A Place of Dreams, a Source of Villainy: How Foreign Movies Portray America

From Chinese immigration stories to European comedies, world cinema shows the U.S. and its people in surprisingly consistent themes of adoration, hope, and suspicion.

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A young Chinese couple arrives in New York, hopeful but terrified, in A Beijinger in New York. (AAWW)

In February 2006, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to a disappointed Egypt to meet with President Hosni Mubarak, who a few months earlier had defied both Egyptian popular will and President George W. Bush's "freedom agenda" by declaring reelection victory with an insultingly improbable 89 percent of the vote. In Washington, the trip marked the beginning of the end of Bush's democracy-promotion agenda: Rice, who had spent much of 2005 very publicly pushing Mubarak for democratic reform, instead re-built ties with the Egyptian dictator, who was an important U.S. ally on counter-terrorism and the Israel-Palestine peace process. Historians (and partisans) may debate for decades the extent to which Bush saw through his mission to champion democratic ideals around the globe. But Rice's 2006 trip, a signal that the U.S. would continue its decades-old practice of supporting useful dictators, was a low point in Bush's particularly American dream of democratic universalism.

However closely Egyptians watched Rice's visit, many of them were, at the time, crowding into movie theaters to see her in a much more compromised position: belly-dancing. In The Night Baghdad Fell, a farce with surprisingly complicated geo-political and even Freudian overtones, a handful of Egyptian men struggle with feelings of emasculation and paranoia brought on by the American invasion of Iraq, which they fear will soon be repeated in Egypt (the tagline asks, "What If You Were Next?"). The movie, controversial in Egypt, is probably not on its own an especially telling barometer of global, or even Egyptian, popular perceptions of America. But it is part of the vast and diverse history of foreign films that prominently feature the U.S. and its people, one with surprisingly consistent themes and portrayals.

In The Night Baghdad Fell, a schoolteacher, believing occupation imminent, asks his star student to design a defensive super-weapon. The student agrees, even marrying his teacher's daughter. When he can't perform on their wedding night, he fantasizes about a belly-dancing Rice. He overcomes his problems when his new wife dresses up as a U.S. Marine named Jack.

"The student hates U.S. officials, so he defeats them in bed in the form of Rice. Rice is always coming to Egypt to lecture us. It is like fantasizing about your sixth-grade teacher," the film's director explained to the Washington Post. "I felt that an event like the fall of Baghdad could not pass without some sort of comment. ... All we Arabs could do was sit and watch it on TV. So I decided to make a movie about impotence. That is what it is all about."

Yes, the film was a comedy, and apparently a relatively popular one in Egypt. (You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, though there are no subtitles.) The Washington Post recounts a few of its jokes, all in the dry, self-deprecating style that can seem common in Egyptian humor:

When the teacher wants to boost the morale of his militia, he produces a video of Egyptian achievement since the 1973 war with Israel. It is composed of a single goal in a soccer game in which Egypt tied its adversary. He approaches a general to ask about developing weapons, but the officer says military industry is engaged in producing umbrellas. An acquaintance says Egypt already possesses weapons of mass destruction -- he knows it's so because, once, the entire country suffered a blackout when all energy was diverted to enriching uranium.  

The film's plot turns are less funny. The schoolteacher, reading about the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, fears his daughter will be raped by U.S. soldiers. When the Americans finally invade Egypt near the movie's end, one Egyptian who goes to greet them is shot dead. "The problem is not only that Egyptian men are impotent, but that they are feminized: American dominance is translated on the screen into sexual dominance of Arab men (this is not hinted at; it's quite explicit)," a feminist Arab blogger wrote at the time. "In one key scene in the film, at a moment of frustration and defeat, the main character shows them that now that they have failed in inventing a weapon, they can only go on their knees in front of the invading Americans, raise their hands, and say in English: 'Please, do not f--- me.'"

American dominance is seen as so threatening, so pervasive, and so smothering that it takes on, in The Night Baghdad Fell, am explicitly sexual quality that affects the Egyptian men (not the women, you'll notice) personally. "The feeling of impotence in regards to the Americans is a common feeling," an Egyptian columnist told the Post, which noted that similar themes of fear and unease toward the U.S. have been common in post-Iraq-invasion Egyptian popular culture, but also that a number of Egyptians criticize these as "sophomoric" efforts to blame Egyptian problems on outsiders.

Foreign films often touch on U.S. politics and foreign policy, on American society and culture, or simply on their own country's fleeting but memorable intersections with the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. Though each film is unique, as are the various national attitudes and perceptions they represent, taken together they are a reminder of America's pervasive political and cultural role in the world that it is so frequently covered in foreign films, and with such remarkable complexity. They offer a window into the world's fascination with America, its antagonism for American power and admiration of American culture, its embrace of the American dream and rejection of what is often portrayed as American hegemony.

The Night Baghdad Fell hits a few common themes in how foreign movies portray the U.S., some of which you might have seen yourself in the 2003 British romantic comedy, Love Actually. Mostly about stodgy Brits learning how to embrace love, it included one very geopolitically charged scene. Hugh Grant naturally plays a lead role, though as the U.K. prime minister. After Grant discovers the U.S. president making unwelcome advances on a secretary for whom Grant has feelings, he publicly rebukes both the president and America. "The special relationship is still very special," President Billy Bob Thornton tells a London press conference. "I fear that this has become a bad relationship," Prime Minister Hugh Grant retorts, to audience gasps and rising music.

A relationship based on the President taking what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm, Britain. We may be a small country but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward, l will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that.

The scene, potentially a bit jarring for American viewers, may have reflected British skepticism of U.S. leadership, which the U.K. had followed into the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and, much more unpopularly, the invasion of Iraq just eight months before Love Actually premiered. That skepticism carries over to British politicians perceived as too subservient to American power, which The Atlantic's Heather Horn termed "Britain's Blair-Regret Syndrome," for Prime Minister Tony Blair's support for the Iraq War, sometimes treated as an American disaster into which the U.K. was unfairly dragged. That syndrome still persists in British politics, in which leaders who appear too cozy with their U.S. counterparts are accused of allowing the U.K. to become America's 51st state.

For all the suspicion and even defiance shown in Love Actually or The Night Baghdad Fell, another Egyptian film, 1993's Amrica Shika Bika (sometimes translated as America Abracadabra) represents the similarly crowded opposite end of the spectrum: chasing the American dream. In the coming-of-age drama, a group of young Egyptian men pursue their own dream of immigrating to the U.S., a quest portrayed as so sacrosanct that they never even actually achieve it. They hire someone to shepherd them across the Atlantic, who instead cons them into taking menial jobs in Romania. There, they have a moment of realization, expressed by singing "America Song," that emigrating will not solve their problems and that they are foolishly chasing something beyond their reach. You might say the message is something like, "what we call the American dream lives in each of us, not in some far away country."

If you're surprised that the same country that produced The Night Baghdad Fell could also put out Amrica Shika Bika, you shouldn't be: these apparently conflicting perceptions of the same America seem somewhat common, at times even within the same narrative. The ultra-popular Chinese TV mini-series, A Beijinger in New York, serialized over 21 much-watched episodes in 1993, grappled with that very contradiction that seems so often at the heart of foreign perceptions of the U.S. It told the story (fictional, based on a best-selling 1991 novel) of a young Chinese couple who moves to New York, full of hope and anxiety about joining America. The Los Angeles Times called it "an electronic allegory for the love-hate spectrum that has colored Sino-American relations for the last half-century." A party cultural official told the paper, "Everyone has the American dream, but we still don't know what that place is really like." (China has changed a lot since 1993, of course, but this view might still hold true in parts of today's world where breakneck development and endless cross-cultural exchanges have not brought America so close.)

In the very first scene of A Beijinger in New York, as the couple arrives at the overwhelming John F. Kennedy airport, the wife worries that her aunt will not pick them up as promised. Don't worry, the husband tells her, your aunt will have Americanized by this time, and Americans always keep their promises. Over the years, the couple splits under the pressures of the same American affluence and make-it-on-your-own competition that had attracted them. Their daughter eagerly flies out to join them but becomes a drug addict (this was produced by Chinese state TV, after all). Some moments are less heavy-handed; when the father sees his daughter embracing her white boyfriend, he embarrasses himself by flying into a rage, telling off the school principal and white boy's parents. A Chinese novelist who had watched the show at the time later explained how the book explored this incident:

At one point in the book, she says to her parents that when they had left her alone in China -- which was a common practice back then -- all she wanted was their love and attention. But when she arrived in New York, they were preoccupied with making money and told her to work on assimilating into American society. Yet when she did assimilate, her parents were angry at her for doing American things like having a boyfriend and experimenting with drugs. I really enjoyed that part. I like how the parents conceded that raising a child in America was confusing.   

The novelist seems to be describing, in part, a sort of push-pull experience of both wanting to become American and wanting to maintain their own cultural purity against the sometimes corrupting influence of American culture. It's a feeling that seems to pop up with some frequency in foreign movies about America. Shanghai Calling, a sappy, by-the-numbers romantic comedy, tells that story in reverse. It portrays a Chinese-American (fully Americanized; second generation at least) businessman who is sent on assignment to China. Though he believes it will be poor and backwards (perhaps channeling some Chinese anxieties about how they are perceived in America), he discovers it to be so exciting and alluring that he plans to stay. Variety compared his character to an orphan who discovers that the parents he thought were beggars turned out to be rock stars. The American expats in China are shown as eccentric (the oddball businessman who sips tea as he says he's "fallen in love with Chinese culture"), self-interested and a bit greedy (the executive who calls China "a land of opportunity"), or virtuous and relatable (the fixer and love interest who convinces the main character to stay). All three characters, though, are shown as welcomed to China.

The joint U.S.-Chinese production, which showed at U.S. film festivals but received wide release only in China, seems to achieve the opposite effect of A Beijinger in New York, affirming the relateability of both the Americans in China (including the Chinese-American main character) and of the American dream itself, which the Shanghai Calling protagonist discovers is just as abundant in China. Still, the two films, for all their differences, colored by the dramatic changes in China and the U.S.-China relationship since 1993, seem to reach for the same ideas: the American-Chinese cultural divide, the high expectations for Chinese who emigrate to America as well as the sense of their loss, and the question of who can access the American dream.

Sometimes, though, America is portrayed in foreign films in simpler, sweeter terms. The 1977 German comedy Stroszek depicts some misfit Germans who try to strike it rich in America but end up fumbling around lost-in-translation cultural nuances: shotguns and frozen turkeys, two distinctly American icons, make appearances toward the end. India's enormous Bollywood film industry -- the country produces more movies every year than any another, including the U.S. -- is increasingly setting films in America. Its cities, particularly New York, make for glamorous backdrops to the movies, which are often preoccupied with wealth and with syrupy-sweet plot lines about making it big and having it all. Those backdrops come at a heavy premium, particularly for Indian filmmakers that tend to emphasize volume, which means they must be worth something to audiences.

Even Love Actually, the British romantic comedy, though relatively sophisticated for the form and serving an audience presumably quite familiar with the American reality, can't help but indulging the American dream. A down-on-his-luck, awkward young British man spends his last dime to fly to America, where he believes he will find countless beautiful young women eager to meet him. His friends tell him he's crazy, and when he lands in Milwaukee in December and asks a cab driver to take him to "just an average American bar," it looks like they'll be proven right. Within minutes, however, three flirty, gorgeous, hard-drinking, tackily dressed super-models are pouring over him, buying him drinks and taking him home to their one-mattress apartment.

It's a self-consciously silly scene; so over-the-top it's clearly meant as satire, and yet the joke only makes sense if the audience understands the stereotypes about American drinking, American sex, and American women. Unfortunately, those stereotypes have at times helped bring danger or worse to American women abroad, who must fend off men who assume their advances are welcome or at least tolerated. In a very, very different way, those real American women share something in common with the fictionalized Egyptian men of The Night Baghdad Fell or the young couple of A Beijinger in New York, victimized by effect that America can sometimes seem to produce on people of other countries. Of course, there are also the American expats abroad, like those fictionalized in Shanghai Calling, who enjoy the residual glow of the American dream so highly sought around the world. But that's part of what's so complicated about foreign movies and how they show America. Their portrayals, however grounded in reality or stereotype or myth, sometimes become a sort of reality in themselves. America seems to elicit strong, complicated emotions in people, which is perhaps why they keep crowding into theaters to see the country and its people onscreen.