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Connecting historical dots to make sense of shifting attitudes toward Arabs in American media, Michael Singh‘s Valentino’s Ghost is most interested in the ever-complicated interaction between what happens in the world and what is seen on page and screen. A valuable work that digs well beyond commonplace observations, the film has a dryly academic style and shoestring production values that will limit its reach outside educational settings.
Singh is not a dispassionate observer: He devotes a fair bit of the film to problems with coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, arguing that the lack of a unified and effective Arab lobby has let Israel silence critical voices. Looking at TV news reports from the ’60s and ’70s whose perspectives on the topic were far more balanced and complex than those of later decades, he makes a convincing case.
News coverage is a major focus here, despite a title that might lead viewers to suggest the film will focus mainly on Hollywood. Singh does offer an illuminating history of Arabs in the movies — from the brief Silent-era moment when they were seen as heroic and sexy to the long, bleak stretch in which they were never more than cookie-cutter villains. (Tony Shalhoub makes a poignant appearance, saying he “didn’t have the presence of mind” to balk at playing one of these roles early in his career.) But the film sees little need to distinguish between movies and news, understanding that both are necessarily creations of an imperfect author.
Singh is savvy in his choice of interviewees, picking Western journalists and historians who can dissect anti-Arab depictions without seeming to have an axe to grind. Gore Vidal, historian Niall Ferguson, the late Middle East correspondent Anthony Shadid and others offer insights into the long history of slanting, selective blindness, and the unwillingness of Americans to see themselves as imperialists.
If the doc grows slightly fuzzy as it discusses the post-9/11 era, seeming to analyze Washington’s actions more than it does the media’s presentation of Arab subjects, it eventually makes the connection clear: America is only able to make the moral compromises we’ve made because generations of storytelling have convinced us we’re morally superior to a group of people we barely know.
Production Company: Michael Singh Productions
Director-Screenwriter: Michael Singh
Producers: Michael Singh, Catherine Jordan
Music: Lisa Coleman
Editors: Brad Fuller, Michael Singh, Catherine Jordan
No rating, 94 minutes
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