"Forrest Gump" left U.S. movie screens a decade ago. But in the Middle East, he's still bumbling his way to new heights, moving DVD audiences in ways his creators probably never imagined.
In Saudi Arabia, he waded into the middle of an Islamic theological debate dating back centuries--he may have helped resolve it for a few--and in Cairo he inspired some to take to the streets to protest 24 years of rule by President Hosni Mubarak.
Butrus Elias, a communications major at Cairo University, won't say whether he was in the disapproving crowd that gathered in Tahrir Square after Mubarak announced he would run for a fifth term. Elias will admit to being a democracy enthusiast, though, thanks in part to the simple-minded Alabaman played by Tom Hanks in the 1994 film. Elias owns the DVD, which he has watched five times. His favorite scenes are of the surreal handshakes between Gump and an assortment of smiling U.S. presidents who are juxtaposed with evidence of their political dark sides.
"Forrest Gump helped me understand that my country's leaders are not in accord with reality," the 23-year-old Elias said recently from the Egyptian capital. "I saw in the movie how a politician would behave dishonestly just to influence the society around him, and I identified with the simple character who could be so easily manipulated by falsehood. It helped me look at my own country and see our leadership through a similar lens."
Maybe there's nothing so remarkable about a student in Egypt, where global culture penetrates a relatively open society, finding a muse in a Hollywood creation. But what about the woman some 400 miles away who has a crush on Ben Stiller, an American actor and, as it happens, a Jew? She lives in Damascus, the capital of Syria, a Muslim state governed by a regime that broadcasts anti-Semitic diatribes on state-owned radio and television. In a chat room on www.tarab.com, where she's known as Cat_2, she has posted eight photos of Stiller and referenced his role as a rabbi in the 2000 comedy "Keeping the Faith," declaring: "I love him."
For Cat_2, it's not political, it's chemistry, and that's the case with a lot of Arab Muslims and their favorite films. Still, it's remarkable, and maybe telling, that, like "Forrest Gump," "Keeping the Faith" has an admiring following among Arabs with Internet connections. Can someone who loves American movies really hate America?
"By Allah, the film is awesome and most unusual, and anyone who watches it is going to enjoy it immensely," wrote a fan on www.trables.com, a site named for Tripoli, the Libyan capital. On www.dvd4arab.com, regulars have taken the trouble to type out Arabic translations of the "Keeping the Faith" screenplay, which they swap for translations of other American films such as "American Beauty" and "Sin City."
In the Arab world, Hollywood rivals the mosque for impact on the popular imagination. Conservative Muslims may stick with tradition and condemn the U.S. film industry as an instrument of American or Jewish hegemony, but the movies have a wider audience in the Middle East than ever before and a fan base that spans the cultural spectrum. Often under the cover of the Internet, Hollywood images are fueling discussions about almost anything, from the prosaic to the political.
The debates don't necessarily sound like those that might take place in, say, a bar in Los Feliz. The characters played by Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves in "The Devil's Advocate" had Syrian bloggers arguing over whether the devil could really take the physical form of a New York attorney. In "The Matrix," an Egyptian essayist writing on the Internet found a lesson underscoring a key Koranic passage about human nature. A few years after the theatrical release of "Titanic," I spent hours in a Tehran University dorm, where I lived as a graduate student, hotly debating bearded students who were extremely critical of the film. It wasn't the music of Kenny G and Celine Dion that perturbed them, or even the nude portrait scene. These Iranians argued that Rose, the protagonist, had no right to leave her abusive fiance--"not even," as one in the group said, "for Leonardo DiCaprio."