T.V.’s Promised Land(2003)

Directed by Nicholas Dembowski

Distributed by Arab Film Distribution (

75 min

The images come in seeming random order, as if the viewer were sitting on a couch flipping channels with a remote. Yet TV’s Promised Land, a film by Bronx public school teacher Nicholas Dembowski, is anything but randomly structured. Dembowski carefully builds his indictment of the Western media’s depictions of the Arab/Muslim world. In the tradition of found footage documentaries, Dembowski re-presents everyday images, recorded directly from his television, to reveal the way the media reflect and shape attitudes toward the Middle East. As the images accumulate, they establish links between the United States and Israel—the Promised Land—using iconic images of the early American West mixed with Biblical prophesy. Dembowski re-contextualizes images that most people take for granted to reveal their ideological assumptions and encourage critical reflection on the culture that created them.

The diverse sources Dembowski uses show the pervasiveness of the negative depiction of Arabs and Muslims. They include Disney’s Aladdin, Paramount’s Indiana Jones, Warner Brothers’ cartoons, and news clips from Fox to the BBC. Although Dembowski began collecting these images in September of 2000, the sources reflect a longer time frame. One of the Hollywood movies included in the montage is John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach. The use of these older images implies that the contemporary depictions of Arabs and Muslims reflect a long history of prejudice evident in narratives about European settlers conquering the American West. Arabs slip too easily into the position that American Indians held in tales about “Cowboys versus Indians.” Suddenly, phrases from the daily Iraq war reports, “Apache helicopters,” “Tomahawk missiles,” and “Blackhawk Down,” take on new meaning. The film relies a little too heavily on clips from FOX News and conservative shows such as “The O’Reilly Factor,” making it easy for Dembowski to make his point, but he uses enough of a variety of sources (not all identified on screen) to make clear that these destructive images permeate the Western media and U.S. culture on many levels.

Dembowski shapes his argument through the placement and repetition of shots, using intertitles to reveal the structure. Beginning with “Burned into our Brains,” the film suggests why persuading the U.S. to go to war against Iraq and to stand on the side of the Israelis in their conflict with Palestinians has not been difficult. Dembowski exposes the rhetoric that leads to a U.S. alliance with Israel through clips about the “Settlement” of Israel and movement of Israelis into the West Bank to “Camp David” and “War.” The implication is that Israelis, like Americans, are civilized and have a democratic form of government. Dembowski undercuts even the logical connections by exposing contradictions in this alliance.

When rhetoric of the “War on Terrorism” is repeated, Dembowski ironically juxtaposes the words with images of civilian suffering: mothers holding starving children and children being killed by Israeli rockets. All too soon fighting in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, and Palestine begin to blur and overwhelm the viewer. This effect, powerful as it is, could lead to oversimplifying complex international relationships.

Another way the film oversimplifies its re-presentation of the images is by claiming, on the back cover of the DVD, that the film offers “no narration or other commentary of its own.” This claim of objectivity and truth hides the enormous amount of editing that went into this piece. It is true that a viewer never hears Dembowski’s voice or any other narrator, but the audio in the film is not always synchronous. For example, the “Arabian Nights” song from Aladdin is played continuously under images from other movies including The Mummy Returns. The message in the original lyrics is less than subtle:

Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place

Where the caravan camels roam

Where they cut off your ear

If they don't like your face

It's barbaric, but hey, it's home

It is a short stretch from this popular animated children’s film, and news reporters who refer to Arabs as “rats” or “mosquitoes,” to President Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” Although this technique makes Dembowski’s argument unequivocal and works well artistically, along with the intertitles, it undermines his claim of no authorial intervention.

The publicity for T.V.’s Promised Land states that “the audience is left with little choice but to laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all.” However, when I finished watching the film, I wanted to cry. After a long clip showing unarmed Palestinians being beaten by Israeli soldiers, my college-age son felt so angry he stopped watching. I’m sorry he did, because Dembowski’s final clip re-directs the rhetoric from the scathing exposure of media propaganda and misinformation to a plea for understanding. In this final scene, chosen from a fiction film, a grandfather passes on his philosophy to his grandson by having him repeat these words: “I will do everything in my power, as a Jew, as a decent human being . . . . to advance the ideas of human freedom and dignity in Palestine and throughout the world of men. For while one person lives in bondage or in squalor, all live in bondage and squalor.” As the grandson repeats his grandfather’s words, the camera slowly tracks back to include more and more of the room implying that cultures need to make space for other world views, or all humans will suffer.

Whatever the viewer’s position on U.S. foreign policy, this film has educational value. T.V.’s Promised Land could be the basis for discussing how each news channel has an agenda. Because many of the images are from documentary-style footage, the film raises the important issue of how invisibly these “objective” images are manipulated. Another interesting topic of discussion, from the perspective of visual culture, is how fictional images, not just news, construct ideology. By focusing on the claim that there is no narrator, one could show how narrative shaping takes place in more subtle ways with intertitles or sound editing. Clearly, this film shows how historical narratives (Cowboys vs. Indians) are applied to current events to elide complex relationships. I could also imagine pairing this film with former president Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Finally, students could put together their own found footage films from shows they regularly watch as a way to analyze the underlying assumptions. Dembowski’s effort to put together these images reinforces the importance of democratic access to media and the difference a single person can make.

Sharon L. Zuber

College of William and Mary