Film Reviews

Review: ‘Things Arab Men Say’

NFB doc offers a corrective to one-dimensional portraits of Arab characters

Left to Right: Fisal, Hassan, Falah, Bashar, Ramey, Adnan.
Courtesy of the NFB


Things Arab Men Say
(Canada, 52 min.)
Dir. Nisreen Baker

The list of Arab characters one sees in post-9/11 Western film and television is quite limited. The characters, particularly the male ones, mostly consist of pious conservatives, fanatical jihadists, and crazed terrorists. Women are mainly absent. This field of one-dimensional stereotypes simply perpetuates negative perceptions that Westerners have about people from Arab countries. Without a voice or lacking proper representation, fair and accurate portraits are few.

Nisreen Baker’s NFB doc Things Arab Men Say offers a corrective to these unfair depictions. The film observes a conversation in Edmonton, Alberta in which eight Arab-Canadians discuss their experiences in their native countries and their adopted homeland. The men come from Africa and the Middle East, hailing from Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Palestine, and Egypt, and they engage in an open conversation about racism, Islamophobia, the mosque, migration, and their efforts to find a better life in Canada. Baker invites you to pull up a chair at Jamal’s Eden Barber Shop, and pay attention to these voices, which deserve equal airtime.

The camera pans around the room as Jay, Ghassan, Faisal, Adnan, Falah, Bashar and Ramey take turns getting a shave or a haircut, and Baker observes the men as they build an air of community within the barbershop’s walls. The hockey game plays in the background as Jamal’s eyes dart from his customer’s sideburns to the screen, while the men awaiting their turn exchange stories in a mix of Arabic and English—the next generation of Franglais. Their stories are often funny and the camaraderie is good company as Baker’s film lets the audience build a relationship with the characters and empathise with their accounts.

The complete absence of women is an unfortunate gap that becomes immediately apparent, however, and there’s little talk about the rights of women in this boisterous male space. The omission inadvertently reinforces the patriarchal dynamic one often sees conflated with the Arab world. Things Arab Men Say invites a sequel in which Arab-Canadian women flock to the beauty shop for a new ’do and a chance to share their voices too.

It’s refreshing to hear candid perspectives from these men about the perceptions and depictions of Arabs in contemporary media. The men agree that ISIS is a cancer on their religion and culture—although it’s worth noting that not all the men in the room are Muslim in Baker’s effort to portray an inclusive community. They debate the social forces that allow extremist groups like ISIS to develop and gain support. It’s a fruitful discussion, particularly when it leads the men to discuss how to teach their children to practice the elements of love and respect inscribed in their religions.

Although shot long before Donald Trump enforced his notorious “Muslim ban” on travellers entering the United States, Things Arab Men Say resonates as an important counterargument to the Islamophobia and racism that has all but become institutionalised in parts of the West. The opinions of these Arab-Canadians are all the more valuable in today’s heated environment. More outlets, channels, and publications are needed, which can present meaningful aspects of this and other diverse communities. In the process of giving these men the opportunity to speak, Things Arab Men Say illustrates the necessity of offering more opportunities for voices of new Canadians and minority groups. The NFB is to be congratulated for taking a leadership role in this endeavour.

Things Arab Men Say screens in Toronto Thursday, June 15 at Jackman Hall.
The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring: filmmaker Nisreen Baker; Arif Virani, MP for Parkdale – High Park and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage (Multiculturalism) and Kamal Al-Solaylee, Award-winning author and professor of Journalism at Ryerson University