LIVE FROM BAGHDADThe constant engagement between Iraq and the West in the 1990s created a concrete backdrop that shaped common perceptions in the latter, and thereby influenced the orientalist iconography apparent in films set in the region. The Arab terrorist became a stock character in the 1990s. After 9/11, however, “good” Arabs began to play a standard role in American films alongside “bad” Arab terrorists. The Live from Baghdad (2002) HBO Films; Directed by Mick Jackson, Written by Robert Wiener (based on his book) 7:30. Live from Baghdad (2002) provides an example of the nascent political orientalism. Based on actual events, it attempts to examine the real Middle East, rather than merely depicting it as a setting for a fantasy.
Even so, the legacy of Baghdad’s image as a setting for fantasy remains evident. The film begins with an action scene from Tremors (1990), which not only dates the setting as soon as it becomes clear the film is being played in a theater, but also hints at what will follow: an exciting and dangerous adventure in the desert. The Arabs in the theater, however, are quickly recast as innocent victims/”good Arabs” when the viewer realizes they are Kuwaitis who are being invaded by “bad Arabs,” the Iraqis. This establishes a dichotomy in which good/bad becomes equivalent to pro-/anti-western, or friendly/unfriendly to the Americans. The first Arab we see up close and hear speak is the customs officer at the airport when CNN producer Robert Wiener and his news crew arrive. We are thus once again viewing Baghdad from an external, tourist perspective. The officer is grumpy, has unattractive teeth and seems bothered that Wiener has twenty-three bottles of vodka “for personal use,” which he takes to mean he is an alcoholic. Wiener dismisses him condescendingly and moves on.
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He soon finds that Mr. Mazin has been assigned to follow him everywhere. Mazin fits the image of the typical Arab goon: he grows a big moustache and wears a leather jacket, never smiles and serves as a source of (slightly creepy) amusement for Wiener and his crew. On the other hand, Wiener becomes friend with the Minister of Information, Naji Al-Hadithi. They spend time together and speak to each other frankly; Naji, as Wiener calls him, is thus a “good” Arab.
Naji seems genuinely to care about Wiener and to want him to do well. He does set him up by sending him to Kuwait, but he seems to enjoy. He uses Wiener to claim that the stories about babies being abandoned in hospitals are false. It turns out that those stories were, indeed, untrue that idea made Wiener happy. He buys him a kilo of olives while they are discussing it, a sign that he is attempting to be as accommodating as possible, and also, perhaps, that he wants to share a bit of his culture with him. This is a subtle attempt to move away from the orientalist casting of all easterners as equal.
“Good” characters are identified by the western lead, and their friendship allows the viewer to see interaction between East and West on a personal level. In other respects, however, the legacy of the fantasy films set in Baghdad is still very much alive in Live from Baghdad. The film features a traditional shot of a lone minaret set against a vivid red sky with a muezzin calling in the background. The newly arrived CNN crew drives through the city in a string of cabs past crowded shops selling carpets and women wearing the hejab.
The departing ABC crew members are packing up their newly acquired carpets when CNN arrives, and when they buy their own later in the film, one of the reporters asks jokingly, “Those things fly?”