An orientalist train wreck

I walked into the wrong movie the other night. Who does that?

Here’s what happened. When I looked up Black Gold, I accidentally read the favorable reviews for the 2006 documentary on the coffee trade. I was so excited they were showing that in Kuwait (one of our shopping malls has six Starbucks Coffee stores…)! I only realized I might be heading to the wrong movie when my friend sent me a message saying, “well, I hope Banderas makes a convincing Arab.”

And Antonio Banderas does make a convincing Arab, in the 2011 Black Gold. But that’s about the only thing the movie gets right.

The movie “tells the story of the rivalry between two Emirs in Arabia in the 1930’s just as oil is being discovered, and the rise of a young, dynamic leader who unites the various tribes of the desert kingdom.” And the movie tells this fictitious epic drama from a western point of view, to a western audience – and that really bothered me, seeing as the movie was produced by Tarak Ben Ammar (Chairman of Quinta Communications) and co-produced by Doha Film Institute, Qatar. I would have thought that a movie with a $55 million budget could have gotten someone to research life in 1930’s Arabia and at least work on actors’ pronunciation.

Some photo I found online

I don’t even know where to start, because I didn’t go in expecting to review this movie. But it was horrible and that’s me putting the terrible acting aside in this short review.

The movie is painfully slow at the beginning as it sets the scene and gives the audiences all the background information. And if the slow start is not bad enough, than the 6 or 7 different accents one hears, definitely are! So the movie is about Arabs but the story is told in English. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. A modern-day audience can suspend their sense of disbelief. I can engage with a work of art that is telling me “this is a story about Arabs, and they’re technically speaking in Arabic *wink wink*”. But I cannot possibly suspend any sense of disbelief if the actors decide to put on terrible (Indo-Arab-African) accents in order to portray the Arabs. It affects comprehensibility. It gets in the way. I couldn’t engage with the movie because of the heavy accents. If you’re going to present a movie in English, then please stick to English.

And while we’re on accents and pronunciations, why couldn’t someone have sat down with the actors and decided on ONE pronunciation for Salah. Saleh. Saleeh. Saaaleh. SALLLL-EH. I really don’t care which one, but a little consistency would have been great.

Another image from the world-wide web

Then there was the inescapable Eurocentric orientalist twist to everything! Princess Leila is the best example. Whether she’s peeking seductively from behind the mashrabiyya, or choosing to pull away her black robe to show her husband her tantalizing Jasmine (yes, like in Disney’s Aladdin) wedding night attire, all her behavior is uncharacteristic of an Arabian woman at the time. What Arab woman in her right mind would have laughed in reply to her father’s inquiry about her wedding night and boldly said, “Father, isn’t that the point of a wedding night? To dishonor the bride?” (Words to that effect.) The sexualization of the women in the movie was nauseating.

I hated the movie and there just did not have enough redeeming elements, from the script (a total flop) to the special effects. The airstrike and battle scenes were poorly executed and reminiscent of late night re-runs of cheesy sci-fi movies that nobody actually watches. In an attempt to make the movie more appealing to audiences, Black Gold is more concerned with selling the stereotypical image of an Arab. Even if that means throwing in incorrect props and dresses, even if it means incorporating inappropriate clichés and turning what could have been an interesting storyline into an orientalist train wreck.

5 thoughts on “An orientalist train wreck

  1. I understand what you’re trying to say about consistency. And us -being from Arabic backgrounds- might have less trouble comprehending the big picture due to the inconsistency while others from different places would be like “Woah woah woah, hold on a sec” while scratching their foreheads.

    Moreover, you were spot on when you quoted Princess Leila. You don’t see that kind of talk today, let alone 80 years ago.

    However, I believe that the purpose of the movie was to educate the west while simultaneously frustrate the east (and i mean that in a good way). Since the movie has Qatari roots, i like to think that this movie will annoy most Arabs, particularly the nations around the Persian Gulf. Not because they got their accents wrong or because the actors were bad, but because it doesn’t really portray them in the best way possible. It magnified how their perception of religion got in their own way of advancing and building an empire that others would envy. People will now be better informed as to why the Arabs -once a leading civilization with its advancements in medicine, arts, culture etc.- are no longer a force to be reckoned with today and are instead, well, just a marginal community in the world. And THAT is the frustration the movie is trying to build, it will get Arabs to see themselves from a third person’s point of view and think to themselves “Wow, i cannot believe this is how the world sees us, do we really look like this?”. Once that thought is reached, actions should follow.

    Perhaps I’m straying a bit off topic here. The point is that, upon reading your review, i believe that the movie has achieved its life purpose, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

  2. I just saw “A Dangerous Method” in which Keira Knightly plays a Russian Jew who’s speaking German, although of course it’s all in English, throughout the movie. I have a hard time figuring out what her accent is *supposed* to be too. Is it a) how a Russian speaking German (but in English) sound?, b) a Russian speaking English sounds?, c) just a vaguely Eastern European accent to add to her exotic appeal?, or d) not a mystery to be plumbed? I believe all this funny business probably started with the different accents English-speaking people have. Move producers probably thought it more authentic to have Sherlock Holmes, say, speak the queen’s English than American English, which is a fine enough impulse. However, it these accents then get carried to all these unbelievable and inauthentic-pretending-to-be-authentic scenarios. Crazy Hollywood!

  3. I took a level 400 class dealing with Post-Colonial Theory and the final project required to dissect a piece of media and analyze it for any Orientalist dribble. We decided on Black Gold, and let’s just say that what we wrote makes your review quite the complement.

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