For your attention
Mustafa Hussain (U of Roskilde, Denmark)
mustafa.hussain at GET2NET.DK
Thu Jul 24 09:46:22 UTC 2003
Mustafa Hussain spotted this on the Guardian Unlimited Film site and thought you should see it.
To see this story with its related links on the Guardian Unlimited Film site, go to http://film.guardian.co.uk
Printing the legend
Sinbad began life as an Arab sailor operating out of the port town of Basra. In the new DreamWorks cartoon, he's a Sicilian swashbuckler enjoying mythic Greek adventures. Sean Clarke reports on a classic case of Hollywood airbrushing
Wednesday July 23 2003
There once lived in Baghdad a hardworking and daring merchant who - impelled by a desire "to be up and doing" - set off from the port of Basra with the finest wares to make his fortune trading with far-off lands. Experiencing untold hardships and reverses, the valiant and pious sailor and eventually became a trusted lieutenant of the renowned Caliph Harun al-Rashid, the temporal and spiritual leader of all Muslims. This man was known as Sinbad.
Or so runs the story, at least in several of the many versions of the Arabian Nights, the collections of tales dating back to thirteenth century Syria in their earliest surviving form (though Sinbad's story belongs to later, Egyptian versions).
Enter Hollywood, in the redoubtable shape of producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, setting out to make a new animated version of the Sinbad legend, complete with some of its most exciting episodes: the deserted island that turns out to be a sleeping fish, and an attack from the angry roc - a fearsome giant bird. Except that, in this version, Sinbad is from Syracuse (in Sicily, as opposed to New York State). The love of his life, Marina, is a noblewoman of Thebes. His estranged best friend is Proteus, the son of King Daimas, and his most dangerous enemy is Eris, the goddess of chaos. Every Arab reference has been removed, and replaced with something vaguely Greek.
The film's producer Mireille Soria puts it like this. "We started with the Sinbad legend and then brought in different elements of mythology that we felt worked with the story. There is action and romance, but at its core is a tale of friendship based on the Greek fable of Damon and Pythius, about one friend who is willing to sacrifice his life for the other."
So what, you may think. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas is a kid's film, with no particular pretensions to literary-historical accuracy, and in any case people have always messed about with the tales of the Arabian Nights, not least the many authors of the tales themselves. Sinbad is a recognisable part of what we might call a Hollywood pantheon, and there's no need to get po-faced about new uses of what was already a fantastical, and well assimilated, story. And, it has to be said parenthetically, a ripping good version this is too; pacy, sophisticated and unexpectedly funny.
But what's most striking about this transformation is how comprehensively - and surprisingly consistently - the film has been Hellenised. Eris is indeed the goddess of chaos in the Greek pantheon, and the use of Thebes and Syracuse moves the action wholesale to the Mediterranean, and out of the Persian gulf. And as Soria admits, even the central premise of the Sinbad legend - that the hardworking and forgivably avaricious merchant doesn't know when to stop - has been swapped for a Greek parable about friendship. To remove specific references to Arabic and Persian culture is one thing. But to replace them throughout with Greek references, to shove the story in the same mythological milieu as Jason and the Argonauts is quite another.
One could be pedantic and argue that - since many of the Sinbad episodes seem to have been lifted from Homer - Hollywood is merely putting the story back where it belongs. Others, though, may feel an opportunity has been missed. Given today's fractious climate, what harm would it do to emphasise the west's commonalities with the people of Iran and Iraq (and Syria, Egypt, Palestine ...) through an engagement with their narrative heritage? Instead, Hollywood seems to be running scared from a tale of a swashbuckling Arab hero against a backdrop of golden age Baghdad.
"This was an ideal opportunity to shatter some stereotypes about Arab and Muslim villains," says Jack Shaheen, an academic and observer of Hollywood's treatment of Arabs. "When I spoke to Jeffrey Katzenberg - a visionary producer - I asked him to include some reference to Arabs or Arab culture. He didn't seem surprised that I mentioned it, which presumably means that it was discussed early on in the development of the film."
Shaheen suggests two reasons why the studio might have taken the decisions. "I think maybe they decided to play it safe, not to ruffle any feathers by having neither Arab heroes nor Arab villains. But then I know that DreamWorks were among the companies that spoke to Bush's adviser Karl Rove shortly after September 11, to see how Hollywood could help.
"Basically they're out to make as much money as possible, and I think they were worried that if they took a risk on an Arab hero they might have suffered at the box office, and maybe worried that they would get a slap on the wrist from the administration, too."
Skating over the Arab background to the Sinbad stories, says Shaheen, "reinforces the existing stereotypes. If no attempt is made to challenge negative stereotypes about Arabs, the misperceptions continue. It's regrettable that the opportunity wasn't taken to change them, especially in the minds of young people."
In airbrushing out the Arabs, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas encourages a warped view of our collective cultural heritage. In its Hellenised form, it perpetuates the idea that all learning, all civilisation, even that all stories, come from the Greek and Roman tradition.
The new film's writer, John Logan, is well steeped in that tradition; he was also the pen behind Gladiator, which featured a commendably sensitive portrayal of the second century Roman Mediterranean. But his co-opting Sinbad into that historical corral - however enjoyably - is not just lazy, but dangerous.
As long as we think of the people of the Middle East as others, as belonging to a separate "civilisation", a different "cultural tradition", it's easier for those with an interest to demonise the people who live there, belittle their rights, and understate the suffering inflicted upon them. Faceless Iraqis elicit nlittle sympathy. In its own small way, Sinbad could - should - have been a chance to celebrate our nearness to the traditions of the Middle East. In not taking that opportunity, we push them further away, where their voices cannot reach us.
· Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas is released on July 25th
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited
More information about the Critics-l