LIVE FROM BAGHDAD
The constant engagement between Iraq and the West in the 1990s created a
concrete backdrop that shaped common perceptions in the latter, and thereby influenced
the orientalist iconography apparent in films set in the region. The Arab terrorist became
a stock character in the 1990s, as seen in major blockbusters such as True Lies (1994) and
The Siege (1998), and the Middle East in general was represented as threatening. After
9/11, however, “good” Arabs began to play a standard role in American films alongside
“bad” Arab terrorists.
Live from Baghdad (2002) provides an example of the nascent political
orientalism just beginning to take shape in Aladdin. Based on actual events, it attempts to
examine the real Middle East, rather than merely depicting it as a setting for a fantasy.
Even so, the legacy of Baghdad’s image as a setting for fantasy remains evident. The film
begins with an action scene from Tremors (1990), which not only dates the setting as
soon as it becomes clear the film is being played in a theater, but also hints at what will
follow: an exciting and dangerous adventure in the desert.
The Arabs in the theater, however, are quickly recast as innocent victims/”good
Arabs” when the viewer realizes they are Kuwaitis who are being invaded by “bad
Arabs,” the Iraqis. This establishes a dichotomy in which good/bad becomes equivalent
to pro-/anti-western, or friendly/unfriendly to the Americans. The first Arab we see up
close and hear speak is the customs officer at the airport when CNN producer Robert
Wiener and his news crew arrive. We are thus once again viewing Baghdad from an
external, tourist perspective. The officer is grumpy, has unattractive teeth and seems
bothered that Wiener has twenty-three bottles of vodka “for personal use,” which he takes
to mean he is an alcoholic.69 Wiener dismisses him condescendingly and moves on. He
soon finds that a Mr. Mazin has been assigned to follow him everywhere. Mazin fits the
image of the typical Arab goon: he sports a big moustache and a leather jacket, never
smiles and serves as a source of (slightly creepy) amusement for Wiener and his crew.
On the other hand, Wiener becomes friends with the Minister of Information, Naji
Al-Hadithi. They spend time together and speak to each other frankly; Naji, as Wiener
calls him, is thus a “good” Arab. Naji seems genuinely to care about Wiener and to want
him to do well. He does set him up by sending him to Kuwait,70 but he seems to enjoy the
69 Live from Baghdad (2002) HBO Films; Directed by Mick Jackson, Written by Robert Wiener
(based on his book) 7:30.
70 He uses Wiener to claim that the stories about babies being abandoned in hospitals is false. It turns
out that those stories were, indeed, untrue.
idea that it will make Wiener happy. He buys him a kilo of olives while they are
discussing it, a sign that he is attempting to be as accommodating as possible, and also,
perhaps, that he wants to share a bit of his culture with him. This is a subtle attempt to
move away from the orientalist casting of all easterners as equal. “Good” characters are
identified by the western lead, and their friendship allows the viewer to see interaction
between East and West on a personal level.
In other respects, however, the legacy of the fantasy films set in Baghdad is still
very much alive in Live from Baghdad. The film features a traditional shot of a lone
minaret set against a vivid red sky with a muezzin calling in the background. The newlyarrived
CNN crew drives through the city in a string of cabs past crowded shops selling
carpets and women wearing the hejab, at which the enthralled camera-man remarks
“Look at this … straight outta’ Ali Baba.”71 The departing ABC crew members are
packing up their newly acquired carpets when CNN arrives, and when they buy their own
later in the film, one of the reporters asks jokingly, “Those things fly?”72
LIVE FROM BAGHDAD