THIS week we found out that Australian actor Rose Byrne will play New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a new Hollywood film about the Christchurch mosques terrorist attack in 2019 when a gunman shot 51 people dead and left 49 injured.

The film, called They Are Us, will focus on how Ardern responded to the attacks during Muslim Friday prayers, including her speech in the aftermath from which the title of the film comes.

At the time, Ardern was praised worldwide for her response to the tragic events. Breathlessly, the film’s blurb tells us that it will show “how an unprecedented act of hate was overcome by an outpouring of love and support.”

Despite apparently consulting with the two mosques involved, the film will view the tragedy through the lens of the majority, demoting the minority to mere bit parts in their own story, and by so doing it will simply add to the pain of the families involved.

Thankfully, Ardern herself has baulked at the angle taken by the filmmakers telling a TV news programme: “While there are so many stories that should be told at some point, I don’t consider mine to be one of them…they’re the communities' stories, they’re the families' stories.”

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Before the week was out, one of the producers had stood down recognising that, in the push towards seeking publicity, funding and distribution deals for the film, they had elevated Ardern’s role as the white saviour of the piece and Rose Byrne’s status as a relatively hot name in Hollywood, whilst reducing the pain suffered by the families of the victims to little more than set dressing.

As well as being about the commercially-driven way in which Hollywood operates, this is also about the continuation of the marginalisation and even erasure of Muslim stories, actors, writers and directors. There have been a few success stories like Oscar nominated British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed who this year became the first Muslim ever to be nominated in the Best Actor category but, on the whole, the industry continues to treat Muslim stories with contempt and dangerous stereotypical portrayals that can have horrible real life repercussions.

For decades Muslims who did feature in film or TV have mostly been portrayed as villains, terrorists, fat, oil-rich Arab sheikhs or, in the case of women, silent and veiled with no discernible character.

Riz Ahmed’s company commissioned a report analysing the roles that Muslims had played in films, which was published this week. Of the 200 films analysed it found only 1.1% of the speaking roles in UK and US films were for Muslim characters. The study also found that 39% of the Muslim characters were the perpetrators of violence and 53% were targets, and more than 58% were portrayed as migrants or refugees with almost 88% speaking no, or accented, English. And over 75% wore clothes related to their religion. Their largely silent roles perpetuated a myth that Muslims were a sort of underlying, constant threat – always there but not really worth the bother of drilling down and understanding or accepting their human-ness.

Muslim women particularly have been excluded in all their nuance and diversity – where are the Muslim female police officers, campaigners and investigative journalists in the big Hollywood blockbusters?

TV is slowly improving its representation, especially in the UK. The brilliant sitcom We Are Lady Parts on Channel Four gave us a masterclass in how to portray the rich diversity and nuance within the community telling us the story of four Muslim women in a punk band. It’s timely, relevant and, most importantly, offers great hope to other writers from Muslim backgrounds that there is a platform for their art.

Portrayal and representation matter, not just because creative people from all backgrounds deserve to believe their work will be showcased, but also because of the repercussions within wider society. Constantly seeing Muslims on our screens in the roles of terrorists feeds into the belief that the small number of extremists and perpetrators of horrific acts of terror are somehow representative of the other 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.

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The marginalisation and demonisation make it easy for politicians to turn a blind eye on issues that affect Muslim communities worldwide like the plight of the Uyghurs in China where so-called ‘re-education’ in large camps has been taking place on an industrial scale, the lack of empathy for Palestinians living in refugee camps since losing their homes in1948 and the Kashmir issue, unresolved since 1947.

It makes it possible not to empathise fully with situations like the Grenfell tragedy where many of the residents were from Muslim backgrounds, and the Syrian refugee issue. It feeds into the murderous rage of a driver who last week intentionally mowed down three generations of a Muslim family in Ontario, Canada, with his truck. Salman Afzal, a physiotherapist in a care home, his mother, his wife Madiha, an engineer, and their daughter, a student, all died, leaving a nine year old boy as the sole survivor. At a vigil for the attack Justin Trudeau the Canadian Prime Minister said: “Islamophobia is real. Racism is real… We must stand together and say no to hatred.”

But it’s not enough for us to say no to hatred after the event. We have to encourage the film and TV industries to more accurately reflect the world around us, to allow new perspectives and lenses on life that have been ignored and white-washed for decades. It takes courage from the purse-holders, but with new stories will come revenues and ratings, of that you can be sure.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.