Troubled by a history of misconceptions on Western silver screens, Arab and Muslim filmmakers have kept their cinematic productions thematically close to the reality of their postcolonial cultural and social conditions, while trying to represent their communities in complex ways. In many efforts of artistic excellence, the films they make aim to reverse the frisson of alterity upon which the conception of their disgraced images have been historically predicated; in the process, the films aspire to alter these images and representations. Rarely however does the work of these Arab and Muslim filmmakers reach a global audience. This article locates themes and creative forms in many cinematic narratives of representation, and recommends their interpretation and mediation to a global audience. The article responds to a recent “intellectual turn” in contemporary debate on Arab and Muslim films, calling for the invention of a category called “Muslim Cinema”. The article contextualizes this turn within the contours of Western institutions as sites of epistemological authority and examines its epistemological, racial, and ideological implications and underpinnings in connection to representation.
Like most Third Cinemas’ post-independence era productions, Arab/Muslim films are known for the cultivation of a realist aesthetic and a commitment to national struggles and identity discourses. Historically, however, filmmakers in Arab and Muslim societies have addressed domestic issues and censored themes often considered too sensitive and beyond national meta-narratives. Civil wars, Shi’a/Sunni entanglements in proxy wars, religious fanaticism and terrorism, irregular migration, the heterogeneous composition which characterizes Arab and other identities in the region, gender politics, and the haunting verisimilitude of the Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation, have all been persistent themes for filmmakers and audiences. Never have these filmmakers been unified over a particular configuration of alterity, or collectively endorsed one specific representation of otherness in the same manner that Hollywood had their disfigured images molded and frozen over time as villains and terrorists. Aware that their identity has been “represented by others, mediated by Hollywood, Dan Rather, or The New York Times… [deploying misconceptions of] lazy Mexicans, shifty Arabs, savage Africans, and exotic Asiatics…” (Stam 1984: 51) on their movie screens, Arab/Muslim cinematic productions have been consistently exploring different strategies to speak for themselves.