|WHERE TO LOOK
If only writers had a resource like MOST (Muslims on Screen and Television) for every topic they wanted to write about. You’ll find heaps of information on Islam, but more importantly, they’ll hook you up with expert consultants who’ve been hand-picked to advise you on your specific subject matter. Most of us would pay big money for a service that sets you up with an expert like this, but today is your lucky day because this one is free!
A lot of the information MOST references comes from The Muslim West Facts Project, a collaboration between Gallup -- the polling people -- and the Coexist Foundation that features research and data on the Muslim world and the West.
To get an instant cross-section of the Muslim experience in America, click on One Nation For All. You’ll find links to just about every American Muslim organization and publication in existence, as well as the latest news about what’s going on in the community.
Of course, Islam didn’t just pop up yesterday. The culture is rich, fascinating and, as Wolfe points out, had much more of a positive impact than Rudolph Valentino would have you believe. To learn more -- much more -- about it, go to the Muslim Heritage Web site, where you’ll find a highly interactive, accessible display of 1,000 years of Muslim history, including their contributions to modern science, technology, arts, and civilization.
Written by Denis Faye
After college graduation, most Americans would consider three months backpacking around Europe to be the utmost in bohemian high adventure before entering the corporate world. Poet Michael Wolfe, however, is hardly “most Americans.” After graduating from Wesleyan University, he upped the ante by landing an Amy Lowell Traveling Poets Scholarship, so that he could spend three-and-a-half years traveling around North and West Africa.
“It was sort of my graduate school,” shrugs Wolfe, who is also a noted writer and producer.
In Africa, Wolfe befriended a number of people “who happened to be Muslim.” It began a fascination with the religion that, 20 years later, led to his conversion and subsequent pilgrimage to Mecca, about which he would write the book Mecca: The Hadj. From there, Wolfe went on to edit a number of books on Islam, cover the topic for ABC’s Nightline as well as CNN International and finally produce a series of award-winning PBS documentaries on various aspect of the Muslim experience.
As if that weren’t enough, he’s also co-director of MOST (Muslims on Screen and Television), a non-profit dedicated to providing free research and expert consultations to Hollywood writers and producers regarding Muslims or Islam.
When Wolfe spoke recently with Technically Speaking about how Muslims are portrayed in television and film, his message was simple: If you want to write a convincing Muslim character, spend a little more time fleshing out the “character” and a little less time fixating on the “Muslim.”
What do you think Hollywood gets right about Islam?
I would say that there’s a growing awareness of Islam in general in recent years. We’re seeing TV shows, feature films and documentaries that cover a broader range of topics than in the past, both concerning Muslims in the U.S. and the broader Muslim world.
I do think there’s been an effort to humanize and create a better understanding. Hollywood is great at lending that kind of understanding and leading the United States -- and the world, really -- down that path of understanding. It’s a place where it’s okay to ask questions and explore topics that are on the general public’s mind. There’s also more of an effort to speak with experts, more of an effort to review scripts before they hit the screen and generally just more of an effort to tell a more nuanced story. It’s come a long way from the Valentino days.
What does Hollywood get wrong?
In a nutshell, I’d say the habit of the flat Muslim character, the tendency toward a stereotypical plotline. I’ve been writing all my life, and I know the worst habit I can indulge in, and it’s laziness.
But there was a time when the image of the day was harems and outlandishly ignorant people who were Middle Eastern in some indefinable way, who were just placed in a script to cause havoc of some sort or another. I think the pendulum has swung now. Even if you go back four or five years, you get movies like Three Kings, which was a very interesting movie with a very nuanced Arab characterization. And Syriana was another one. The notion of accurate representation is a really important one.
I think we’re moving toward more accurate films and the value of that to the writer is that you end up with a better story. You wind up with a better character if you take the trouble to find out who that character is and what would be true to that story rather than imagining what would be right.
You’re being very forgiving of Hollywood. I’m sure they appreciate it.
Well, you know, I work there myself. I tend to be forgiving. And I think that, my goodness, we just saw an Academy Award go to Slumdog Millionaire, which was about Muslim children in India! I do believe that there is, at least, a wave beginning to break here of a different way of representing a whole topic.
What are some of your favorite depictions of Muslims in TV and movies?
I’m currently head-over-heels with the characterization in Slumdog Millionaire, although I like the first part of the movie a lot more than the second part. I’m high on that one because I think it’s a lovely and accurate depiction of the plight and poetry of being Muslim in India. I thought that Tom McCarthy’s recent film The Visitor was a really wonderful, small, good representation of the horrors of immigration. The notion of the character being Muslim was certainly there, but the real issue was his human position and situation. In both these films, the protagonist was Muslim, but they’re first and foremost human beings, and that’s why you want to follow them.
On TV, The Simpsons ran a show where a Muslim family moves in down the street and Homer gets confused. Very funny and very well done. There was a comedy series on cable last year called Aliens in America that was also quite funny. Those two prove that you can find a sense of humor about Muslims.
24 has done a pretty good job of turning a corner in the last few years. Depictions of Muslims early on were pretty ham-handed, and they have become much more nuanced.
Any films that bothered you, or would you rather not say?
I don’t mind saying, it’s just that there are so many more that I liked.
The feature films and TV shows that I like the least are the ones that reinforce the stereotypes and the headlines. A fair percentage of American Muslims are professionals -- doctor, lawyers, teachers, fireman, etc. Where do we see them in the picture? In the American parade, if you think of it as a class picture of 2009, then there’s a part missing. Where are they in the picture? We haven’t written them in. It’s not that there are programs I don’t like, it’s that they haven’t been written into the picture. This isn’t simple to solve. It’s not like falling off a log, writing nuanced character about a group of people you know nothing about. It’s easier to compose stereotypes -- terrorists or candidates for terrorists. That’s one job description, don’t misunderstand me, but it’s a small percentage of the population and a hugely disproportionate representation. It’s as if every Italian were a Mafia member.
What would you like to see in a movie regarding Islam, just once?
If I could put it in two words -- “real representation.” Let me explain. I’d like to see, in a regular, consistent way, Muslims not be segregated as one sort of consistent character. I’d like to see a Muslim character in a story that doesn’t have to do in some sort of narrow way with Islam at all. It should be about this character. I would be quite happy to see a Muslim in a story where it was about the human drama – not about him being a Muslim. That would just be part of his character. Three Kings has a character where it isn’t about him being Muslim. He’s just a hero doing day-to-day service.
Given the current political climate, do you think Islam should be treated differently onscreen?
I think so far it has been, by and large. If you just pick up the Encyclopedia Britannica, you’ll see that it’s very much like Christianity, but most people don’t know that. Most people don’t know that Allah just means God in Arabic. There’s a lot of misunderstanding that allows us to treat this religion like it were strange fruit, when it’s more like the cousin of the two biggest religions in the United States. I think we would be wise to treat Islam as what it is and not as a religion that underwrites violence and gender oppression. I don’t think it needs to be treated specially, but I think it needs to be treated fairly. One in five people across the world is Muslim, so we owe it to ourselves to get it right. Otherwise, we look like fools when we send the 300-400 hours of programming per month out into the world. If we get something wrong, what are they going to think about us and our foreign policy?
Do you have any additional advice to writers embarking on a script that includes Muslim characters?
It’s always good to read and do your research yourself, but with a complex community like Islam, it’s also crucial to speak with someone with knowledge or even experience on the matter, the difference between a character who is an Indonesian Muslim and an Egyptian Muslim or a man or a woman or rich or poor. All of these are different expressions of this one word Muslim. You need to talk to somebody. The right person who’s lived the life that you’re writing. The more nuanced the details you’ve got, the more universal the story’s going to be. That’s a universal law of writing.