A Hologram for the King: New Tom Hanks film is Hollywood's latest stereotyped vision of the Middle East

Tom Tykwer's new film is a stereotyped Hollywood vision of the Middle East following Sex and the City 2 and Rock the Kasbah in getting things very wrong 

Matilda Battersby
Thursday 19 May 2016 16:13
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Hanks as Alan Clay in the comedy ‘A Hologram for a King’ 
Hanks as Alan Clay in the comedy ‘A Hologram for a King’ 

A Hologram for the King is the latest in a slew of slightly uncomfortable Americans-in-the-Middle-East movies lampooned by the critics for getting things culturally wonky. For others see Tina Fey’s girlish front line war correspondent in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Rock The Kasbah, a terrible X Factor-in-Afghanistan tale which couldn’t even be saved by Bill Murray.

Hologram, directed by Tom Tykwer (Cloud Atlas, Run Lola Run), stars Tom Hanks as a Willy Loman character, a salesman down on his luck, who finds himself in Saudi Arabia with the unenviable task of selling hologram telecommunication software to a king who seems unlikely to appear. He smacks of desperation, is unfamiliar with the drinking laws in Saudi and is strung out to breaking point because he has recently divorced his wife and can’t afford to pay his kid’s university tuition.

The film is based loosely on the 2012 book of the same name by Dave Eggers who used his own experiences on a trip to Jeddah to write the novel and whose steps were traced by Tykwer before making the film.


But while Hanks’ performance as Alan Clay is as twinkly and appealing as ever, the comedy has been criticised for resulting in some “questionable cultural quips”. And while nobody has come out and called it racist, it riffs on the borderline of acceptability and reveals in its choices a world view that is unsympathetic if not ignorant about the region it is portraying.

Hollywood is well known for stereotyping the Middle East and A Hologram for the King is by no means the worst offender (check out Sex and the City 2 for multiple examples of Islamophobia and blatant ignorance, with other corkers including Mission: Impossible and Fast and Furious 7).

Sex and the City 2

Filmmaker Faisal Hashmi says the region is either portrayed as “a war-torn ultra conservative one littered with armed men, women in burqas, men wearing turbans, and the overall city feeling like it's in some sort of constant lockdown” full of “stern and humourless men” with a “general populace that is wary and distrustful of Westerners.” Or as if it is “Las Vegas of the desert – fancy sports cars, hotels, scantily clad models, rich people everywhere in the most exclusive fancy parties.”

Tykwer's film perpetuates the “fish out of water” trope and is guilty of negatively emphasising the “otherness” of non-Westerners while covering almost all the stereotypes laid out by Hashmi above.

Within the first five minutes, we have a joke about terrorism, there are sandstorms, camels by the roads, and everyone portrayed is either filthy rich or below the poverty line. There is a plethora of unspeaking veiled women, scarily serious men and “oh aren’t foreigners crazy” type observations. And although some of the locals are friendly and accommodating to Clay, he at one point makes an unwise joke about being with the CIA and finds himself, albeit briefly, in hot water with men who own a very large collection of guns.

Clay is a Midwestern everyman who, if played by anybody other than Hanks, most audiences would dislike intensely. We see him living the expat lifestyle and in this picture of Saudi culture Alan is lied to by officials for no apparent reason, he cannot fathom the way people do business, and the desert landscape is totally barren bar a few isolated half-built luxury buildings.

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“Clay arrives in Saudi Arabia without any prior knowledge of the place, other than his own cartoonish, stereotypical concept,” Hanks comments in the film’s production materials. But it is hard to see how far beyond that he travels.

Tom Hanks stars in A Hologram for the King as 'fish out of water' Alan Clay

The sandy expanse Alan finds himself in (and which he is assured will become a thriving city of 1.5m people within a decade) is based on the ghost town formally known as King Abdullah’s Economic City or KAEC near Jeddah. This is dubbed the “King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade” in the film. Tykwer reveals in the film’s production notes that although he wanted to film in Saudi, and particularly wanted to show the genuine KAEC, the Saudi authorities refused permission.

So instead filmmakers constructed their own “exaggerated” version based on a few photos Tykwer snapped on his iPhone. In the film Alan turns up to his first day of work at the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade to find a few construction workers, one large, luxurious office building and a giant black tent in which he and his three hapless colleagues are expected to prepare a presentation of cutting-edge digital technology, without WiFi or functioning air conditioning.

A Hologram for the King is a comedy but at a large screening in central London, a lot of the laughter appeared to be taking place on the inside, if at all. Why? Gary Green, a film critic for Flick Reel, hit the nail on the head describing the “near-xenophobic muddling of some of the film’s comic sensibilities”, adding: “[The film features] a streak of questionable cultural quips: a remark about Filipino labour is played for giggles, but is mind-bogglingly ignorant of the true state of things in the Middle East.”

Luckily the film has two saving graces. They are Alexander Black who plays taxi driver Yousef, the only truly funny character in the film who blasts American rock music out of his stereo and educates Clay about Saudi life. He describes himself as “your guide and hero,” but is also the deliverer of that clanging joke: “[In Saudi] we don’t have unions, we have Filipinos.”

The other is Homeland alumna Sarita Choudhury who plays, unusually for a Hollywood film set in the Middle East, a woman with a job. She is a fiercely smart doctor and is also going through her own divorce and, (spoiler alert!) seduces Clay with Middle Eastern promise and illicit alcohol. “The first time I put on the hijab, it felt weird, like I was wearing a scuba-diving suit kind of thing,” Choudhury said of playing Doctor Zahra. “It was strange wearing the scarf and the hijab until I got used to it.”

Sarita Choudhury and Mandy Patinkin as Mira and Saul Berenson in Homeland  

Zwyker's team was hampered by the Saudi authorities who banned them from filming in the state. So much of the production took place in Morocco. Hanks described filming in the North African country as like “living in a culture that tolerates you but doesn’t embrace you,” continuing: “All of that helped me to internalise Alan’s sense of alienation, because we were so far removed from anything that was recognisable to me as an American.”

Ironically A Hologram for the King makes the point that because we have digital technology – and OK we might not have hologram teleconferencing everywhere just yet geographically disparate nations are now a lot closer, more interconnected and should know a lot more about each other’s similarities and differences.

Filmmaker Hashmi, who is originally from Pakistan but has been based in Dubai for 25 years, is pragmatic about the mistakes Hollywood makes on films like this. “While I don't think the filmmakers had a malicious intent I do think it was a conscious decision on their part to sell this region to the world in a way that's already comfortable as a cliche to the Western world."

He added: “[If they’d done more research] they’d find that while Saudi Arabia has some ultra-conservative laws that the government has unjustly enforced in the country, the draconian laws don’t extend to the way people interact with visitors. The people there are fun to hang out with.”

"As a filmmaker myself I’m glad I have firsthand experience of what life here really is and that’s why the regional filmmakers here are trying to tell cool genre stories out of the region that show it in a truer, less stereotypical light than we are used to.”

A Hologram for the King is released on 20 May.

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