Tracing America’s Relationship to the Middle East in Valentino’s Ghost


Coming fast on the heels of revelations confirming that the CIA indeed had a hand in shaping the script for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, here’s documentarian Michael Singh’s examination of the ways U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is tightly tied to the images of Arabs and Muslims that appear in American and European media. A crash course in history, politics, and social science, Valentino’s Ghost is both sobering and illuminating, and its execution is thrilling. Singh deftly weaves newspaper articles, interviews with academics (Harvard’s Niall Ferguson, George Washington University’s Melani McAlister), and archival newscasts, with clips from films including Rudolph Valentino’s silent classic The Sheik, Otto Preminger’s Exodus, and 2000’s Rules of Engagement, among others. Singh tracks the evolution of America’s relationship to the Middle East from benign indifference to fear and loathing, with a brief stopover in mass-market exoticism. Fueling the shifts have been struggles for control of the region’s natural resources, and the plight of the Palestinians, toward whom the film is unabashedly sympathetic. There is also subtlety and drollness on display. Early in Ghost, Singh drops a clip from Rules of Engagement in which a young boy asks his mother (Anne Archer) why the mob of Arabs is protesting outside their hotel. The mother vaguely replies, “They’re upset about some things, darling.” It’s a moment that encapsulates not only the vague grasp many in the West have on the issues, but the way our government and media talk down to us when we do ask questions.