There are nearly a million Arab Canadians. How can film and TV represent them more thoughtfully?
The range of Arab stories seen in mainstream media remains narrow — and it's time to give them a greater voice
Majid Koudmani, a Canadian writer/director of Syrian origin, went coast to coast hoping to find a Canadian Arab man who could play the role of Ahmed in his new short film, What Colour is the Sky Where You Are. Ahmed is meant to be a gentle, loving Syrian father who moved to Canada with his son, Shadi.
The Calgary short film, now in its post-production phase, explores the nuances of the father-son relationship as they adapt to being in a new country. They each adjust differently, and the gap between them starts to widen when their definition of which country to call home changes. This is a situation that many Canadian Arabs and immigrants identify with — yet it is seldom seen in film and TV.
Despite strides for greater representation in recent years, the range of Arab stories seen in Canadian film and TV remains narrow. The systemic discrimination endured by Arabs in Canada is particularly evident in the limited stories we see in mainstream media — and those who are making efforts to change this have many obstacles to overcome.
Koudmani faced tremendous challenges in finding an older Arab man to play Ahmed. Even though there were talented actors of other backgrounds available, he was torn up about the idea of casting a non-Arab for the role. When he expressed his casting concerns to industry professionals and filmmakers, some of them would advise him to either hire an Arab man who wasn't an actor or shut down the production altogether rather than casting a non-Arab.
"I was really torn up about this," says Koudmani. "I am an Arab myself; we have several other Arabs cast. There were people that were literally being being, 'You should shut down and essentially deny both yourself and all these other people any chance of representation.'"
Despite Koudmani repeatedly stressing the need to hire an Arab for the role, agents and casting directors would continue to suggest non-Arab actors, usually of Indian and Pakistani backgrounds.
"[This was] in large part because a lot of the time people literally didn't know what an Arab was," he says. "They were like, 'A brown person! Cool!' which was exceptionally insulting."
While still in the casting process, Koudmani also discovered that multiple publicists were unwilling to represent his film when they learned that he was having trouble finding an actor to play Ahmed, fearing the backlash that could come with casting a non-Arab for the role. There have been similar high-profile examples in just the past few months: Israeli actor Gal Gadot was heavily criticized after being cast to play Cleopatra in Patty Jenkins's new biopic about the Egyptian queen, while singer and director Sia also drew backlash for casting a neurotypical actor, Maddie Ziegler, to play an autistic character in her film Music.
Koudmani finally found his Ahmed in Montreal-based actor Aladeen Tawfeek — but the search ended up taking three and a half months.
Moving beyond stereotypes
Demographics presented a barrier as well. Older Arab men who have immigrated to Canada are not necessarily trying to make careers in film, Koudmani says. "They were coming here and just doing whatever they could to make money to provide for their families."
Shireen Salti, executive director of the Canadian Arab Institute (CAI), attributes that to the fact that Arabs are a low-income earning community in Canada, with their average income standing at $33.5k, according to CAI's research based on 2016 Canadian census data. CAI's research also indicates that Canadian Arabs have the second-lowest median income amongst minority communities and the highest unemployment rates — despite being a highly educated group where more than 60% of the community holds a certificate, diploma or university degree.
Salti explains that the reason behind this is "partly discrimination and partly because we're a highly educated community that's experiencing a foreign credential problem [where] we don't have our credentials verified [in Canada]."
As a way to combat this, Salti tries to represent all types of Arabs in her political and social advocacy and her work with CAI. She focuses on Canadian Arabs all over Canada who are, as she refers to them, "the marginalized of the marginalized" — specifically newcomers, queer Arabs, Black Arabs and Palestinian Arabs.
"Art is a form of activism," she adds. "I am an artist myself; I'm a spoken word poet and I write about politics in art. I could write about this in a more nuanced academic paper and publish a policy brief, but who's going to read that?"
Salti is adamantly working on debunking myths and stereotypes about Canadian Arabs through a collaboration between CAI and Open Screenplay, an organization that produces screenplays generated by their writing communities where underrepresented voices are encouraged to participate. Her goal is to create a conversation about socially important topics while engaging the Arab voice that has often not been brought into the conversation in Canadian mainstream media and Hollywood.
"For decades, the mainstream media in the west has systematically stereotyped and vilified people of Arab origin," Salti says. "We have Jack Shaheen, a prominent Arab American scholar, who analyzed over 900 Hollywood films and in them, he saw that Arabs have been depicted as either brute murderers, religious fanatics, oil rich dimwits, or terrorists and abusers of women."
"There isn't representation of women [...] and when it is about women, it is usually the oppressed, fetishized woman."
Salti adds: "Such degradation of these people, an entire people, will lead to their dehumanization."
Like the Spanish show Elite and American thriller drama Quantico, Canadian TV shows and movies like Becoming Burlesque are guilty of the problematic depiction of an oppressed hijabi woman who takes off the hijab to become finally free. Salti doesn't mince words: "It's a joke!"
Whiteness as default
Najwa Najjar, a Palestinian writer/director who did her masters in film in Washington, D.C., and whose film Eyes of a Thief was the Palestinian submission for the 2015 Oscars Best Foreign Film and the Golden Globe Awards, stresses the political role that Hollywood plays.
"Hollywood was created to support specific causes, and Arab causes are not among them," says Najjar. "Quite the opposite where it vilifies the Arab human, and specifically the Muslim, the Palestinian, the Lebanese and the Iraqi."
"For example, when you invade and destroy Iraq and make an American hero out of the Iraqi story, and when you depict an Iraqi Muslim as a violent, ugly animal, it then becomes easy to kill him."
A McGill University study that analyzed 780 movies in Hollywood found that white people are over-represented as characters in movies — they make up 69.1 per cent of the population, but account for 86.9 per cent of the roles. They're even more disproportionately likely to speak: 89.1 per cent of speaking roles belonged to white characters. And out of the 4,058 characters featured in the movies analyzed, only a total of nine were Near Eastern.
According to a report by Media Smarts, visible minority actors are generally not considered for a part if it wasn't specifically written about a minority character, while parts for unspecified ethnicities are assumed to be white.
Canadian-Syrian actor Ryan Ali, who plays Shadi in Koudmani's short film, says one way casting directors can offset this is to seek out diverse actors for roles where the character's ethnicity has no impact on the plot — "when you include actors that are a certain ethnicity without it being the focus of the story," he explains.
That was how he was cast in director Kim Nguyen's film The Hummingbird Project. "They were looking for a Middle Eastern man, and it's not mentioned a single time in the entire film that I'm Middle Eastern — he just happens to be Middle Eastern," says Ali.
What experience is valued?
When filmmaker Marcelle Aleid moved to Canada, she struggled to find jobs that valued her skill set. Even though she had substantial experience writing and directing internationally, she was asked to be a note-taker on a writing team because her previous work was not considered "Canadian experience."
Aleid thinks the Canadian TV and film industry has shown a growing interest in Syrian refugees' stories, but even when Arabs are involved, only the clichéd stories are told. Although "trendy" conversations like Islamophobia are important to have, she thinks filmmakers need to include a wider range of stories that are relevant to the community.
"When I sent my films to one of the festivals here, they were like, 'You're talking about immigrant issues. We thought because you're Syrian, you're going to talk about a Syrian story,'" she says. "And I'm like, 'This is a story about us.'"
Aleid thinks that Canadian Arabs need more chances to prove themselves in the industry. "There are so many creative and artistic and amazing artists," she says. "They are the best to represent these [Arab] characters because they know the culture."
So what can we do for better representation?
As an audience, we need to be more critical of what we see on TV and be mindful of the tropes and stereotypes we are being fed about Arabs and other Canadian minorities. Koudmani thinks that education amongst casting directors and agents, particularly when it comes to the distinctions between nationalities and ethnicities, is essential. To filmmakers, he says: "Write new roles for people that either help ethnicities get hired or are not specific to ethnicities, or hire [people] for a role that isn't specified as to what their ethnicity is. [...] Tell stories, regardless of their ethnicities."
With close to a million Arab individuals in Canada, we can only guess how many stories have been overlooked, misrepresented and misunderstood. The only way to find out — and to change it — is to keep making art.