Before considering Arab cinema itself, it is useful to note a critical dynamic that has consistently marred Arab people's relationship with film: their image in Western cinemas. Many Arabs and Arab filmmakers view the portrayal of the Arab world in the West as a major obstacle to screening, publicizing, and appreciating a fundamentally vibrant Arab film culture. Vilifying and stereotyping Arabs has been a standard practice since the early years of cinema. Hollywood in particular has played a consistent role in spreading images that inculcate racist attitudes toward Arabs. As Jack Shaheen points out in a study of this issue, two groups, Arabs and Muslims (frequently, the two are erroneously collapsed into one identity), stand out as persistent targets of negative stereotyping in American cinema. By contrast, representations of other ethnic groups have gone through major positive changes since the late 1960s.
Since 1896, Hollywood filmmakers have categorized "the Arab" as the enemy. In The Sheik Steps Out (1937), the American heroine says: "All of them [Arabs] are alike for me." In Hollywood films the image of the Arab is all too familiar: dark-skinned men with large noses and black beards, wearing kuffiehs (headscarves) and dark sunglasses, and in the background a limousine, women in a harem, oil wells, and camels. A variation on this stereotype is the man with gun in hand and hatred in his eyes uttering "Allah" or incomprehensible words. Arab women are mostly silent and ugly, or beautiful belly dancers and slaves who are often vindictive.
In hundreds of Hollywood films Arabs are the bad guys, and the good guys are out to eliminate them. Examples abound: Emory Johnson in The Gift Girl (1917), Gary Cooper in Beau Sabreur (1928), John Wayne in I Cover the War (1937), Burt Lancaster in Ten Tall Men (1951), Dean Martin in The Ambushers (1967), Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again (1983), Kurt Russell in Executive Decision (1996), and Brendan Fraser in The Mummy (1999), to name just a few. Long before September 11, 2001, Hollywood Arabs have been invading America and killing its innocents. From The Golden Hands of Kurigal (1949) to The Terror Squad (1987) to The Siege (1998), the theme of the looming Arab threat to America persists.
Arabs are also almost always anti-Christian. In Another Dawn (1937), an American army officer asks, "why do Arabs hate westerners?" The answer is, "it is the deep Moslem hatred for Christians." Islam itself is associated with violence, as in Legion of the Doomed (1958), in which one Arab tells another: "Kill him [your enemy] before he kills you.… You are after all uttering the words of Allah." Other films, such as Rollover (1981), The Jewel of the Nile (1985), American Ninja 4 (1990), and Team America: World Police (2004), associate Arabs and Muslims with hatred and violence.
The extent to which this stereotypical image of Arabs and the Arab world has influenced Western attitudes toward Arab cinema itself, even among film scholars, is a subject for further discussion. At a minimum, Arab cinema continues to be largely relegated to the margins of English-language film studies; whatever scholarly work on Arab cinema does exist is disproportionate to this cinema's influence in the Arab world itself and in major areas of Africa and East Asia. Yet, since the 1990s, Western interest in films originating in Arab countries has increased. More than ever before, Arab films are making the rounds of film festivals and repertory or art cinemas in Europe and North America. Recently, the Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad's (b. 1961) film Paradise Now (2005) won major festival awards including the Golden Globes (2006) and the Berlin festival (2005). The film was also nominated for Best Foreign Film at the American Academy Awards ® (2006). Along with this wider exposure, Arab cinema has become of increasing interest to film critics and scholars.