When the Russo brothers announced that their first post-Avengers: Endgame endeavour would be an Arabic-language action thriller, I was intrigued. The directing duo have spent the last seven years helping to define the face of contemporary American heroism, so I wondered how they would tell a story where the heroes are an Arab SWAT team, the villains are Isis and the battleground is Iraq?
Hollywood has made plenty of movies focused on the post-9/11 Middle East, where the stories are centred on white heroes and Arabs are relegated to supporting roles that, more often that not, perpetuate negative stereotypes; The Hurt Locker, American Sniper, Lone Survivor and 12 Strong are a few examples of white saviour narratives. But Mosul, they said, was going to be different. Based on a 2017 New Yorker article, The Desperate Battle to Destroy Isis, it tells the true story of a renegade Iraqi SWAT team who, in 2014, took on Daesh in a bid to take their city back.
“The ‘white saviour’ is an egregious fallacy for someone from an Iraqi perspective because all white people have ever done is attack their country,” Joe Russo told me at Toronto international film festival, where the film had its North American premiere, “so I think it would be an affront to their sensibilities to send a white character in there to solve problems.”
They have, however, sent in a white American writer-director to tell this story. Matthew Michael Carnahan makes his directorial debut, having written scripts for the likes of The Kingdom and State of Play, but using the hashtags such as #decolonizehollywood and #NoOrientalism Arab critics have question why the Russos, who have said they made a commitment to telling an “authentic” story, didn’t hire an Arab director. “Authenticity can’t be sprinkled on like glitter,” said one post. “People aren’t going to buy this white male made ‘Arabic Language’ movie and all its misrepresentation of real Arabs,” said another. Their response? Joe Russo says: “Be careful not to … exclude the people who want to support the community.”
I do appreciate the Russos using their clout to bring an Arab story to Hollywood, using Middle Eastern and North African actors and crew members to tell it. The closest we’ve come to positive Arab representation in the mainstream is through the Aladdin remake, but that “giant piece of IP,” as Joe puts it, is still a piece of fiction, written and directed by white men, that continues some of the orientalist tropes from the original animation.
To avoid making missteps, the Russos hired Son of Babylon director Mohamed al-Daradji as a cultural consultant who made sure, as he explained, “[The film] looked like it had been made in Iraq, shot in Mosul and spoken in the Iraqi dialect.” Mosul certainly ticks all those boxes, and Carnahan has delivered a well-crafted movie; but despite the impressive performances from Suhail Dabbach, Adam Bessa and the cast, there’s an emotional depth missing. I never got a real sense of who these men were underneath the gear, why deep-down they were continuing with this mission, or the anxiety they must feel about potentially losing further family members.
Anthony Russo told me: “Matt Carnahan was a writer that we had greatly admired for a long time, we had a working experience with him with that really impressed us and we thought he might be perfect for this.” But I was left wondering what this movie would have been like if a female Arab film-maker had written and directed instead. Gurinder Chadha once said to me: “I’ve always maintained that women telling stories about men is very potent because we do it differently to men, we are able to get to different parts.”
Over the years I’ve been so impressed with the work produced Nadine Labaki (Capernaum), Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda) and more recently Waad al-Kateeb (For Sama), Hinde Boujemaa (Noura’s Dream) and Malene Labidi (Arab Blues), all of which have earned critical acclaim for the emotional intelligence each brought to their nuanced exploration of the Arab world. Even German-Palestinian director Lexi Alexander has proven herself in the action genre with cult Marvel movie Punisher: War Zone, and stints on TV shows Supergirl, S.W.A.T. and LA’s Finest. But it seemed the option of getting an Arab film-maker to helm it was not a big consideration.
Hollywood is only just making room for stories from the Arab perspective, and thanks to people like the Russos, we’re seeing more Mena actors and crew members get opportunities they never had before. In Mosul, the Arab community is seeing themselves represented on screen in a positive way, as heroes and romantic leads, rather than terrorists or submissive secondary characters.
I want people to see Mosul, I want it to get worldwide distribution and do well commercially for the sake of the actors and crew involved – but as much as the Russos and Carnahan say they are avoiding the “white saviour” trope in the film, they are still acting as such behindthe scenes by not putting this story into the hands of an Arab film-maker. Joe Russo told me a film like this is “criminally overdue and tragic”, and he’s right; but so are the opportunities for Arab film-makers to make movies in Hollywood – let alone tell their own stories.