The Scandinavian noir film adaptation of Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s gripping book The Keeper of Lost Causes hit our British art-house cinema screens this week. The original book, which was first published in Danish as Kvinden i buret in 2008, was translated into English by Lisa Hartford in 2011 with a new title Mercy. The Hollywood film industry could do very well to take note of something remarkable about the film adaptation of The Keeper of Lost Causes which should not be remarkable at all, but unfortunately in the socio-political climate we live in, I was surprised and pleased by the representation of the Muslim character. There is a subtle reference in the film itself to the way that the media presents Muslims, when Assad’s partner tells him to stay quiet as the old lady has only seen his type on the television, but generally the character’s Muslim-ness is not overly focused upon. Assad (played by Fares Fares) is a regular guy, as the film portrays, but he isn’t a terrorist as we have come to expect of Hollywood blockbusters, where typically in an Orientalist tradition the Muslims are caricatures and stereotypes of villains and “others” (as was the case even before 9/11).
Jack Shaheen’s famous 2001 book and film (Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People) documented how 900 American movies (from the year 1896 until 2001) vilified Arabs males and females through ugly characterisation: the Arabs were portrayed as savage, uncivilised, aggressive and evil. Reel Bad Arabs also explains how Israel has in the past succeeded in garnering support in America because the American audiences, journalists and soldiers have always been bombarded with images and ideas about the “bad Arab” and the “good Israeli”. Shaheen has made an analogy between the anti-Semitic films made by the Nazis (that are now banned from German cinemas) and the image of the Arab in Hollywood. Schools need to explore the findings of Shaheen’s study of the Hollywood film industry, in Sociology, English, History and Media Studies, to begin to understand how prejudice against a people is amplified through negative representation, seeping into the consciousness of people, and eventually leading to widespread discrimination and racism in other areas of society. It is telling that Shaheen came to see that the distorted representations of Arabs were not due to sheer ignorance, but was a purposeful ploy to demonise the “other”.
Watching The Keeper of Lost Causes made me appreciate the intentions of the writer to include the character of a Syrian Refugee whose humanity is at the forefront. Assad is Muslim, this is clear, but he is seen by the audience as more than that. Other aspects of his identity and his personality shine through to the audience who come to like him for who he is. There are scenes throughout the film that could be missed with a blink of the eye that hint at Assad’s faith: he has experienced hard times throughout his life too, he says, but it is implied that his faith in God has got him through testing times, particularly in a final scene. It will take years and years to combat the terrible harm that the Hollywood film industry has caused to Muslims in the US and worldwide, but films like The Keeper of Lost Causes are a positive step in the right direction. It makes a welcome change to not be disappointed by representation of Muslims in media texts. The Keeper of Lost Causes is the first in a trilogy of books/films about Department Q. I hope the sequels that follow continue to impress with positive representation of Assad.