A recent a trailer was released for an American film called Beirut – and lots of people online were angered. “It’s not even filmed in Beirut!”, “It shows Beirut in a bad light”, “The actors were not Lebanese” and so on. It’s a familiar complaint.
The plot of the film follows a U.S. diplomat (Jon Hamm) who flees Lebanon in 1972 after a tragic incident at his home. Ten years later, he is called back to war-torn Beirut by a CIA operative (Rosamund Pike) to negotiate for the life of a friend he left behind.
So is the anger justified and what does it say about the film-making process?
First, the outrage that a film called Beirut wasn’t even filmed in Beirut perhaps misses the way that films are made. It was originally called High Wire Act but the name was later changed, you have to suspect to help define the film and make it instantly clearer what it’s about for audiences. But as for not filming it in Beirut, well, that’s a pretty normal practice for filmmaking. And that includes American films actually set in America.
For example, the New York epic, Once Upon A Time In America was largely not even shot in America. Most of it was in Montreal. In addition, the scene at Grand Central Station in New York was actually filmed at Gare du Nord in Paris. That scene with Robert DeNiro at the restaurant supposedly in Long Island was really shot at the Hotel Excelsior in Venice, Italy.
It’s common for movies to be set in one place and shot elsewhere if the film has a period setting – just as Beirut does – and the producers find somewhere that either looks better for what they want to do or offers an easier place to film. Bits of Prague often double as old London for example. Lots of the films set in the Vietnam war were shot in Thailand. Regionally, Syriana had the UAE deserts doubling for Iran. Many of the great Westerns were shot in Almería, Spain, and so on.
Also, it’s often also for financial reasons, usually tax breaks, which is why many films are set in American cities but actually shot in Toronto.
And as UAE filmmaker Ali Mostafa tells Vogue, “Sex and the City 2 was supposed to be set in Abu Dhabi and it was shot in Morocco also, and location doesn’t have anything to do with casting. Sometimes there are certain locations that are not accessible. I haven’t seen the film, but I saw that trailer and I can’t comment if the historical facts are accurate or not, but the trailer doesn’t seem like there was anything negative that I noticed.”
The 2014 biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings was also heavily criticized for whitewashing the cast and having Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver and more. In response, Director Ridley Scott said that without the casting of big-name actors rather than Middle Eastern ones was essential: “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such, I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Clumsily worded, but of course he’s right. He can’t get a budget for a $140 million epic if there are no big names attached – it’s just too much of a financial risk for the studio. While there are Egyptian and Middle Eastern actors that could have played the leading roles it’s actually the audience that chooses.
As lead star Bale told The Guardian, “I don’t think fingers should be pointed, but we should all look at ourselves and say, ‘Are we supporting wonderful actors in films by north African and Middle Eastern film-makers and actors, because there are some fantastic actors out there.
“If people start supporting those films more and more, then financiers in the market will follow. The audience has to show financiers that they will be there, and [then] they could make a large-budget film. To me, that would be a day of celebration. For the actors, it would be wonderful. It would be a wonderful day for humanity, but also for films and for storytelling in general.”
For Beirut, the lead is an American (Jon Hamm) playing an American, but to not to cast any Lebanese actors in the roles of Lebanese people in the story seems silly, but really not surprising. This is Hollywood, and if they can make lots of money and win Oscars casting an Australian as William Wallace in Braveheart then their reaction when people point out that the minor roles of Arabs are being played by people from the wrong Arab countries is going to be, “so what?”
Ali Mostafa added, “The issue I have is not when a Jordanian actor plays a Lebanese or an Emirati plays a Bahraini, it’s when a Pakistani plays an Emirati and an Indian plays a Lebanese. Here we have so much talent and yet you go for someone who just looks ethnic and can speak English so you put him in the role and there’s no foresight in that. You have such a huge amount of talent in the Arab world that speaks perfectly good English. That’s the part that bugs me.”
He also points out that there are films that are looking for more accurate casting when it comes to Arabs. “They did well casting the live action of Aladdin,” he says. “Usually what they do is find someone who is Mediterranean and just has darker skin tones to play this Middle Eastern person instead of going that route, or finding someone from India or Pakistan or Mexico or Portugal, they actually went with an Egyptian this time. Mena Massoud. Although they slipped up a bit with Jasmine (Naomi Scott) who is half English and half Indian. It would have been nice if they had gone the full Monty with that one.”
Setting a film during a war is always going to upset some people. But online, amid the fury that the film shows Beirut in 1982 in bad light, one poster called Khalid said “Why are we ashamed of our past? I’ve lived that era and what I saw in the trailer is exactly what I lived and passed through. From the damaged buildings, the chaos, to kidnappings of Westerners, to Israeli invasion, to gunmen in the streets. I saw nothing in the trailer that I didn’t live in particular in 1982… we should actually use this as a reference and show how dirty the war was to avoid the mistakes of the past.”
That said, the trailer’s tagline of “2000 years of revenge, vendetta, murder… welcome to Beirut” is frankly terrible. For a start, it’s just a bad tagline, although it does tell you exactly what sort of film it’s going to be, which is largely the point of tagline. But for the historical inaccuracy, then if you’re going to complain about that then you’ll have to get in a long line.
Films usually take liberties with the truth to help a dramatic narrative. The sad truth is, that movies are entertainment first and accuracy, not even second, but pretty much way, way, down the list.
Hollywood responds to only one thing, and that’s Box Office. A terrible film that makes a lot of money will get a sequel (look at the Transformers franchise) and in some ways there’s a basic supply-and-demand idea there. It’s giving the people what they have indicated that they want more of. For example, apart from a few Indian films, it was mostly western action films that were top of the box office each week throughout last year in the UAE.
If you don’t want films like this then don’t watch them – it really is the only thing to stop Hollywood making them because if they’re flops at the Box Office then studios will take note. And as Christian Bale pointed out, if you want films with Middle Eastern actors in the leads then start going to see more Middle Eastern films with Middle Eastern actors in lead roles.