Disney’s Aladdin, Indiana Jones, Warner Brother’s cartoons of crazed men with giant bullets strapped to their heads, international terrorists — these are pop culture’s depictions of Arabs. This would be easy to laugh off it weren’t for talking heads like Bill O’Reilly who say that “there is no understanding these people” and ask, “I’m now tilted kinda against the Muslim world. Am I wrong?”
This is the basis of Nicholas Dembowski’s Lord’s Song in a Strange Land. Dembowski cleverly montaged found footage from Hollywood movies, cable news networks, European news stations, old Western films and edited it as though to let his viewers channel surf through the American media’s representation of what it considers “the Arab world.”
Now, one doesn’t have to read Edward Said to understand that when the news media uses the term “Arab world” it suggests that Arabs, somehow by breed, are separate from Westerners and exist in some other non-democratic dimension. Bill O’Reilly (Dembowski’s favorite whipping boy) even says, “killing somebody there is not the same as killing somebody here.” Viewers also learn from the Israeli Consulate General that they should fear the “cult of death that Palestinians have created” and that Palestinians “idealize and glorify death.” And, of course, it must be known that “Democracy is not part of [Arab] culture and they don’t understand it,” as was expounded upon by a talking head on a U.S. cable news network.
Dembowski reminds his audience that the Palestinians were not the first colonized people to experience such racism. He communicates this by sandwiching clips of movies featuring stereotypical Native American characters in between footage of Bush declaring that Osama bin Ladin is “wanted, dead or alive” and a cable news station reporter describing the Iraqi border as “the wild West.”
This parallel is further explored when Dembowski uses footage of pioneers “domesticating” the American West right before he cuts to footage of talking heads declaring that “Israel stands [alone] as the bastion of democracy in the Middle East.” The film hits a peak when Dembowski explores the similarity of vocabulary between the colonization of the American West and that of Palestine. It causes the viewer to wonder if it is just a coincidence that one of the major symbols of Israeli occupation is American-made Apache attack helicopters; why not have Andrew Jackson helicopters?
And, of course, Israel and the U.S.’ warped sense of divine right is exposed when Oklahoma senator James Inhofe states on C-Span, “God appeared to Abraham and said, ‘I’m giving you this land, the West Bank.’” Also portrayed are Israeli settlers who proclaim that “God is with us.” Ariel Sharon declares that he will use every effort to bring another million Jews to Israel. Referring to his war on terrorism, George W. Bush says, “This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil.”
Dembowski contrasts these attitudes by cutting to European news footage of Israeli settlers attacking Palestinians, setting fire to their crops, and then turning their rage towards the BBC truck that was on the scene.
European news footage is used throughout Lord’s Song in a Strange Land to contrast the dramatic music, models-cum-anchorwomen, and fevered rhetoric favored by the American news media. While Bill O’Reilly declares, “I don’t want a history lesson,” and an American cable news anchor states the breaking news that “Yasser Arafat accused the U.S. of being biased towards Israel,” European media footage captures Israeli soldiers beating a trio of Palestinian men. The young soldiers laugh as one holds a Palestinian towards the ground and another proceeds to kick him with full strength.
Regarding the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, while Bill O’Reilly suggests that America should “basically starve them,” European journalists actually go into the country and profile a mother who is too weak to lift her own child. Her baby, it is later revealed, died two hours after the film crew left. It is made quite clear at this point that the U.S. media’s main objective is not to truly inform but instead is to sell its product, and will stoop to sensationalism to do so. How many CNN or Fox News crews went into Afghanistan to talk with average families? How many go into Palestine and broadcast a report other than what is given by the Israeli Defense Forces?
Dembowski uses no narration to get his point across — the undoctored film clips speak for themselves. Fortunately, Dembowski is not without a sense of humor. There are points where the audience is left with little choice but to laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. And although it feels good to laugh at people like Ann Coulter when she says that the U.S. should go into Arab countries and convert them all to Christianity or at various media pundits when they the Oklahoma City bombing a trademark of Arab terrorism, it is disturbing to think that there are actually people out there who buy into such a racist and uninformed mentality.
Maureen Clare Murphy is the editor of F News and lives in Chicago.