Director Ed Zwick defends 'The Siege'
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Director Ed Zwick has never shied away from controversial subjects. His movie, "Courage Under Fire," dealt with political deceit in Washington at the height of the Gulf War. And his film "Glory," about a black military unit in the Civil War, was so powerful, it earned Denzel Washington an Oscar.
But his new picture, "The Siege" (released this past weekend), has sparked anger and charges of racism from the Arab-American and Muslim communities.
"The Siege" stars Denzel Washington as the head of New York's FBI counter-terrorism unit, dealing with a terrorist attack on the Big Apple. Annette Bening co-stars as a CIA agent, and Bruce Willis plays an army general who leads U.S. troops into Brooklyn.
Director Ed Zwick's inspiration came from America's increasing exposure to terrorism abroad and at home.
"It's a hypothetical; it's a cautionary tale," says Zwick. "I would say there is a pretty venerable tradition of movies and literature that presumed to say, 'Here is something that exists in the world,' and by extension or by exaggeration, let's imagine, let's push it to the next step."
'The sum of all our fears'
In the film, the next step is almost unthinkable: a domestic military occupation.
"Well, I think to see American troops in an American city is, you know, the sum of all of our fears," says Zwick.
New York City becomes a war zone, an entire community under siege. Civilians are both targets and suspects, detained by their own government in the interest of public safety.
It's a crisis that turns personal for one government employee, an FBI agent played by Tony Shalhoub.
"Here is a man who is trying to do the right thing -- who finds himself in a situation where he is actually part of a system that's not doing the right thing," Shalhoub says.
Shalhoub, an Arab-American actor, said this role represents a rare opportunity.
"I have never seen a role like this of an Arab-American that's seen in such a positive light -- a really well-rounded character with a sense of humor, a professional life, a family life," Shalhoub says. "Not a goodie-goodie -- a person who has his flaws and his shortcomings -- but a real character, not a stereotype."
'Over and over again'
But Shalhoub's character is just one of many Arab characters in "The Siege." Some of the other characters are causing controversy.
"When I read the screenplay, what immediately caught my attention was the fact that Arab-Muslims were blowing up New York City, killing hundreds of innocent people," says Jack Shaheen, an expert on the image of Arabs and Muslims in American popular culture. "That's an image that we see over and over again.
"This is the same studio, Twentieth Century Fox, that showed Arab-Muslim terrorists as vermin in a movie called 'True Lies' with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1994," Shaheen says.
Shaheen says that Hollywood has a history of linking Arab characters to terror and violence on screen. He believes those images shape not only how the nation feels about Arabs and Muslims, but also how they feel about themselves.
"I did a survey when I met with high school teachers," he says. "I asked about 300 high school teachers -- I said name one humane Arab in a film. Five wrote Ali Baba and Sinbad. One wrote Omar Sharif. And the others, nothing was said at all. And so for Americans of Arab heritage, Christians and Muslims, there are no individuals with whom our children can look at the silver screen and identify with -- nothing."
Shaheen says Shalhoub's character is a "breakthrough," but that can't counterbalance generations of stereotyping.
"I could see reasons why anyone belonging to that community would object," says Morris Dixteen, director of the Center for the Humanities at the City University of New York's graduate school.
'There have been bombings'
Zwick insists that he's not trying to vilify either Arabs or the Islamic faith, but that it's perfectly legitimate to use actual events as a source of inspiration for fiction.
"There have been bombings by extremists," Zwick says. "They are not representatives of Islam, they're not representative of the vast majority of people who love this country, but nonetheless, they exist. The response to that is what I am interested in."
Zwick says he first became aware of the fact that Arab-American groups were objecting to his movie when he had just a few weeks of filming left.
"We received a letter from a group called CAIR, which is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, I believe," Zwick says. "And they asked to meet with us. And we met with them."
Jack Shaheen sat in on that meeting, and was among those who shared his concerns with Zwick and producer Lynda Obst.
"Some of (the concerns) we were able to deal with -- having to do with sensitivities in the portrayal of Islam in the movie," says Zwick. "But some of which asked us to change the premise of the film, which we were unwilling to do."
"After the meeting, I sent three faxes to Los Angeles to (producer) Lynda Obst and Ed Zwick, offering what I would consider to be alternate scenarios, in other words, why must they be Arab-Muslims?" Shaheen says. "The greatest threat in our country is domestic terrorism. Why don't you have someone frame the Arabs?"
Zwick says he considered the new plotline.
"That would be an interesting movie, it's just not this movie," says Zwick. "You can't come into a process that's 10 weeks into filming with only a couple of weeks left and presume to try to change its focus. By the way, I would think that is a kind of chilling effect, or more, of my own rights as an artist."
"It's not reasonable for an ethnic group to have a veto power in advance about how it's going to be portrayed in any work of art or any work of popular culture," says Morris Dixteen. "It is reasonable for them, however, to protest after the fact by boycotting, by writing articles, by trying to show how far from reality the picture may be."
'A movie about us'
In fact this summer, the release of a trailer for "The Siege" did set off a protest.
The trailer, which intercut images of praying Muslims and scenes of terrorist bombings, upset Arab and Muslim activists enough that they went public with their concerns. Zwick said he re-edited the trailer to accommodate complaints.
Shaheen is not impressed with the changes.
"How could that trailer go out? Why the lack of concern? Where's the empathy? Where's the understanding?" Shaheen asks.
But Zwick argues that empathy and understanding are exactly what he is trying to evoke.
"I think it's a movie about us," says Zwick. "I think it's a movie about this country and it's a movie about the Constitution. I think there is a very comfortable and familiar myth in this country and not necessarily a false one, but an important one about a set of freedoms that we have in this country. I think the fact is this country has never really been tested."
He says he chose this particular story in order to question where America draws the line between protecting national security and preserving civil rights.
"What the movie is most deeply about -- it's about our own latent possibilities of repression, stereotyping and prejudice," says Zwick. "To see Americans rounded up in the streets, to see Americans put into stadiums, to see people held without habeas corpus -- to have their rights violated in such a way is such a chilling and just terrifying thing to see -- that is what one takes away, I believe, from this film."
Several activists who recently screened the film have acknowledged the power of those images.
"I was moved by these scenes to show the injustices that befall our communities, when the government decides to crack down on the whole community in New York," says Nihad Awad, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
But they still don't believe that excuses what they see as the stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims.
"Three-quarters of the film links directly Islamic religious practices with terrorism," says Awad.
Zwick says he is satisfied with his work.
"I think that I have to believe in my own ability to present a rounded and very persuasive and understandable story," he says. "And I think that this story will be understood by my 12-year-old son in its implications -- that the images of persecution and racism and stereotyping far outweigh the images of violence."
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