FBI agent who teams up with a CIA operative (Annette Bening) to investigate who is behind a series of New York terrorist attacks. When the bombings continue and the casualty rates escalate, the federal government panics and invokes martial law. The U.S. Army, led by a no-nonsense general (Bruce Willis) marches into Brooklyn, rounds up the usual suspects (Arab-Americans) and herds them into makeshift internment camps.

The film prominently features an Islamic-American FBI agent, played by Tony Shalhoub, who partners with Washington and objects strenuously when the military's enforcement of martial law comes to include his own family. The Shalhoub character is one of many positive portrayals of Islamic culture in the movie, according to Zwick.

``There are a lot of deeply sympathetic characters in this film, and to say that they're all terrorists is a very narrow representation of what we've done,'' says Zwick, a veteran filmmaker whose credits include ``Glory,'' ``Courage Under Fire'' and the creation of such television series as ``thirtysomething'' and ``My So-Called Life.''

Adds Wright: ``I understand why these groups are upset. Hollywood has scapegoated and stereotyped them in the past, and it's shameful. But I think they've picked the wrong movie to use as an example of what the movie business does wrong.''

Yes, they're offended

Arab and Muslim rights groups don't see it that way. While Hooper admits there are a few positive portrayals in the film, he says they are negated by an overall impression that equates Islam with violence. A particularly objectionable scene, he says, shows a Muslim ceremonially washing his hands as he would do before prayer; only here he follows the ritual by arming a bomb detonator.

``This is an act performed by hundreds of millions of Muslims all over the world,'' says ADC spokesman Hussein Ibish. ``To use it as this symbol is extremely damaging and insensitive.''

CAIR and the ADC also bemoan the lack of a clear distinction between Arabs (anyone who speaks Arabic) and Muslims (those who follow Islam) in the film. Most Arabs are Muslim, but the majority of Muslims are not Arab but other nationalities.

``The average moviegoer is going to be completely confused,'' Ibish says.

As for the Shalhoub character, well ... don't get Hooper started.

``He's supposed to be this good Muslim, right?'' Hooper says. ``It's hard to see that. He swears more than any other person in the film, he hits a prisoner, he plants money on a suspect and he drinks, which is a most offensive thing to Islamic people. That scene with him in the bar, getting tipsy ... why was it necessary? Why couldn't he abstain? Why couldn't he be seen at some time, even if only in the background, praying next to his desk at work? That kind of behavior would lead to an accurate portrayal.''

Responds producer Obst: ``These kinds of objections come with the territory of making a movie. There have always been advocacy groups. Italian-Americans complained about `The Godfather'; Jewish groups didn't like `Bugsy.' We're still surprised, though. We really thought we had been sensitive throughout the process.''

Previous violations

This isn't the first time Arab and Islamic groups have complained about negative stereotypes. When Disney released ``Aladdin'' on video, they cut portions of a song lyric and some dialogue that groups had found offensive when the movie was released in theaters. James Cameron's ``True Lies'' also came under attack four years ago for its gun-wielding Arab terrorists who shouted out religious prayers before firing their automatic weapons.

But cartoon stereotypes are one thing. What disappoints many Arab-Americans about ``The Siege'' is that they expected more, inasmuch as it purported to be a serious film.

``Other offensive movies were dumb, not to be taken seriously,'' Ibish says. ``This movie is nuanced. The fact it makes the case of demonization more strongly in this sophisticated manner makes it more dangerous.''

Adds Hooper: ``If it was just this movie, and there were other positive portrayals, we could live with it. If you take 100 movies with Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans, there will be some IRA and some Mafia characters, but you'll have dozens of other positive or neutral portrayals. Here, it's 100 out of 100. It's belly dancers, bombers or billionaires. That's all you see.''

Zwick strongly disagrees. He points to supporting characters in ``The Siege'' that include Arab-American community leaders, police officers and business owners. He cites the film's message of tolerance and inclusion. But in the end, he's tired of defending the movie he spent two years writing and directing.

``I think it speaks for itself,'' Zwick says. ``You certainly can't get around the fact that there are in this world violent, radical Islamic fanatics. I didn't invent that.

``But the movie also shows a vibrant, diverse Arab-American culture. The objections seem to be a kind of orthodoxy, saying that you can only describe a culture or religion in its most acceptable terms. As a filmmaker, I find that unacceptable.''

CAPTION(S):

4 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) UNDER `SIEGE'

Filmmakers incur anger of Muslim, Arab-American groups over new movie's portrayals

(2) In ``The Siege,'' a series of attacks on New York City by Islamic terrorists prompts the U.S. Army, led by Bruce Willis' general, to enforce martial law.

(3) Denzel Washington is an FBI agent investigating the attacks.

(4) Even the Islamic-American FBI agent played by Tony Shalhoub in ``The Siege'' is drawing criticism for, among other things, drinking alcohol.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 6, 1998
Words:1305
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