October 25, 2007
The Magic Kingdom
Last week, I decided it would be interesting to watch The Kingdom, an action movie that followed four FBI agents sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate a massive attack on an American housing compound. I went not because I expected it to be intellectually stimulating (it wasn't) or because I figured I'd learn useful things from the film (I didn't), but because I wanted to see how Hollywood portrayed Saudi Arabia. Save for the surfeit of British villains, Hollywood is a useful barometer of American perceptions of a particular part of the world; there is a reason so many bad guys were Russians during the Cold War.
As it turned out, I didn't think the film was unjustly critical or apologetic. It referred in passing to a number of issues, including the infamous dress code, tribalism, how people who'd been to Israel weren't officially allowed into the Kingdom, the potential for the ruling family to engage in corruption and make arbitrary decisions, and the unwillingness of Saudis to engage in menial labor. But the negative elements were not the focus of the film, and were balanced out by positive depictions of some Saudi characters, along with reminders that Saudi Arabia had also lost many lives in its fight against terrorism.
The filmmakers did repeatedly show off a fantastically rich Saudi prince (and noted the existence of other people like him), but did not go out of their way to depict a nation of parvenu hillbillies. They also touched upon the conundrum Saudi rulers faced, what with being afraid of the effects of having too many Westerners in the streets, but not wishing to offend the West, or acquire a bad image there. The movie also made it clear that not all Saudis were evil schemers out to get America, while depicting America's ambiguity about that country's position against terrorism.
Unlike Syriana, which paid great attention to such details, the Saudis here all speak Arabic in Levantine accents. And the scenes supposedly set in Riyadh were actually filmed in Abu Dhabi, in the neighboring United Arab Emirates. I was particularly amused by the Saudi with the most time onscreen (Ashraf Barhom of Paradise Now, a more thought-provoking film). As it became more clear he was a good guy, he also acquired more American characteristics, and his English improved substantially. But then I suppose action movies aren't meant to be realistic anyway. If you want quality entertainment, watch Little Mosque on the Prairie instead.
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I liked it, actually. The plot was so-so, and the story about how the FBI people got there wasn't very believable at all. But it was a good loud action thriller all the way through, and for what it's worth, the setting seemed reasonably Saudi to me, who've never had the chance to visit. The end scene was a bit cheesy though.
Posted by: alle at October 25, 2007 07:55 PM
I saw it here in Beirut, where it didn't really pull in crowds.
The Arabic was not bad, they even tried Saudi dialect ("Weesh" for "what"). Using the Emirates Palace Hotel as a Saudi palace was not bad - what are they gonna do if they can't film in KSA? The ending WAS cheesy, but that was to be expected. However, I was quite impressed by the juxtaposition of the "We'll kill them all" as said by both sides. I had not expected that level of sophistication and self-reflection.
Of course, there were quite a few dumb mistakes that the Saudi consultants (yes, there were some) probably wanted to have changed but the "movie people" wanted to keep. My Saudi friends, however, pointed at them when they said that the movie "sucked":
#1 Having a baby-face as what amounts to either the Minister of the Interior or the Governor of Riyadh. No young person would ever have that amount of power and all the major posts are held by very old people.
#2 Portraying KSA as a place where Westerners are not safe outside the compounds. (My friends & I here in Beirut have the same gripe about the portrayal/perception of Lebanon. If I had a dime for every time someone asks me "But, is it safe?" And Lebanon actually IS much more dangerous than KSA.)
#3 Portraying Riyadh/KSA as having "bad neighborhoods" a la South Central Los Angeles.
#4 The whole "FBI agent blackmails KSA ambassador into letting the team into Riyadh/KSA without telling anyone else in the US government"
#5 Portrayal of the State Department as wusses - particularly compared to Condi's real life performances.
In the end, since my expectations were very low I thought that the movie wasn't too bad.
Posted by: MSK at October 26, 2007 03:04 AM
I watched the movie opening weekend in the states, and oddly it wasn't packed. I agree with most of the comments made above, and the saudis i watched it with made the same comments as your friends MSK*. However, I had issue with point 3 (which they also made), since if Riyadh is like any other city in the world, it will have bad neighborhoods (maybe not as bad as in the movie, but it will be bad). The reason they would not be aware of it is because they're from the upper echelons of saudi society.
However, it was entertaining nonetheless.
Posted by: M. at October 26, 2007 01:44 PM
you will see PHOTOS of WHO and WHERE Bin Laden and his NETWORKS ARE….
URGENT…PLEASE HELP…. I CANNOT FROM HERE….. I AM BLOCKED ALL AROUND
FORWARD THIS INFORMATION TO THE FBI.
Posted by: gabriel christou at October 27, 2007 06:01 AM
I refuse unless you pay me.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 27, 2007 07:33 AM
I haven't seen the movie so I don't know what was portrayed, but Riyadh does have "bad" neighbourhoods. See here.
They are generally old and derelict, what with most development being restricted to the north of the city (where various princes live).
The majority of inhabitants are immigrants or low to middle class natives.
I wouldn't say that crime is 'rife' there, but it is certainly higher than other parts of the city.
Posted by: Ali K at October 27, 2007 01:26 PM
Well, crime wasn't really the problem in the movie. In The Kingdom, "bad neighbourhood" meant that dozens of masked jihadists with machine guns will pop up like cardboard targets along the rooftops as soon as the infidels enter...
Posted by: alle at October 27, 2007 04:44 PM
Dear M & Ali K,
I'm going with alle & my Saudi friends here: While Riyadh has districts like al-Suwaydi, there are no gang-ridden HLM/SouthBronx/favela-type neighborhoods where a police officer would say "We should not be here!" and the Ibn-Taymiyah-Street militia shoots with AK47 and RPGs at "intruders".
It's not about "normal crime" but about anti-Western, anti-"Westernized establishment" militants.
As far as I know, the only country in the whole region where such neighborhoods exist is Iraq ... Even in the Beiruti southern suburbs (the famous "Dahiyeh"), if a police car with American FBI agents were to drive in, the Hizbullahis would stop them & might pull out their guns, but would certainly not start shooting lest shot at first.
Posted by: MSK at October 28, 2007 04:51 AM
I haven't seen the movie, but if that was what was portrayed then yes, that sort of thing doesn't exist in Riyadh or anywhere in Saudi for that matter.
Posted by: Ali K at October 28, 2007 11:51 AM
Haven't been in Saudi for quite some time, so obviously I can't judge what the neighborhoods are like. However, it seems that in the 90's (I think the date is around '95, but I forget) there was an incident like in the movie - at that time though the police wasn't as well trained as they are now.
Posted by: M. at October 28, 2007 01:37 PM
I lived in Jeddah in 2004-2005, and knew all too well that some people didn't like Westerners, but was also pressingly aware that I lived in a police state, so that the only person willing to attempt violence against civilian westerners (or anyone besides Saudi family and their protectors, actually, using force) had to be *ferociously committed* and willing to die, something only a minority of the angry ranters are willing to do.
On a side note, I do remember a rather articulate student saying to me: "Teacher, we have no hope get jobs, even once we finish studying here, and don't look forward to careers. We sit at home, watching tv 8-10 hours a day, watching al-jazeerah and al-manar, seeing our arab and muslim brothers and sisters being slaughtered in Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia and Iraq. Then we go to the mosque and listen to the imam tell us to die for our religion. I'm surprised that there haven't been more 9-11s." (wallah, I may be paraphrasing, but those are basically his words)...
on the other hand, when I think of bad neighbourhoods, I think of heroin, poverty, and ignorance; not AK-47s and militias, even though I know those weapons exist, in fact, I have been told by many Saudis that practically every household has a rifle in it. Not too different from the US in that regard, along with the paranoia. Rather minimal security in a lot of places I've been too, and I always lived off of the compounds...
Posted by: dawud at October 29, 2007 01:07 AM
I watched this film last night and thought it was....so-so, not great, even if it didn't resort to very many obvious cliches about A-rabs. I found the jerky fast-moving hand-held camera approach extremely distracting, so perhaps that was part of it. Absolutely hated the flash-card three-minute history lesson in the beginning. It was interesting to see the portrayal of the Good Arab in the form of Col. Fares, particularly the American pop culture references (he watches the Hulk, and is therefore humanised), and the ways in which the film affirmed post 9/11 American popular wisdom about Saudi and other Dangerous Muslim Societies and terrorism in general - the excess of oil money, nothing for youth to do, Islamist sympathisers in the military (hinted at by the fact that the baddies were able to get uniforms), the rich Arabs who don't want to get their hands dirty and have no idea how to conduct a basic investigation or what a "clue" is, the value of straight-talking FBI professionals over wishy-washy diplomats and politicians. I thought the final juxtaposition was pretty sophisticated too, but the rest of the film never really rose above the formulaic.
Posted by: SP at November 3, 2007 05:59 AM