Sunday, May 20, 2012

Why 'The Dictator' is No Laughing Matter

If you're awake, you can't possibly have escaped the intrusive advertising for Sacha Baron Cohen's latest film The Dictator. What you will escape, however, is any real acknowledgement that there's more to the film than harmless, if tasteless, fun, or that its creator is no mere entertainer. In short, that The Dictator has an agenda.

The one welcome exception here has been an opinion piece, Joke's worn off as films cue the stock Arab, in the Sydney Morning Herald of May 17, by Amal Awad, a Palestinian-Australian journalist and novelist (Courting Samira). Here's the gist:

"I will look forward to seeing The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen's latest attempt at lampooning other cultures, which is released today. I will watch with interest not because I'm convinced it will be much of a film but because as an Arab Muslim, I'm curious about how we are portrayed in modern cinema... I'm all for political and social satire, but in a world were Arabs and Muslims are consistently relegated to the role of cab driver, convenience-store owner, terrorist or tyrant, the yawn factor has well and truly set in. Where there is humour, it seems primarily at our expense... Hollywood take note - the Arabs are coming. We're happy to poke fun at ourselves; can you let us in on the joke?"

I find Awad's attitude to this film somewhat puzzling though. Surely "looking forward to seeing The Dictator," and the false suggestion that SBC is some kind of 'equal opportunity' lampooner of "other cultures" (but not his own?), sits at odds with her recognition that the film is profoundly anti-Arab. Why then, given this recognition, does she look forward to seeing it? Why not just nail it directly and unequivocally for the racist crap that it is and urge a boycott, not just on the part of Arab-Australians but on the part of all decent, right-thinking Australians? And why does she make no attempt to delve into SBC's Zionist  background, beliefs and behaviour, simply taking him at face value as a funny man. A google search, for example, would have revealed:

a) That SBC joined the Zionist Habonim Dror youth group in his teens. According to a friend, "He was very Zionist, very involved in Habo." (Before 'The Dictator'... friends recall, Sacha Baron Cohen was a very nerdy, very funny, Israel-oriented guy, Jessica Steinberg,, 11/5/12)

b) That he signed a letter opposing a protest against the celebration of Tel Aviv's 'centenary' at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009. (Seinfeld, Sacha Baron Cohen & Natalie Portman slam Toronto Film Festival protest, Itamar Zohar, Haaretz, 16/9/09)

c) That he cynically misrepresented a Palestinian Christian member of Fatah, Abu Aita, as a terrorist in order to promote one of his film, Bruno. Abu Aita is now suing Cohen. (Sacha Baron Cohen: yet another lying Zionist, Jews sans Frontieres, 27/10/09)

Clearly, with this kind of baggage, SBC's 'comedy' calls for a far more critical approach than Awad's.

Pakistani blogger, Bina Shah, points the way with her post The Dictator & The Zionist - The Trouble with Sacha Baron Cohen. Here's an extract:

"You see, Sacha Baron Cohen is a Zionist, a very publicly declared one. Which is not a problem for me personally, really. He's got the right to hold his political views even if they are very bigoted ones that have been at the root of most of the strife in the Middle East since 1948. But he's got a very deliberate agenda which he expresses not-so-subtly in all his movies, and it's not being said by commentators because of the fear they will be called anti-Semitic. Zionism is the belief in a Jewish nation, and the accompanying fierce loyalty to that nation, no matter what it does in the name of protecting itself and perpetuating its survival. It's Zionism, not Judaism, that has seen the worst atrocities committed against the people of Palestine. Now, SBC doesn't go around spouting things about the greatness of Israel in his movies. But if you look carefully, each one of his productions - from Ali G to Borat to Bruno to now, The Dictator, advances a certain element of Zionist propaganda against Muslims. Which is that Muslims are laughable, unintelligent, idiotic people with no intellect at best, and terrorists at worst. And Cohen uses buffoonery to do this. How? By taking the stereotypes, derived both from Orientalism and from anti-Islamic Zionism, and playing them out to such ridiculous extremes that his audiences laugh. And in laughing, they feel entertained. And in being entertained, they swallow the stereotypes and the racism whole, without pausing to critically analyse what they've been presented with. You could call this SBC's particular genius. Yes, it's pretty clever. But it's also dangerous." (, 12/5/12)

Perhaps if SBC were to follow The Dictator with a film satirising Israel's Jewish supremacists or their accomplices and enablers in places like the US, Britain and Australia we might give him the benefit of the doubt, but I won't be holding my breath.

Awad asks if Hollywood can let "us" in on the joke. Hollywood has been smearing Arab Muslims from Day One and it won't be stopping any time soon. The Dictator is just the latest in a long line.

Young Arab-Australians such as Awad really do need to be more savvy about these things. They could do far worse than invest in a copy of Jack Shaheen's exhaustive survey of Hollywood's Arabophobia: Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2001)*.

[*See my 1/10/08 post Paul Newman: Zionist Dupe.]

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