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8 Must See Documentaries About Arabs and the Arab World

posted on: Dec 14, 2020

By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer

Documentaries are one of the best tools for learning more about places, people, cultures, and/or events in an engaging and quite powerful manner. Reading and listening can be informative and are, of course, important; but watching something, seeing pain, suffering, hope, confusion, understanding, and much more with one’s own eyes is extremely impactful. Arabs and the Arab world are so often misunderstood, misrepresented, and stereotyped that it is important to learn more about them. To help accomplish this, I have chosen eight documentaries that help shed some light and truth on Arabs and the Arab world outside of the often biased Western media narrative.

This list is in no particular order and is not even close to exhaustive, but I believe it provides a wide-ranging and informative list of some truly powerful documentaries.

1. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

Reel Bad Arabs is a documentary film directed by Jeremy Earp and Sut Jhally. Written by and featuring the acclaimed Lebanese American Jack Shaheen – known for his work on topics of race and ethnicity – the documentary traces the origins of the stereotypes often perpetuated by Hollywood of Arabs as bandits (does Aladdin ring a bell?) to the now common portrayal as terrorists. The documentary trails the history of Arabs’ portrayal in Hollywood’s films from 1896-2000. An extension of Shaheen’s book,  the documentary inspires critical thinking about the social, political, and basic human consequences of leaving these Hollywood caricatures unexamined, while challenging viewers to recognize the urgent need for counter-narratives that do justice to the diversity and humanity of Arab people and the reality and richness of Arab history and culture.

2. 5 Broken Cameras

5 Broken Cameras is a deeply personal, first-hand account of non-violent resistance in Bil’ in, a West Bank village threatened by encroaching Israeli settlements. Shot almost entirely by Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat, the footage was later given to Israeli co-director Guy Davidi to edit. The documentary uses the breaking of each successive camera as a way to guide the film. The New York Times calls it, “A chronicle of protest and endurance, punctuated by violence and tiny glimmers of hope…the movie is necessary, if difficult, viewing.” It provides a first-hand look at life in the West Bank and a sample of daily life and protests there. There are many documentaries about the Palestine-Israel conflict to explore that help add to the complex story of the region and struggle there, but they cannot all be listed, so I encourage you to Google some and check them out.

3. Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait

Silvered Water largely consists of footage shot on mobile phones, anonymously uploaded onto YouTube. Its use of social media posts gives access to realities experienced by people in the Syrian revolution and its bloody aftermath; it provides a micro-narratives of events, rather than grand narratives of mainstream reportage. Credited to “1001 Syrians,” along with the two directors, Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, its numerous stories create a visual archive of the Syrian uprising and provides a view into the lives of Syrians and their suffering. This documentary not only informs the viewer about Syria, but also provides a reference for how many conflicts/events are generalized or underreported, especially in the Arab world.

4. Homeland Iraq Year Zero

This award-winning documentary from Iraq-born filmmaker Abbas Fahdel, manages to convey the hardships and triumphs of everyday people in Iraq. Viewers will not only be moved, but shocked by the differences between this movie and media coverage of this heartbreaking tale. The documentary is separated into two parts. Part one showcases everyday life in Iraq under Saddam that, although it was not easy, at times was at least normal-ish. The second part takes you to Iraq when the U.S. invades, and shows the Iraqi view of the conflict and the American presence. In American media, our soldiers were portrayed as liberators and a great hope for Iraq, but this documentary reveals the true story.

5. American Arab

In this “coming-of-Arab” documentary, director Usama Alshaibi looks at Arab identity in a post-9/11 America through his own life story. Alshaibi immigrated to America as a child with his parents and older siblings from Iraq. Throughout the film, he talks to a diverse group of other Arab-Americans. With all of the racism, stereotyping, and prejudice Arab Americans have faced before and after 9/11, this film is crucially important to shed light on these often underreported biases against Arab Americans. It is a powerful and well-done documentary – a must-see.

6. Tiny Souls

After escaping the Syrian war, a free-spirited 9-year old and her family must navigate confined life when stranded in Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan. Over four years, the director follows her characters’ lives within barb-wired camp walls, capturing the resilient shift from childhood to adolescence. It also follows her through many states of adaptation and survival in between, leading up to the eventual clash that threatens their fate. This documentary gives a view into the life in refugee camps for children growing up, how they suffer, but also where they find hope and joy. It is an important film to see as it provides a unique perspective rarely shared in the media.

7. The Square

A powerful story getting behind the scenes and personal about both the winter of 2011, when crowds of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square to demand the removal of President Hosni Mubarak; and, the summer of 2013, when the army ousted his successor, Mohamed Morsi, and began a violent campaign against his followers in the Muslim Brotherhood. These events were widely covered, but the personal side of those involved was only slightly shared. “The Square” records the gruesome collision of utopian aspirations with cold political realities, but also acknowledges that change can be long and slow. It sheds an important light on Egypt and is very powerful and necessary to watch.

8. A Thousand and One Journeys: The Arab Americans

This documentary from director Abe Kasbo explores the little known history of Arabs in the United States over the past 200 years. The film examines Arabs’ unique immigrant experience and searches for the American dream through the personal stories of influential members of the Arab-American community, such as actor Jamie Farr, presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Anthony Shadid, and comedian Maysoon Zayid. This film gives great insight into the accomplishments of Arabs in America, many of which are not well known. It is a strongly personal and important film for non-Arab Americans and Arab Americans alike.

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