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Director under siege

Edward Zwick defends his film against charges of stereotyping Arabs and Muslims

Wednesday, November 11, 1998

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

It's clear director Edward Zwick has thrown discretion to the winds when addressing the organized protests decrying stereotypical depictions of Arabs and Muslims in his movie "The Siege." "People who work for anti-defamation groups wake up in the morning looking for reasons to justify their existence. This film is a pretty good opportunity," he said in a telephone interview Friday, the day the movie opened in theaters throughout the nation. "If you detect some irony in that particular remark, it's intended."

The film explores how America might react to an escalating series of terrorist bombings in New York City carried out by Muslims. Ultimately, the president sends in the U.S. Army, which undertakes a ruthless roundup of young Arabs in the city, detaining and interrogating them in ways that constitute a wholesale violation of their civil liberties.

An FBI agent played by Denzel Washington represents the main opposition to the Army's actions. His partner, played by Tony Shalhoub, is of Arab descent. Several lines of dialogue make reference to loyal and patriotic Arab-Americans, seemingly in the attempt to avoid tarring them all with the same brush. Even so, those protesting "The Siege" say its "negative and stereotypical portrayals of Muslims" outweigh any positive elements.

Zwick will have none of it.

"I've shown this movie to many, many Arab-Americans and Muslims who find it enormously sympathetic and understanding. They don't, however, speak organizationally. They speak personally."

The most strident objections involve the movie's depiction of Muslim religious practices being linked to terrorist actions.

"I didn't make that up. I saw that on '60 Minutes' and on a 'Frontline' documentary and on '20/20,' " Zwick said.

The controversial and contemporary subject matter hasn't elicited any negative reaction from 20th Century Fox, which produced the film and, the director said, "was quite steadfast in its belief in the movie and the possibilities both artistic and commercial. The aspect of whether or not it will be embraced by popular culture, that remains to be seen."

There's good and bad news on that score. The movie pulled in $14.6 million at the box office during its opening weekend. But it finished a distant second to the slapstick Adam Sandler comedy "The Waterboy," which made $39 million.

As an artist, Zwick said, it's not his job to make sure his films don't step on anyone's toes.

"An artist has to make the art that he has to make and tell the stories he needs to tell in the best way he knows how. His obligation is not to make everyone happy. It's hard enough to make yourself happy. I just think if one tried to create with half an eye open to the sensitivities of everyone involved, you would never create anything interesting.

"You're responding to very different sounds than those of an agenda. You're trying to talk about visceral response and you're trying to be personal. And the personal is necessarily subjective. And the subjective is necessarily not politically correct. It's by nature personal. That's what makes any piece of work interesting. And a piece of work can't be looked at under a microscope with a litmus of correctness to each discrete part but rather to its resonant whole."

He mentioned the animus toward Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" for its use of the n-word and its portrayal of African-Americans "for the sake of much broader points. There are so many examples of how this kind of argument is so pernicious."

Zwick also defended his movie against the chief complaint raised by critics against "The Siege," that the sequences depicting the Army's enforcement of martial law under the command of a zealous general portrayed by Bruce Willis are heavy-handed and simplistic.

"This is what is being speculated about in Congress and the Defense Department," he said, quoting testimony by an undersecretary of defense before a Senate committee. "I'm merely attempting to make fresh what is already plausible at least to them.

"It's not as if these contingencies and plans don't exist. Whether they would actually be carried out or have sway, that's a whole other question. But that's the question of the movie. That's why it's a movie. It's not a documentary.

"You have to understand there is a pretty venerable tradition about movies - I guess you'd have to call them cautionary tales - and it's to take plausibility and by extending that plausibility make certain philosophical and political points. It's the nature of any kind of rhetorical argument to extrapolate outward. That is what the movie is trying to do."

But to those who say we need to react to terrorism as something akin to war, Zwick was emphatic.

"It's not a war. There are remarkably few casualties, in fact, compared to a war. It's inappropriate for a society to think of itself as being on a war footing in response to terrorism. [It's like] talking about the war on drugs. I don't think these are wars."



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