Escape accomplished in the realm of Arab cinematic appropriation

Film Review: The long-awaited adaptation of the sci-fi classic Dune has received unanimous praise as a Hollywood blockbuster. Yet beneath the hysteria lurk troubling questions about the lack of Arab representation, given the film’s influences.

There are many reasons why Dune is considered the greatest science fiction novel ever written. A few of these might explain why non-readers watching the $ 165 million adaptation of Denis Villeneuve’s first part will find aspects of its intergalactic plot, messianic themes, and warring characters somewhat similar. to established films like Star Wars, Stargate or The Matrix. Frank Herbert’s seminal book, first published in 1965, explored so many future sci-fi properties might work.

Corn Dune is not a novel to be adapted lightly. The fundamental mythology, ecology, theology, politics, philosophy and history that the late author Frank Herbert borrowed and reconstructed in this universe, located 20,000 years into the future, is so dense that copies are accompanied by several appendices and a glossary to guide readers.

Her epic fantasy takes place in the year 10191 on a hostile desert planet called Arrakis, where noble houses fight each other and native warriors for control of spices, their society’s most precious item known as Old Imperium. He positions the contextual minutiae less in the dialogue and more in the narration; in the mood, tone and rhythm; in Herbert’s extensive descriptions of this futuristic environment and the various people who inhabit it.

“These ideas, along with the cyclical nature of dynasties and civilizations, were reflected in the 14th century Islamic history book of Ibn Khaldun, the Tunisian sociologist, philosopher and historian, La Muqaddimah, who supported much from Herbert’s science fiction series. “

Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to adapt the book and failed when his unrealized 1970s film proved too expensive, too long and too risky for studios to help him realize his dream of expansion. David Lynch was successful in 1984, but his completely whitewashed adaptation felt overloaded even though it provided various moments of excellence at camp. Corn DuneThe latest foray into the big screen should deserve applause from Villeuneuve.

Timothée Chalamet takes the lead as Paul Atreides, heir to Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), ruler of a respected dynasty, and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the Bene Gesserit, a matriarchal order with superhuman abilities that she has been teaching her son for a long time. When Emperor Padishah takes control of Arrakis from Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) and hands it over to Duke Leto, a new conflict breaks out.

House Atreides must move to the desert planet and find a way to ensure its survival by convincing the Fremen, the secret and fearsome indigenous population, to join the powers against their former oppressors. The Harkonnens’ evil plot quickly sets in, forcing Paul and his mother to hide among the dunes, where giant sand worms roam and his premonitory powers manifest to reveal an ominous future.

The execution of several action sets is brutal and gripping. A silence seizes a scene where a team of Sardaukar – the fanatical soldiers of Emperor Padishah – land on an abandoned science site previously occupied by Fremen warriors. The place is empty until the natives come out of the sand to attack their enemy. Later, Duncan Idaho, the sword and cloak of Jason Momoa, takes on a group of Sardaukar himself in a choppy but fiercely choreographed hallway fight sequence.

The granular details of Villeneuve’s world-building are often breathtaking. From dragonfly-like ornithopters to the menacing costumes of the Fascist army, to the frequent bullfighting motifs and the recurring appearance of a desert mouse, book fans have many references to Muad’dib and his ancestors. .

CGI’s artistic application made it possible to majestically realize the sand worms; their fierce, tooth-filled mouths dilate like an all-seeing eye as the textured sound mix travels under and across the dunes, causing the sand to move awe-inspiring, mirror waves crashing into a choppy ocean. The wide shots reflect all the devastating destruction that rains down on Arrakis like fire and brimstone.

Han Zimmer’s score adds to this oppressive quality. At times, it’s a tension to hear key pieces of dialogue, but he’s as much a lively, breathing character as any other member of the cast. The drums work like a whispering heartbeat with intense anticipation while the layered use of the human voice, God’s perfect instrument, so to speak, reinforces the overt religious symbolism of this story of a conceived young man. to become an omnipotent prophet and the catalyst for a new feudal power structure.

The script does well to lay the groundwork for this pattern which highlights Herbert’s overall anti-messiah message. With sharp storytelling from Chani (Zendaya), a young Fremen woman Paul dreams of often, and clever exhibition scenes reminiscent of audio guides you get in museums, the basic bones of this intricate plot can be understood. Still, its delivery is too subdued, with a small portion of the story going forward and a lot of character development being skimmed over.

Of course, the teenager chosen by Chalamet is the kingpin and he certainly looks the part. The actor reveals little flourishes of Paul’s personality and emotional rigor, but more often than not he looks dead behind his eyes and unable to convey much of the internal confusion, turmoil, even of affection, which takes place during his tumultuous journey of self- Discovery.

Timothée Chalame plays the protagonist Paul Atreides in the film adaptation of Dune in 2021. As the plot unfolds, we discover that Atreides is revealed to be the Mahdi (the savior), a term taken from the Islamic eschatology. [Getty Images]

But the most overriding issue, at least for this reviewer, is the complete lack of meaningful Middle East and North Africa representation in the cast despite the distinct influence of MENA, Islamic and Arab culture on the cast. the desert planet and this universe in the original book. and this movie. I have already written about the importance of the Fremen characters played by actors from the MENA region, not least because their language is mainly composed of Arabic words, like “Mahdi” (“the well guided”) and “Lisan al Gaib” (“the voice of the outside world”), respectively.

One can easily observe the Bedouin and Amazigh inspiration behind this nomadic community on the page and on the screen, through the Fremen’s penchant for the Keffiyeh, a group feeling united and strong in their ability to survive in such a dangerous environment. These ideas, as well as the cyclical nature of dynasties and civilizations, were reflected in the 14th century Islamic history book of Tunisian sociologist, philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldoun, “La Muqaddimah”, which underlies a great deal of part of Herbert’s science fiction series.

Then there is the fact that Villeneuve shot most of the Arrakis in Arab countries; Jordan’s Wadi Rum and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates provided the great beauty and brutality of this fictional desert planet landscape. The pale, flat-roofed buildings of Arrakeen, the seat of power for the planet which in the book was transferred from the city of Carthag (sounds familiar to you?) During the reign of the Harkonnen, is reminiscent of northern architecture. African. If the general scenario of imperialist colonizers stealing powerful fuel from the native population doesn’t remind you of some 20th century Western conflict with the Middle East, the Templar Templar color scheme of Sardaukar certainly hints at that of the 12th century. A holy war nothing less!

“Should we continue to wait and bitterly watch movies like Dune that take but don’t return?”

With all this rich North African and Middle Eastern culture, the aesthetic and historical references on display, I must once again ask myself: where are the significant players in the MENA region? Dune is a complex novel with complex characters that stand between good and evil. There are no real heroes and the motivations are often risky, so these people exist in the gray area of ​​morality with Fremen characters like Stilgar and Chani still among the most admirable figures. What an opportunity it would have been to engage actors like Egyptian actor Amr Waked or Franco-Algerian actress Lyna Khoudri in these roles.

Instead, we ask Javier Bardem to make whatever Arabic version of Blackface is.

The rest of the Fremen – those whose faces are not masked and have speaking roles – are made up of actors of Guyanese, West African or East African origin. It would not be a problem at all if there were at least a few actors from the MENA region to reflect the diversity of this region that Villeunueve claims to care so much about and admitted to being inspired by it: “I feel true that I have reason to do it that way. It’s genuine, honest and true to the book.

No, Denis. It is corruption; the one that erases the Middle East and the North of the MENA region and that, for the most part, only people of our heritage will care.

We are used to being vilified, slandered or erased from the screen. We’re used to most of our performances in Hollywood being limited to hijackings or suicide bombings, sheikhs or evil refugees, or non-MENA actors replacing us in our own stories. Like Dwayne Johnson who plays Black Adam, the first superhero character in the MENA region to have his own solo film. Can you imagine the outrage if The Rock was chosen as Black Panther? Or Shang-Chi? People wouldn’t take it.

But in a post 9/11 world where Arabs and Islam are still seen as too dangerous and foreign to transmit racial profiling in studio boardrooms and casting call discrimination, too taboo to have the same chances positive or nuanced representation than other ethnic groups. minorities are now slowly starting to benefit, should we keep waiting and bitterly watching movies like Dune who takes but does not return?

Villeneuve has certainly reached the grand scale of his vision, and truly other successful franchises should take note of his artistic attention to detail. It’s just a shame that vital elements of the MENA story, character construction, and portrayal were lost in its translation.

Hanna Flint is an independent film and television critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international media.

Follow her here: @HannaFlint

About Wesley V. Finley

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