Exploring Stereotypes and Self-Identity of the Islamic World Through Film with Professor Sascha Crasnow
“Once a week we watch a movie!” said Professor Sascha Crasnow in a one-sentence pitch for her new course, Contemporary Film from the Islamic World.
Sascha Crasnow is a lecturer affiliated with the Residential College, the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, the Arab and Muslim American Studies Program and the Global Islamic Studies Center, all at the University of Michigan. Professor Crasnow’s research is focused on Islamic arts throughout the Middle East and North Africa, exploring trends of identity, nationalism, gender and sexuality, and more. Professor Sascha Crasnow’s latest course, Contemporary Film from the Islamic World, explores the theme of self-identity in contemporary films across the Islamic world.
Her course not only offers important lessons for students but also a unique opportunity for engagement. “One of the reasons why I want to teach this course is that film is fun,” Crasnow emphasized. “I would really like students to gain exposure to films they haven’t seen.” The allure of film not only provides an attractive break from traditional lectures and seminars but also incentivizes students to take a course they may not have taken the leap for, otherwise. “And for films they have seen,” Crasnow added, “to give them a new perspective.”
“I try to include as much breadth as possible –– it’s impossible to cover everything,” Professor Crasnow acknowledged. “But I try to include a diversity of regionality and genre.” From documentaries, to big-budget Hollywood-style films, to slower art-house movies, Professor Crasnow’s course selection offers an impressive survey of film culture across the MENA region. “Dramas, comedies, feel-good and not-so-feel-good films,” Professor Crasnow added with a laugh, “I really try to capture a range.”
Not only does Crasnow’s course defy stylistic stereotypes, where genre diversity is almost exclusively associated with the money and name power of Hollywood, but she also addresses racial stereotypes in this course, too. “One of the things I’m really excited about is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I had a student that presented on Black African Muslim film, and that’s something that hasn’t been included in previous years.” Islam is usually associated with the Middle East, excluding other regions with large Muslim populations, like South Asia and North Africa.
“By and large — and this has been from the beginning of film [creation] to the present— Arabs and Muslims have been portrayed negatively,” Professor Crasnow explained. “Overwhelmingly as terrorists or oil-hungry Sheikhs.” Arab and Muslim populations, too, have often been conflated as being one and the same. “The actors who play these roles are rarely Arab or Muslim,” Professor Crasnow acknowledged in irony.
“Surprisingly, after the events of 9/11 these stereotypes changed to have positive representations, Professor Crasnow explained. These new stereotypes fell into two main categories: “The Patriot,” about a Muslim character going against his Islamic identity to support America; and “The Victim of Hate Crime,” which focuses on the suffering of the Muslim character so that the American audience may sympathize with the victim without acknowledging any greater systematic prejudice at work. “It’s less about any specific movies, but rather that there have been a variety of different movies that tell a single story of Arabs and Muslims,” elaborated Crasnow.
Part of the allure of a film course, Professor Crasnow added, is the viewing experience. “There is a social pressure,” she acknowledged. “We’re not just talking about the film –– all art in itself is incomplete, it needs to engage with the viewer –– and so we talk a lot about our reactions to [the film].”
Language, too, can be an essential part of the viewing experience. Subtitles, which allow films to reach across cultural and language barriers, sometimes lose an element of authenticity and nuance in written translation. “There’s a film we watch where the subtitles make it appear as if the characters speak awkwardly, but really the individual who is speaking is not a native speaker, and so the subtitles reflect his use of broken Arabic,” Professor Crasnow explained. “We look at what is being done here and ask: Is this intentional?”
“Did you like it? Did you not like it?–– that’s where I always start [in class],” remarked Crasnow. “I think if you’re someone who enjoys watching films, this is a class where you get to do that. And hopefully,” Professor Crasnow added, “be exposed to a bunch of movies you didn’t even know existed!”
Contemporary Film from the Islamic World is cross-listed as FTVM 366, RCHUMS 319, and ISLAM 392 in the LSA Fall 2022 course guide. For students interested in exploring the Islamic world through multimedia, Professor Crasnow also teaches another course that explores self-identity through poetry, music, video games, and more.