The Middle East in Cinema & Media

By Julia Van Develder
An Egyptian art student paints the Facebook logo on a mural depicting the 2011 uprising. Social media has been described as a "game changer" in recent Arab revolutions.

It was meant to be a course on the Middle East in film—a broad, critical, aesthetic, and cultural analysis of films from the Middle East as well as an examination of how the Middle East is depicted in films from the West. That’s basically how Tarik Elseewi, postdoctoral fellow in television studies, described it in the Vassar College Catalogue.

And then the Arab uprisings began. By the start of school in late August, governments in four Middle Eastern countries had been overthrown, and the power elites throughout the region were struggling either to repress or to mollify the rebels in their various countries. Facebook. Twitter. YouTube. Blogs. Who could have imagined that these popular platforms for social networking would become the tools for the most far-reaching political shift in that region in almost a century?

Elseewi rewrote the syllabus and announced to the students on Day One that they would use the events of the Arab uprisings as a springboard to explore cultural, social, and political questions about the Middle East, using everything from films to Facebook posts as their texts.

“It was so current, it was completely exciting,” says film major Amanda Crommett ’13. “We were using film theory and historical analysis, but applying them to something that was happen­ing right then. Every single day there would be a new development. Something would happen and that’s what we’d talk about in class. There were leaders killed over the course of the semester, and then that’s what we’d talk about. We set aside the assigned reading and drew from blogs that were written that day. It opened my eyes to the fact that this is history—what happened yesterday, what happened two minutes ago.”

Alex Levy ’13, also a film major, took the course because he felt he ought to be better informed about the Middle East. “In my mind, the Middle East was this obscure entity out yonder,” says Levy. “I would hear bits and pieces on the news, but it was difficult to make sense of it. What I got out of the class was a much better sense of the political landscape in the different countries and almost a self-reflexive sense of how I, as an American, perceived events from afar. I always feel that it comes back to this realization that every­one has their own perspective and experiences, and that you have to be more aware of both your own filters and where someone else is coming from.”

A frequent topic of discussion in the class was the differences between the way a typical American college student uses social media and the way they are being used in the Middle East uprisings. Crommett points out that her “everyday Facebook use” is mainly about connecting with friends and entertaining one another with funny posts, whereas her counterparts in the Middle East are using these tools to overthrow dictators. But the fact that they coexist in the same cyber-universe does create a connection. Says Levy: “My personal life experience is so different from that of an Egyptian college student that it’s hard for me to really know what it’s like, but it did feel like I could not only think about and be aware of the issues, but I could actually observe the Facebook phenomenon of the revolution taking off, and I could actually be part of that pres­ence online. So in that sense, I felt connected.”

Crommett grew up in New York City in a high rise just off of Times Square. She was 10 years old when the 9/11 attacks occurred. “For a long time, the Middle East existed in my imag­ination as this ‘Othered’ place that produced the terrorists who tormented my childhood. I wasn’t completely ignorant—I knew better than to think that all Arabs are terrorists. But the class really opened up that sphere for me, so that I’m not just viewing it as an ‘Other.’ The nations that constitute the Middle East are very individual, with complicated and fascinating histo­ries. And the young people my age whose blogs I was reading are very progressive—they hate the terrorists, too.”