Call it the “Van Gogh effect.” Whenever I write about the slain Dutch filmmaker or Islamic terrorism portrayed in film–or not portrayed, as the case is–comments dribble in from corners of Hollywood. In an anonymous e-mail here, a low voice speaking in confidence there, the fear is generally the same: Why should I make a film that angers Islamists, just to end up like Theo van Gogh?
Granted, few filmmakers are working on anything near the vein of Submission, van Gogh’s short film that decried abuse of Muslim women. But it’s interesting to see an undercurrent, rarely spoken of, that’s tantamount to anxiety over becoming a cinematic Salman Rushdie, a little voice in one’s head warning that a misstep in a movie will result in a Mohammad Bouyeri clone shooting and slitting the throat of an infidel director on Santa Monica Boulevard. The fear is at least an acknowledgement of the terror threat so seldom portrayed onscreen nowadays. On the flip side, it’s a degree of capitulation to let fear of Islamic extremists dictate the direction of one’s cinematic expression.
But could this fear also be a moot point, considering radical Islamists have it out for Hollywood regardless?
Living in America
Months before the attacks on New York and Washington, Russell Crowe was reportedly under protection by the FBI for an apparent kidnapping threat from al Qaeda. Studios were put on edge by terror threats directed at the film industry in the days after 9/11, leading to lot lockdowns and tour suspensions. At the following month’s Emmy awards, fans weren’t allowed along the red carpet. Nowadays, things are more relaxed at many studio security checkpoints, though in October 2004, studios participated in a terror-response exercise that walked everyone through what to do if a threat is received, etc. Among the participants was James Cameron, director of the veritable poster-child flick of so much Muslim activist angst: True Lies.
“We view [Hollywood] as one of the icons of American culture,” Gary Winuk, chief deputy director of California’s office of homeland security, told me, adding that the movie biz is also a sensitive area because of “high-profile people on movie lots.” Hollywood has even recruited some high-profile security pros: for instance, Ronald Iden, former assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles division of the FBI and former director of the state office of homeland security, left to lead Disney’s worldwide security after just six months with the state.
Some of the threats to filmmaking have involved filming in violent locations being nixed, like Dino De Laurentiis’s decision to move a Baz Luhrmann epic starring Nicole Kidman out of Morocco in 2003 after suicide bombings in Casablanca; Wolfgang Petersen also canceled plans to shoot Troy scenes there. Some threats have hit closer to home. In August 2004, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was filming near London when a phone call was received at the studio warning of an attack. The World Entertainment News Network reported, “A studio source says, ‘The caller apparently said, “It’s payback time… this is for all you’ve done to our women and kids.” The film is being made by American company Warner Bros. so it sounds like it could have an Iraq or Al-Qaeda connection.’”
Sony Pictures reportedly rejected Albert Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World because of its title (even though, despite its title, it’s mainly set in 80-percent-Hindu India), leaving Warner Independent Pictures to pick up the flick. After Warner, of course, made sure the film made fun of the right people: “We saw the movie, and it was clear that Albert makes fun of himself and America, not anybody else,” Warner CEO Mark Gill told L.A. Times entertainment columnist Patrick Goldstein. Wrote Goldstein: “If Sony is this timid about a well-intentioned comedy, imagine how timid it will be when something really volatile comes along.” Interestingly enough, Brooks premiered his movie at the Dubai International Film Festival–flanked by bodyguards, reported the Daily Telegraph.
So what exactly puts Hollywood in danger? The reasons are so far-reaching that the only way Tinseltown could truly appease the Islamofascists is by shutting down entirely.
One could argue that the liberal bent in film has, in some respects, helped the terrorists, fueling anti-American sentiment abroad through portrayals of inept, corrupt, greedy government officials and power players. Example: War is about a grab at oil, one could glean from Syriana. One also could argue that the objectionable moral content in modern film alone makes Hollywood a prime target for Islamic extremists, since it defies Islamic teachings. “Many Muslims argue that America is a cultural aggressor by exporting its Hollywood values all over the world, and thus any fight against Americans is done in self-defense,” said one post on an online Islamic question-and-answer board.
Hollywood, the Obstacle
But perhaps the greatest threat posed by Hollywood to the Muslim world is its mere existence. Satellite TV (especially hot now in Iraq) and bootlegged videos–the clerics’ and, incidentally, the Motion Picture Association of America’s worst nightmare–have become the most powerful media for beaming Western influence into the region. Before Marina Golbahari landed the lead role in 2003’s Osama, reportedly the only movie the young Afghan had ever seen was a pirated tape of Titanic.
Though Saddam Hussein had a DVD of Pulp Fiction in one of his palaces, the Iraqi film industry withered under his rule, and any art, music, or cinema related to the West was a no-no. Today, a love of entertainment is rebounding along with the country’s spirits. And as we’ve seen in Iran, Western culture becomes more attractive, whether it’s covertly celebrating Valentine’s Day or watching “anything Steven Spielberg,” even as clerics continue to preach its evils (at least, so go wannabe global correspondent Sean Penn’s San Francisco Chronicle reports from the Islamic republic). In this way, movies can serve to undermine the anti-West firebrand message of radical clerics and may reduce the disgruntled anti-West masses from which to draw jihadists.
Non-Hollywood films in Islamic societies have been used to buoy the cause of radicals–or at least try. In 1990, the Pakistani movie International Guerrillas depicted glorified jihadists busting into Salman Rushdie’s safehouse and killing him with the help of divine intervention. “The film was a box-office flop,” wrote Tariq Ali in The Guardian in April. “More popular were the porn DVDs that are easily available. Their procurers do a roaring under-the-counter trade, particularly in Islamist strongholds like Peshawar and Quetta. Unsurprisingly, a fair proportion of the bearded militants who spend the day painting veils on billboard actresses, settle down that same evening to watch some comforting porn.”
And yet, even a celebrated Arab filmmaker is not immune from threats–or terrorism. Syrian director and Halloween producer Moustapha Al-Akkad, who died in November’s Jordan hotel bombings, felt the sting of Islamic fundamentalists after making Mohammad: The Messenger of God starring Anthony Quinn in 1976. After the film opened in 3,000 theaters in the U.S., a group of Muslims stormed B’nai B’rith offices in Washington, demanding the film be pulled. Messenger was removed from theaters. It was subsequently re-released, and cinemas received arson threats that kept audiences away. In more recent years, Akkad was working on a biopic about Saladin starring Sean Connery, but tabled the project after the 2001 al Qaeda attacks. “There is a sad irony in the fact that Akkad, who spent his life dispelling stereotypes about Islam and Arabs, should have fallen victim to Islamic fundamentalism,” wrote Sami Moubayed in Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly. Of the Messenger fiasco, Moubayed wrote, “…Some American Muslims, however, were outraged by the idea of a Hollywood movie on Islam, apparently assuming that it somehow constituted a Jewish attack on their faith.”
Hollywood is continually in danger from the perception that it is a Zionist institution, a view splayed across the web and encouraged by pot-stirring American clerics. Imam Abdul Alim Musa of Masjid al Islam in Washington, D.C., railed against the “Zionists in Hollywood, the Zionists in New York, and the Zionists in D.C.”–two of the three cities thus far attacked–who “all collaborate” to oppress blacks and Muslims. An opinion piece in 2004 by super-leftie documentarian Wendy Campbell even slammed Michael Moore for having a “Zionist” agenda. The Passion of the Christ was a hit in the Middle East after media and clerics fed off the stateside controversy to whip up an anti-Semitic frenzy and paint a portrait of a director overcoming Zionist industry domination.
The L.A. Times ran a story in 2002 about the reluctance of many Hollywood Jews to come out and openly support Israel, citing as one reason “pro-Israel liberals (who) say they feel isolated by the rightward drift of the larger Jewish community.” The majority of Hollywood Republicans–there are more than you might think–I’ve met over the past year are Jewish. Just before Christmas, one such industry power-player told me, “I don’t see how any Jew can be a Democrat these days.” Producer and director David Zucker related in a 2004 film festival discussion the moment he became a Republican: Sept. 12, 2001. For many in this GOP shift, national security supersedes environmental issues or other quibbles they may have had with the Right. They know that Hollywood is a target.
“The defense of the ‘homeland of Islam’ is the defense of the Islamic beliefs,” stated a 1998 article in Nida’ul Islam magazine. “…There are many practical obstacles in the establishing Allah’s rule on earth, such as the power of state, the social system and traditions and, in general, the whole human environment. Islam uses force only to remove these obstacles so that there may not remain any wall between Islam and individual human beings.”
And, yes, Hollywood is one of those perceived obstacles. The industry can either hide under the covers and produce safe, snoozy fare, or recognize that avoiding terrorism, Islamic topics, or the word “Muslim” in a film title won’t remove Tinseltown from the sights of angry jihadists. In other words, don’t let the fear direct your film.
The “Van Gogh effect” can swing the other way, inspiring filmmakers to speak out against the kind of terror that brought one Dutch director’s life to such a bloody end Nov. 2, 2004, on an Amsterdam street. Van Gogh’s partner in the making of Submission, parliamentarian Aayan Hirsi Ali, was forced into hiding and is under ’round-the-clock police protection because of the threats she receives. But in light of van Gogh’s death, Hirsi Ali isn’t submitting to the threats of angry Islamofascists–instead, she’s working on a sequel.