The Middle East is having its 'Vietnam moment', in celluloid terms at least: the slew of Iraq- and terrorism-themed films coming out of Hollywood is drawing comparisons with the rash of war pictures in the late 1970s.
'In The Valley Of Elah, and others like it, are a reaction to 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq,' says director Paul Haggis, who attended the recent Middle East International Film Festival (Meiff) in Abu Dhabi, which Elah closed. 'We have a responsibility as artists to make films that talk about this, whether people come or not.'
In the US, news fatigue and political sensitivities have seen these Middle East-themed films marketed as action, drama or in terms of star power, rather than as war pictures. In the Middle East, however, the politics are key to packing audiences into the multiplexes.
'Absolutely we'll be promoting these films in terms of the Arab-wide issues they tackle,' says Gianluca Chacra of Frontrow Entertainment, regional distributor for Gavin Hood's Rendition, in which an Egyptian-American suspect is 'abducted' from a US airport and tortured. Frontrow is also releasing Brian De Palma's Redacted and Nick Broomfield's Battle For Haditha in the next three months. 'Take Rendition - every Arab has, or knows someone who has, been detained at an airport, and has asked themselves: 'Could I be next'''
Besides Elah, Meiff (October 14-19) screened Redacted, Rendition, and James C Strouse's Grace is Gone. Elah actors Jake McLaughlin and Frances Fisher were the only other talent to attend, but festival director Jon Fitzgerald maintains the films benefited from the festival boost.
'While these stories cover universal themes, it's safe to say there are more layers of meaning and emotional levels for Middle East audiences,' he adds.
Anti-war, not anti-Arab
The Jamie Foxx action blockbuster The Kingdom was released for the traditionally high-grossing October 11 Eid holiday in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, despite being banned in conservative Kuwait and Bahrain. The opening scenes, featuring a bloody terrorist attack, triggered some walk-outs but local critics maintain the film did break ground in its portrayal of how Saudis are equally affected by terrorism.
'Despite the film's harsh opening, the producers of The Kingdom did their homework well,' says Masoud Amralla Al Ali, artistic director of the Dubai International Film Festival (Diff). 'For the first time, we had Saudis speaking with Saudi accents, for example.'
Distributor Gulf Film marketed the film as an action picture - the most popular genre in the Gulf, where regional distributors do around 70% of their business and young men dominate audiences. In the UAE, the highest-grossing territory, The Kingdom garnered 76,500 admissions in the Eid week on 27 screens.
'It went well everywhere but was no Bond or Spiderman,' says Salim Ramia, managing partner of Gulf Film. 'The kind of demographic that likes these action films wouldn't be put off by bad reviews. The older and expat crowd rely more on critics for serious films such as In The Valley Of Elah.' (In the UAE, expatriates make up 80% of the population.)
Independent films tend to have more success in more liberal territories such as Lebanon, but the picture may be skewed for Iraq-themed films. 'In Lebanon, audiences have had enough of war - they prefer romance,' says Ramia.
The challenge in the Gulf, says Chacra, is getting across the message that these films are anti-war, not anti-American or anti-Arab, via a conservative and largely apathetic local press.
'The international controversy around Redacted will help, as it did with Fahrenheit 9/11,' says Chacra. Michael Moore's popular film was the first documentary to play in cinemas in the Gulf.
Avoiding the 'anti-American' message is key to getting the films past the censors, particularly in states that are home to US bases, such as Kuwait and Bahrain.
In The Valley Of Elah presents no political angst for the censors, but scenes in strip clubs will undoubtedly be cut.
The regional distributors also say they are aiming for a strong showing in the region's DVD charts, where indie films can shine.
The sensitivity of projects such as The Kingdom is reflected at the production stage, too. The Dubai authorities turned down the script, as it did Ridley Scott's Body Of Lies earlier this year, over concerns the emirate would become overly associated with terrorism.
The Kingdom did shoot for a month in Abu Dhabi; even so, Abed Awad, president of the new Abu Dhabi Film Commission, says: 'We want to move away from categorising our location in terms of violence and terrorism. We have our own cultural agenda and want to transmit something positive.'
When it comes to selling films in the all-important international market, authenticity could help. 'The US is just not ready for this kind of film yet - (Elah) is off the screens after just four weeks, despite the great response from the critics,' says Haggis. 'The film screened well in Europe and I've got high hopes (internationally). In the Middle East, hopefully curiosity will bring people in.'
For Arab audiences, most of these films are still distinctly American, articulating American concerns. Masoud Amralla Al Ali says that the Arab films in December's Diff tend to focus on Palestine, Lebanon and Algeria, rather than Iraq.
Immediately after the initial war in Iraq ended, Iraqi directors such as Mohammed Al-Daradji and Oday Rasheed managed to make features, but the situation is now too risky.
'Iraqi director Tarek Hashim has made a documentary, but Arab fiction film-makers don't usually have the budgets to recreate locations elsewhere,' says Dubai's Al Ali.
But, for now at least, there seems no let-up in the Hollywood trend. 'My work used to be concentrated in oil, but it's 80% films now,' says consultant Richard Klein, managing director, Middle East and Arabian Gulf, of US lobbying firm Kissinger McLarty Associates, who helped arrange The Kingdom's Abu Dhabi shoot.
'In the last few months Sony, MGM, Paramount and Warners have all called with scripts. The films are political but we'll begin to see other, complex stories coming through.'
MARKETING THE WAR: FRANCE
As is typical in France, big name directors, stars and compelling stories will be the major hooks rather than the films' political themes. The first to debut is Peter Berg's The Kingdom on October 31. Paramount France is positioning it as a straight action-thriller, set in Saudi Arabia.
In The Valley Of Elah screened at France's Deauville Film Festival in early September. It was hailed more as the return of Paul Haggis, an auteur adored by the French, with star Tommy Lee Jones front and centre, than as a political film.
However, the war is likely to feature in the campaigns for two other Deauville films. TFM's Redacted and Grace Is Gone. Neither title has a French release date yet.
TFM head of marketing Henri Ernst says the company is waiting to gauge US reaction to the film before deciding how to roll it out in France. However, as Redacted is such an openly anti-war film, the campaign won't be able to avoid it entirely. 'The strategy will be to engage in the debate,' says Ernst.
Grace Is Gone is likely to be marketed as a US indie title. 'It's a human subject and a small film that will work via word of mouth.'
MARKETING THE WAR: BRAZIL
The campaigns for the Iraq-themed US films will play up the war angle in Brazil, as the conflict in Iraq has been widely debated in the country. 'We expect In The Valley of Elah will be well received in Brazil for its position against the war,' says Marcio Fraccaroli, CEO of Paris Filmes, which is releasing the film in Brazil on November 15.
'The story of the father who wants to know what happened to his son will probably move audiences. We are proud to be the first distributor to release an Iraq-themed film in Brazil.'
Paris is also releasing Grace Is Gone on February 15. 'We will wait a little longer for this one because there is a chance that John Cusack will be nominated for the Golden Globe for his performance,' says Fraccaroli.
Focus Filmes has the local rights to Redacted, which will reach Brazilian screens next year. 'We will focus on the war angle for being a very up to date and controversial subject,' says Renata Ishihama, marketing manager of Focus. 'Also the film format gives the audience the sensation of being in the middle of the war. We will also play up the power of the media and how they influence our opinions in the campaign.
'First of all the film will appeal to cinema lovers, but its explosive content will probably help to extend the audience,' says Ishihama.
- ELAINE GUERINI
MARKETING THE WAR: AUSTRALIA
Australian distributors do not plan to play up the Iraq theme: these are expensive dramas that have to recover their budgets.
'Do people want to go to films that reflect the headlines of CNN' No,' says Mike Baard, managing director of Universal Pictures International Australasia. 'The Kingdom is positioned as an exceptionally well-made action thriller. It comments on the world we live in but provides thrills and spectacle.'
'Films that are more niche or more political may need more finessing for our market but a film like Rendition is a broad mainstream thriller and is treated as such,' says Phil Oneile, national marketing manager for Roadshow Film Distributors, which is releasing Rendition in the territory.
- SANDY GEORGE
MARKETING THE WAR: GERMANY
'We are aiming for an upscale, mainstream audience,' says Marcel Mohaupt, marketing director of Twentieth Century Fox Germany, of Robert Redford's Lions For Lambs, which opens on November 8.
'We will target people who like seeing popcorn movies, but are open to subject matter with an intellectual challenge.'
He believes the core audience will be 'a little older', in the 25-39 age group, and those who are beginning a university education, but it will not be exclusively targeted at intellectuals.
Fox encouraged exhibitors to trailer Lions For Lambs before films such as Fatih Akin's The Edge Of Heaven, Michael Moore's Sicko and Universal's The Kingdom, which has taken $2m to date in Germany.
He suggests the Afghanistan and Iraq films have a different significance to German audiences than to American ones. 'We will be skirting these aspects rather than exactly negating them,' says Mohaupt. 'We see the film's critique of society and moral concepts as being of global significance.'
Fox teamed up with German news magazine Der Spiegel to stage a discussion with politicians after the premiere. The premiere itself, says Mohaupt, was 'quiet ... in keeping with the subject matter'.
- MARTIN BLANEY.