Mr. Singh’s film scrutinizes the intersection of geopolitics (specifically Western incursions into the Middle East) and Hollywood imagery (which has often reflected Western interests in the region). Viewers are invited to consider history from the Arab perspective, a rare stance in the United States, and Western entertainment from the same angle.
It begins with the exotic eroticism of Rudolph Valentino (himself of French-Italian extraction), star of the 1921 silent “The Sheik” (hence the documentary’s title). His mysterious sex appeal metamorphosed into the faceless Arabs of “Beau Geste” (1939), depicted like American Indians in westerns: foreign, nonwhite adversaries ripe for slaughter in their homeland. David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) elevated a British military leader of Arab tribes to almost messianic status.
History is covered briskly but in fluid detail. Britain’s predations in Iraq, Egypt and Palestine are recounted, as are Italy’s assaults on Libya, France’s on Algeria and Spain’s on Morocco. Israel, predictably, figures largely in the narrative, with great attention paid to its creation in 1948 and the displacement of Palestinians.
But the acts of Palestinian terrorists — plane hijackings; the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich — are not ignored. Recent developments like further encroachments on Palestinian territory and the adoption of Israel’s cause by Christian evangelicals are also addressed.
Firsthand testimony about encounters with stereotyping adds a personal touch. The Lebanese-American actor Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) regretfully recalls playing a terrorist on the TV show “The Equalizer” in the ’80s, while Albert Mokhiber, a former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, describes his battles with Disney over “Aladdin.”
Gore Vidal lucidly describes the C.I.A.-sponsored coup that ousted Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, in 1953.
Other articulate commentators include John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, Niall Ferguson of Harvard and Melani McAlister of George Washington University. The New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, who died in February 2012, speaks eloquently about Sept. 11.
Make no mistake, this documentary has an agenda; you won’t find an Israeli official or a Pentagon spokesman. But there is humor, from the comedians Maz Jobrani, Aron Kader and Ahmed Ahmed, about the challenges of being Arab-American in America.
Their remarks and those of others may not prompt an overnight reversal of opinion on the Middle East. But “Valentino’s Ghost” is an invaluable entry in the national dialogue on the subject.