FILM REVIEW:  There, but Not Quite?  Imagery of terrorism in Deja-Vu
Posted Dec 22, 2006

FILM REVIEW:  There, but Not Quite?  Imagery of terrorism in Deja-Vu

By Motazz Soliman

Like several of his previous works (Out of Time, The Bone Collector, and The Siege, for example) Denzel Washington’s latest movie is a ‘detective story.’  And like Munich, Paradise Now, Syriana, and Kingdom of Heaven, it appears to be the result of a recent trend aiming to add more inclusive and more thoughtful discourse on the relationship between violence/hatred/enmity on the one hand, and Muslims/Islam/Arabs/Middle East on the other.  But it can possibly go further, not least because the plot is simple enough to focus primarily on other associations.  Released with the name Deja-vu, the movie runs a plot centering around an Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms (ATF) officer Doug Carlin (a federal agent played by Washington) who investigates a terrorism incident in New Orleans.  In the process, he struggles to resolve conflicts involving his understanding of destiny, agony, love, and human will.  His search for meanings eventually leads him to travel back in time to preclude the terrorist attack and to save a woman he falls in love with.

A new worldview?  Perhaps the most significant aspect of Deja-vu relates to how the movie deals with the topic of characterizing terrorism.  As the film does not portray any Arab or Muslim characters, it debunks prevailing stereotypical and simplistic canards relating to ‘hate-filled’ Middle Easterners.  In fact, the terrorist is presented as a lone Caucasian-American extremist with an anglicized first name and a German-sounding last name.  Nor does the movie exhibit oft-repeated and charged cultural, political, linguistic, religious, or situational references to Arabs and Muslims.  Rather, references are made to images associated with the home-grown nationalist, anti-government groups and militias who fuse “Christian” doctrine with anarchism and extremism.  The phrases God, destiny, human collateral, the government stated by the character give that much away.  By so doing, the plot apparently seeks to highlight that terrorists and extremists come in multiple shapes and sizes, and that they all pose grave threats to society.

In the mix.  Yet, a number of details caught my attention.  The terrorism incident is a massive explosion that capsizes and chars a ferry carrying U.S. Navy officers and their families.  Hardly any survivors are presented, and the cause of the destruction is shown to be an on-board truck packed with a heavy bomb. The fire-engulfed and sinking vessel is shown beside a warship hoisting a large banner that reads:  KATRINA HAS ONLY MADE US STRONGER.  The location of the incident is at least twice identified as the “Algiers” district, and a major point of the terrorist’s operation is referenced as ” Crescent City Bridge.”

Muslim- and Arab-related symbolism. Though not used exclusively by Arabs and Muslims, trucks carrying bombs were widely assumed to be a definitive mainstream representation of Middle Eastern-based or ‘Middle Eastern-looking’ extremists, throughout the 1990s.  The bombing of the U.S.S Cole in 2000 has appeared to reinforce this image (though this time with a raft-like structure as the carrier).  [Needless to say that the tragic events of September 11 brought with them a new brand of imagery of terrorists and there weapons—namely, the kamikaze suicide-bomber.]

Although not negative in and of itself, the crescent has been invariably taken to mean and to symbolize everything existing in the “world of Islam.”  In this light, it is interesting to note why the bridge was called “Crescent City.”  A bridge serves as a tool for connecting both physically and metaphorically two sides separated from one another.  The physical connection occurs when people can travel without unnecessary and/ or prolonged interruption from one side to another.  The metaphorical connection is realized in the creation and utilization of a forum designed for deliberation and constructively resolution of differences between two sides.  Ideally, the result of a well-designed bridge should be to enhance communication and cooperation, and to reduce or manage tension and stresses to these tasks.  The concern is that, just as the Crescent City Bridge was used for purposes of reigning destruction and suffering, ‘Islam’/‘Muslims’ (as represented in the crescent) are understood to be inherent destroyers of bridges and.  Symbolism onscreen builds a sub-conscious image and perception in the public by superimposing fictional associations onscreen to imagery in reality off-screen.

The term “Algiers” can conjure a more direct connotation of stark and simplistic contradistinctions between “modernity” and Islam/Arabness—the ‘West’ versus the ‘Ummah’; ‘Western Constitutionalism versus ‘Islamic jurisprudence’; ‘Civilization’ versus ‘Arab world’/ ‘World of Islam’; and so forth.  As it relates more specifically to Algeria, the negativity of this connotation is reinforced by ‘Islamic’ guerrillas and ‘Muslim fundamentalist’ terrorism—was born:

(1)    out of the developments in the civil war [Emad Shahin, Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo, once remarked in a class session that violence during the civil war in Algeria was particularly graphic and heinous in relation to violence elsewhere in the region, and that the actions both sides were atrocious];

(2)    out of the very selective and reductionist reporting, painting one side as the protector of civilization (a ‘French-backed elite’) and stability and the other as the ultimate destroyer (‘Islamist neo-populist terrorists’), with no complete understanding of what has been going on; and, 

(3)    finally, out of generalizing this context to help mold the “ultimate image/ representation” of “Muslim” and/ or “Arab.” (the earlier portrayals were of the ‘typical Libyan’ brandishing a rocket launcher [as in Back to the Future ], ‘typical Palestinian’ wearing a keffaiyah [mostly on television news], or the ‘typical Iranian’ [clean-shaved and greasy-haired, with dark menacing looks] cast as an extremist or terrorist; other common portrayals were of the ‘typical oil sheik’ who was seen frolicking and throwing money at women)           

In the end, the name of the fictional ‘Algiers’ district as the setting for the terrorist attack in the movie brings forward a reference to that terrible civil war. 

Interestingly, according to New Orleans’ official tourism website, “Crescent City” is an actual nickname given to the city in honor of how it shaped out geographically along its river [1].  A district called ‘Algiers’ also exists (its real name is Algiers Point) [2], and it is said to be “New Orleans’s Brooklyn, but without the bustle.”  Equally interesting is that there is nothing connecting either the bridge or the district to Arabs, Muslims, Algerians, in a historical, cultural, or contemporary sense.  Would outsiders know this, and in the context of the film’s plot, would it even matter whether they knew or not—given the current charged climate of relations between Islam/Arab world and the West ?           

       

The inclusion of references to Hurricane Katrina and the resilience of National Guard units to fight back the storm, from the point of view of dramatization and geographical setting, would make “good” sense for the movie.  However, taken along with other portrayals or references identifying Arabs/Muslims, they would appear not to logically fit in this used mix of symbolism, because the causes of Katrina and its aftermath had nothing to do with Arabs and Muslims.  Yet its mere inclusion could be unnerving if it is taken to reinforce a point of “Us vs. Them” divisiveness in the sense of being included as a challenge alongside that of “Islam/Arab world.”  In other words, it may be interpreted to mean there is, or should be, an relationship between support for one effort and support for the other: support for use of National Guard in response to natural disasters necessarily, out of sensitivity and respect for patriotism, requires support for any other engagement by the armed forces (like Iraq).  In pressuring others to “rally around the flag,” such an understanding destroys any capacity for separately and independently evaluating and distinguishing involvement in military theatres. 

Reading the map for understanding, without any legends yet.  There is no doubt that we are facing change in the way the film industry is addressing the sensitive topic of covering Muslims-Islam/ Arabs/ Middle East.  In the March 16, 2006, issue of The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs Jack Shaheen praised the blockbusters Munich and Syriana for what he saw as a more balanced approach to portraying the complexities of the Middle East. [3]  Likewise, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven has drawn widespread praise from Arab and Muslim groups in the U.S. for what was seen as a thoughtful and balanced approach to historical Muslim-Christian relations and historical Arab-Western relations, in effect hailing it as an avenue for jumpstarting interfaith and multiculturalist momentum. [4] 

Yet, despite the relatively very low number of media productions that are positive towards Islam/ Muslims/ Arabs, or that are genuinely seeking more understanding, at the very least the new trend is indicating a willingness towards more sophistication in research, approach, and communication.  This is positive—even if it appears to be a very slight sophistication—when contrasted with negativity one-sidedness and ludicrousness of decades earlier.  Furthermore, we have still yet to measure the influences alternative productions, like documentaries and small independent movies, will have on the film industry and, consequently, on public opinion of Arabs and Muslims.           

Notwithstanding this new phenomenon, what appears to be residue of Orientalist thought since the olden days of the film industry still exists.  In the particular case of Deja-Vu, why were references of a Middle Eastern/Arab/Muslim nature included if the movie had nothing to do with these references?  Why were there not any characters or uses of Arab- and Muslim- related symbolism to juxtapose those featured in the film?  Is this a matter of coincidence? Or, could such insertions and omissions be deliberate, and if so can be they be justifiably construed as ill-will? 

At any rate, it would still be incumbent upon us to search for the silver lining in the cloud, to press for implementing the best possible option available to us, to continue to constructively and carefully engage, no matter what has happened or might happen.  Even if no immediate or adequate results are achieved (or, if in the worst-case scenario, no achievement is foreseen) everyone, and myself included, needs to be constantly reminded of the importance of constantly reassessing our strategies and responses and acting accordingly.  Just as vital is the recognition that ultimately no deed vanishes in vain.

Similarly, it is too early to determine what impact movies like Déjà vu will have on providing information versus disseminating dramatic imagery.  This would be another captivating reason to hold on to the positives of that film.                 

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[1] http://www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/history/people.html .

[2] http://www.neworleansonline.com/tools/neighborhoodguide/algiers.html .

[3] http://www.washington-report.org/archives/March_2006/0603073.html .

[4] http://www.adc.org/index.php?id=2486&no_cache=1&sword_list[]=kingdom&sword_list[]=of&sword_list[]=heaven; http://www.cair.com/default.asp?Page=articleView&id=36668&theType=NB;