Writer-director Michael Singh’s documentary “Valentino’s Ghost” connects the United States’ Middle East foreign policy agenda to the American media’s often negative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims. It’s a provocative, absorbing — and at times dicey — study.
Using film and TV clips plus archival news footage, the India-born Singh ambitiously tracks the on-screen depiction of Arabs starting in the 1920s when Rudolph Valentino melted hearts as “The Sheik” and Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckled his way through “The Thief of Bagdad.” But, he notes, those warm, fanciful portrayals shrank over the years as America’s economic and political interests in the Middle East grew.
According to Singh, specific events accelerated the shift: The formation of Israel in 1948, the 1972 attack on the Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists, the launch of the Arab oil embargo in 1973 and, perhaps most indelibly, the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The filmmaker contends that the U.S. news media has failed to provide sufficient historical, religious or social context for such geopolitical events, thus fostering overwhelmingly harsh attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims.
Interviews with historian Niall Ferguson, author John Mearsheimer, British war correspondent Robert Fisk, the late Gore Vidal and others offer credible support for Singh’s argument that Arabs and Muslims have been excessively portrayed as adversaries and extremists. Several Muslim American comics here provide sharp irony.
Singh also takes to task a wide range of movies, including “Exodus,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and Disney’s “Aladdin” for historical half-truths and skewed storytelling, with intriguing results. But Singh’s critical views on Israel and Washington’s staunch protection of that country’s image will likely set some viewers’ teeth on edge.
“Valentino’s Ghost.” No MPAA Rating. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. At Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena.