Telling Real Stories: Filmmakers Hesham Issawi and Sayed Badreya Shatter Stereotypes in Hollywood.
by Robert Hicks in New York, New York USA
Everything changed for Arab-Americans working in Hollywood after 9/11. Just ask Egyptian-Americans Hesham Issawi and Sayed Badreya, whose forthcoming film, American East, faithfully portrays the social realities of Arab-American life and the struggles faced by Arabs and Jews working together in post-9/11 America.
“We usually see 9/11 not from Arabs’ point of view,” says Issawi, whose earlier film, The Interrogation, won Best Creative Short Film at the 2002 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. “It should be really interesting to see how Arabs really feel about 9/11 and how it affected their lives, not in the Middle East, but in America.”
A veteran Hollywood actor, writer and producer, Badreya knows all too well the typecasting that Arab-American actors, writers, directors and producers must face on a daily basis in Hollywood. He assumed the role of a Palestinian hijacker in Stuart Baird’s Executive Decision. He played an Iraqi commander in David O. Russell’s Three Kings. He portrayed a Hezbollah gunman who fires upon his own people in Michael Mann’s thriller, The Insider. He has blown up people, sneered at hateful Americans, become an Arab pilot helping Americans fight the alien invaders and epitomized evil, all in keeping with Hollywood’s negative, stereotypical images of the Tinseltown Arab.
“We want to tell our story now,” says Badreya. “If you look at the history of cinema, people can’t tell their story unless they do their own story. Like African-Americans before Spike Lee didn’t have a strong storyteller to tell the story of the African-American in America. We’ve always seen our Arab-American story told by an American guy from Ohio, or from New York, or from Los Angeles. They tell our story from a different side, so we’ve decided to tell our story from our point of view.”
Badreya sees Arab stereotypes dating back to America’s silent film era. “The silent films had the ugly, big-nosed Arab,” he says. “It’s the same thing with the stereotype of the American Indian. Then wars came and we see the Korean, the German and the Japanese. We see the Vietnamese and the Russians. This time, it’s the black and the Arab. Stereotype is [an unfortunate] part of cinema. The Egyptians used it against the Jew and the [non-Egyptian] African.”
Badreya and Issawi have worked hard to make their way into American film life, but they’ve encountered stereotypes along their way to success. “It’s difficult to find someone who will allow you to tell your story. Until now, nobody had believed anybody could make a story about Arab-Americans. Before 9/11, it was impossible. Now because of 9/11, Arab-Americans are part of everyday life in the American living room. You hear about us when something bad happens. You hear about us when something horrible is happening in the Middle East. You don’t see us, though, unless you go to the 7-11 or you go to the gas station. Sometimes you see us in the hospital as a doctor, but you don’t recognize us, because you don’t think an Arab, Muslim or Egyptian is smart enough to be a doctor, or whatever,” says Badreya.
Issawi also says that moviegoers in the West have certain expectations if a film is produced by someone from the Middle East. “People always expect me to make films about Arabs,” Issawi says. “I want to make movies really. I want to make genre movies. I want to make noir. I want to make thrillers. It doesn’t have to be about the Arab community. I just want to make cinema. It just so happens that I’m from the Middle East.”
On the other hand, Badreya and Issawi want to counteract American prejudgments of Arab-Americans. Several years ago, they wrote a feature script and shopped it around to various Hollywood producers and filmmakers, including Peter Farrelly (Something About Mary, Stuck On You). Badreya, who has also been cast as a doctor, stockbroker and professor in Farrelly films, knew the Farrelly Brothers (Bobby and Peter) from his days as a film student at New York University in the 1980s.
“Basically, Peter said you guys should go make a movie about ourselves. You should write a story about Muslims and Arabs in America. Write something so that people will get to know you from it. It really became something personal. Our goal was to write something about the plight of Arab-Americans after 9/11,” says Issawi.
They’re already working on that goal and are in pre-production on American East. It’s the story of Mustaf Marzoke (Sayed Badreya), an Egyptian widower who is struggling to raise his two children while practicing his traditional Muslim faith, starting a restaurant business with his Jewish friend, Sam (Lebanese-American actor Tony Shalhoub, star of the TV series Monk) and pursuing the American dream in the Culver City section of Los Angeles.
“I want to tell a story first, and I want to tell it cinematically and visually. My goal was to tell the story through the grammar of cinema while making it interesting and entertaining for people to watch. I want to tell the story of Middle Easterners living in America,” says Issawi.
Mustaf and Sam face resistance from their respective communities, so they struggle to maintain their friendship and business partnership. Meanwhile, Mustaf’s 30-year-old sister, Salwah (Sarah Shahi), revolts against traditional arranged marriages among Muslims. She wants to marry a true friend, perhaps even an American. Mustaf’s 12-year-old son, Mohammed (Richard Chagoury), is teased at school for being Muslim and faces an identity crisis. Omar (Kais Nashef) is a young Arab-American actor who gets typecast in stereotypical film roles and eventually lives out people’s false expectations of him in real life. Other story lines reveal the tension between old and new traditions, as well as other facets of Muslim life in America.
“It’s really a movie like Crash. There are all these stories, but they’re all connected to each other,” says Issawi. “Each story line presents something different about the plight of Arab-Americans.”
He added, “The challenge was to make it visually interesting and to make people see them, feel those characters, know what they are going through in America.”
American East was shot in 35mm color with a running time of one hour and 50 minutes with a cast of over 45 actors in the Glendale section of Los Angeles in summer 2006. Producers Brian Cox, Mohamed Malas, Anant Singh and Ahmad Zahra helped finance this groundbreaking look at Arab-American life.
“We wrote the script together,” says Badreya. “I come from the school of Clint Eastwood. It’s a one-shot deal or a two-shot day. My story is not coming from 15 takes or 16 takes.”
Badreya and Issawi first worked together on the TV movie, Falafel City. Badreya wrote, directed and produced it, and he hired Issawi to edit the short film. It concerned an actor who tried to make positive movies about Arab life in America. Turned down by Hollywood producers, he hijacked a film and turned it into his own vision of Arab-American life.
Badreya is also concerned about the preservation of Egyptian film classics from the 1940s through the 1960s. He and Issawi worked together on a 52-minute documentary titled Saving Egyptian Film Classics, which featured commentary from American directors Martin Scorsese and Arthur Hiller, in 2001. It focused on the preservation of film negatives by the Academy of Motion Picture and Consolidated Film Industries (CFI, a division of Technicolor Entertainment Services), the leading film preservation center in Hollywood.
A year later, Badreya produced and Issawi directed, wrote and edited their award-winning short film, The Interrogation, about two men interrogating one another. Badreya acted in and produced and Issawi wrote and directed their short called After Dark.
Former CBS news consultant and film critic Jack Shaheen examined Hollywood’s obsession with negative portrayals of Arabs in his 2002 book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. The film industry in much of the Middle East hasn’t done much better at honestly portraying Arab life since the 1970s. One exception is the flourishing film industry in Iran, and there is also good contemporary cinema in Morocco and Palestine. For the most part, though, serious Arabian filmmakers have almost become an extinct species in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt, where light comedic fare has become a thin substitute for realistic filmmakers, such as Atef al-Tayeb, Salah Abu Seif, Yusuf Chanine, Toufic Saleh and Niazi Mustapha who rose to fame during Egypt’s Golden Age of cinema from 1940-1970.
“Everything made in Egypt now is a comedy,” laments Badreya. Issawi adds, “The problem with most films coming out of Egypt right now is they’re never true to what’s happening in Egypt now. It’s all about the past or recycling ideas. Artists need to explore new things, but that’s really tough in an oppressive society.” Censorship and funding are constant concerns for filmmakers in Egypt.
Both Badreya and Issawi grew up watching American and Egyptian films. Badreya, 49, hails from a ghetto in the business city of Port Said, Egypt. He remembers watching John Wayne in American cowboy movies, Clint Eastwood in spaghetti westerns and other American actors in big epic films as a way of escaping from the daily terrors of the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars against Israel.
“I’ve watched movies all my life. I’d go to the double features with an American movie and an Egyptian movie, and I fell in love with American life,” he says.
He studied English at Emerson College in Boston in 1979 before moving in with actor Woody Harrelson and other friends in New York, where he studied directing, acting and film at New York University in 1980. Six years later, he moved to Santa Monica.
“I started to make money just as an actor playing theme roles,” he says. “I studied films and starting shooting films to tell the Arab-American story.” To help translate those stories into cinema, he formed Zoom In FocusProductions, Inc.
Issawi, 37, grew up the son of a geologist and journalist in Cairo, Egypt. He saw a lot of American cowboy movies and westerns, too, but his generation was more immersed in American culture in the 1980s than the older generation of Badreya. He left his homeland to study photography and film at Octon Community College and Columbia College in Chicago in 1990. He worked on documentaries in the Windy City before moving to Los Angeles in 2000. He worked as an editor for TV reality series before opportunities arose for him to do his own independent films in Hollywood.
“I grew up around a lot of books and reading with a thirst for knowledge of the outside world,” says Issawi. “America was always a dream for me. I’m still searching.”
The question remains whether the majority of Americans can drop their prejudices about Arab-Americans so that Badreya and Issawi can truly be seen as Americans, not just stereotypes, working hard to fulfill their dreams.
Robert Hicks last interviewed Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and is a contributing writer forDragonfire.