ISIS (also known as ISIL) stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Quite obviously, Iraq and Syria are the two main countries where the antagonists of the free world operate out of, or at least where they hail from. This in itself makes for a lot of great material for film and books, and though not a lot has been done thus far specifically about this terrorist group I am sure that is not far off.
However, there are many, many movies from the last several decades that were either set in or filmed in (or both) these countries or the countries surrounding them. People tend to think of ISIS as influencing a very general “Middle-Eastern” area, which is far from true, but nevertheless, the following 15 movies have one thing or another to do with this area of the world. And rest assured, no one in the world is safe from this enemy- not one country anywhere.
For example, as you will learn, even Malaysia, Japan, and Mexico have relations to ISIS, whether those be threats from the group, attacks at the hands of them, or something else entirely. Even Morocco, a country in which so many movies have been filmed when set in the Middle-East, and a country that is generally viewed as very safe, is not immune from ISIS. The movies I am referring to are not all war movies, though given the locale, many are, for obvious reasons.
Sadly, the actors, producers, and everyone else involved in the making of these films have traveled to or acted as if they were in countries that are now considered dangerous and on higher-alert than many other areas of our world.
As we all know, Ben Affleck’s 2012 true story-turned-blockbuster was set in Tehran, Iran, when 6 American embassy workers managed to escape capture when Iranian revolutionaries raided the embassy. The lucky escapees hid out at the residence of the Canadian ambassador. The CIA was ordered to get them out, and devised a kooky plan to have the 6 pose as a film crew for a movie being filmed in Iran. Shockingly, it worked, and they all escaped.
This movie, starring Ben Affleck (who also directed it) and Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad, was set in the Iranian capital of Tehran, where ISIS is not necessarily prevalent, though Iran does border Iraq. However, it was not filmed in Iran. Instead, Argo was filmed in California, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and several locations in Turkey including Istanbul. Istanbul has long been considered a gateway or sorts between Europe and Asia, and Turkey has been in the news recently over several attacks and clashes involving ISIL.
14. Body of Lies
In 2008, Hollywood heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe led a cast in telling the story of a CIA agent who is in the Middle-Eastern country of Jordan, hunting down a terrorist leader. However, the intentions of his home country and that of the one he is physically in at the moment are unclear, so he is kind of caught between a rock and a hard place. It sounds like a scary and intense situation, and though I myself have not seen the movie, now I definitely want to!
As I said, this film takes place in Jordan, but Body of Lies was filmed in the United States and Morocco, an Arabic country in northern Africa that has significant European and Arabian influences. The majority of its population is Muslim, and it is currently facing a rising threat of Islamic radicalism that could swiftly shatter its image of being safe and trouble-free.
13. Not Without My Daughter
This movie was created from one of my all-time favorite books that I have read time and time again, Not Without My Daughter. It is the story of a Michigan woman who marries an Iranian doctor, and who, against her gut instinct, travels to Tehran with her young daughter to visit his family who he has not seen in 20 years, fully aware that under Iranian law, she is subject to anything her husband deems necessary. This includes beatings, taking her child, imprisoning her, and keeping her in Iran against her will, all of which he does. Obviously, this comes as a surprise from the man she loves and married, but once he is in his home country, he reverts to his original mindset, to Betty Mahmoody (Sally Field) and her little girl Mahtob’s detriment. They plan and execute an escape, and all’s well that ends well.
Iran is an Islamic Republic, and is smack dab in the middle of the Middle-East. It is bordered by Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In the nonfiction story of Betty Mahmoody’s escape, she traveled for days with her 5-year old daughter over freezing mountains on horseback, transported by men who did not speak her language and could have robbed or raped her at any time. This was filmed in the US, Turkey (with its ongoing clashes and attacks from ISIS) and Israel, with whom ISIS has threatened a “global war”, and just this week beheaded 6 officials and boiled 7 “deserters” alive. Yikes.
12. The Kingdom
In 2007, Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, and Jennifer Garner starred in The Kingdom, a movie about a team of U.S. government agents who investigated the bombing of an American building in the Middle East. More specifically, the attack was on a housing unit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where families and agents were murdered. Other big names that appeared in the film were Jeremy Piven, Minka Kelly, and Jason Bateman.
While Saudi Arabia is not exactly breeding grounds for ISIS as we know it, it is leading the Arab world in the fight against Islamic militants. Basically, ISIS and Saudi Arabia are not mutually exclusive, so the fact that The Kingdom was set there qualifies the movie for this list. This movie was filmed in Mexico, several locations throughout Arizona, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and finally, in the Middle-Eastern city of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Buried was a one-of-a-kind movie in that it was shot almost exclusively inside a coffin (7 were used in the making of the movie), starring the awesome Ryan Reynolds. He plays a truck driver working in Iraq (total ISIS territory) and after an attack, he awakes to find himself buried alive in a coffin, with only a lighter and a cell phone. He has a chance to survive, but not much of one as his air runs out and the coffin slowly fills with sand. Admittedly claustrophobic himself, Reynolds said the last day of filming was “unlike anything I experienced in my life, and I never ever want to experience that again.” Understandable.
The film is obviously set in Iraq, but really it could have been filmed anywhere in the world, as the whole thing takes place in one little box. The actual filming location may surprise you… Over 17 days the entire movie was filmed in Barcelona, Spain. I don’t know why. But seriously, if you have not seen this movie, you will be on the edge of your seat the whole time, which is amazing considering it is 95 minutes of watching a man lying in a coffin, and literally nothing else.
10. The Hurt Locker
The 2008 hit film The Hurt Locker was filmed in various locations throughout Canada and Jordan, an Arab kingdom bordered by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Israel, and Palestine. Two of these countries (Iraq and Syria, as we’ve discussed) are the ultimate breeding grounds for ISIS. Also, interestingly, Jordan is at the literal crossroads of 3 continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Pretty cool!
The Hurt Locker starred many big Hollywood names, including but not limited to Jeremy Renner, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, and David Morse. It is the story of a new Sergeant who takes over an elite bomb squad team in the crosshairs of the violence of the Iraq War, and his methods of handling his duties are unconventional, to say the least. He behaves as if he is indifferent to death, even putting his subordinates in danger as the city around them explodes with danger itself.
9. Sex and the City 2
Let’s switch to a whole new kind of entertainment, shall we? Ladies, this one is for you- finally, a girl movie, right? Or you know, it could also be for you dudes who like staring at Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha of Sex and the City fame. But they have left Manhattan for the desert, specifically Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. From the movie (which is the typical Sex and the City antics of love, shopping, and fashion, just in a new setting) it looks like the best place to be- ever. But, Abu Dhabi is dangerously close to ISIS territory, in that the U.A.E. is located on the Arabian Peninsula on the Persian Gulf.
However, the 4 leading ladies of Sex and the City 2 (Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall, and Cynthia Nixon) never came close to the U.A.E. while filming. In fact, like so many other movies on this list, they filmed in Morocco. Naturally (because, come on, think about who we are talking about here), they also filmed in New York. Manhattan, I am guessing? I am sure the ladies would have it no other way.
Featuring George Clooney, Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, Matt Damon, and Amanda Peet leading an all-star cast, Syriana (2005) tells the epic story of a merger between two oil companies, due in part to one of them losing several oil fields in the Persian Gulf since the prince signed a contract with the Chinese instead. This movie, while filmed in Morocco, Egypt, the United States, Switzerland, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, also is set in and involves numerous other countries, including Kazakhstan and Lebanon. It is definitely a movie immersed in Middle-Eastern culture, and tells 4 intersecting stories of the CIA, an attorney, an energy analyst, and a Pakistani oil company worker who was fired. There is a lot going on in a lot of places, and all of them (well, most of them) are in very close proximity to the area of the world that ISIS calls home, making the stakes even higher, and the thrill for us viewers even greater.
Though Jarhead was filmed only in the good old USA, it was set in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s for Desert Shield. But this is more than your typical war story; Jake Gyllenhaal plays the lead role of Anthony, a kid from California who endures months of boredom overseas while worrying about his girlfriend back home cheating on him. It is mental torture of course, due to the isolation and lack of control over his own love life, and eventually, Desert Storm begins. It ends just as quickly, but sniper Anthony does not escape unscathed, at least not emotionally. Others cast in the hit film (also from 2005 like Syriana) are Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, John Krasinski, and the lesser-known Brianne Davis as Anthony’s lover who found someone else while he was off defending his homeland. Ouch.
Filming for Jarhead lasted 5 months – which is the same length of time that the soldiers in the film spent in the desert. Fun facts: real human and dog feces were used during the s**t-burning scene to ensure Gyllenhaal’s genuine reaction, and also the word “f***” and its multiple variants were used an astonishing 278 times in the 125-minute film, which is roughly once every 27 seconds. Impressive.
6. Green Zone
Another Matt Damon flick, the 2010 movie Green Zone is a high-stakes thriller about a rogue agent who takes it upon himself to search out weapons of mass destruction in the unstable country of Iraq. So basically, he must save the world. But wait; the whole reason this Chief Warrant Officer went rogue in the first place, leaving his team and his men, is because he was told that there were no weapons of mass destruction, but that the American government just needed to use that excuse to start the very controversial Iraq War. Sounds suspicious to me, as it obviously did to this U.S. Army Officer as well as to a Wall Street Journal reporter he meets, who may or may not be an ally.
Anyway, clearly set in Iraq in the early days of the Iraq invasion (specifically, 2003), Green Zone was filmed in Spain, Morocco, and England. We have talked about Morocco’s impending threat from ISIS, but what about Spain and England? For England, it has mostly been threats thus far, while Spain is on “high alert” for ISIS terrorism, according to leading terror experts.
Here we have Jake Gyllenhaal again (noticing any repeats on this list?) in yet another ISIS-area movie. He stars alongside the lovely Reese Witherspoon, who plays his pregnant wife desperate to find the whereabouts of her CIA analyst husband who witnessed an “unorthodox” interrogation outside of the United States. There are also many other big names who contributed their talents to this film, such as Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin, and J.K. Simmons.
Basically, an Egyptian who had been living in the U.S. for years and is married to an American, is apprehended after a terrorist bombing, and sent to the country where the incident occurred. Quite obviously, this “country”, fictional or otherwise, is somewhere in the middle-east, and it was all filmed in the United States, Morocco, and South Africa. South Africa, the only country of these 3 that we have not yet discussed, denies the threat of ISIS attacks, while other sources outside the country call ISIS attacks in South Africa “imminent.” The State Department goes as far as to say that, especially in places like upscale shopping malls where foreigners congregate such as in Cape Town and Johannesburg, attacks are likely already planned. I guess we shall see.
This film is another one that tells the stories of multiple sets of strangers whose lives all intersect even though they are across the globe from one another. They are all connected by a single rifle. Every person involved hails from Mexico to California to Tokyo to Morocco. It stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as a married couple vacationing in Morocco when their tour bus is struck by a rogue bullet, having been shot from that rifle given to two young brothers by their father to hunt. The father had bought it from a businessman in Japan. Babel is a great example of how the littlest things can connect us all, and are often not the “little things”, at all.
Obviously set in several locations including Morocco, Babel (2006) was filmed in several locations, too: Mexico, Japan, Morocco, and California. It may surprise you to know that Mexican officials assert that ISIS has a training camp just 8 miles from the US border, and that Japan has no plans to join the fight against ISIS in the foreseeable future.
3. Kingdom of Heaven
This movie takes place in the 12th century, so it is probably the earliest time period on this list, which is surprising since so much of our history began in the Middle-East, and so many movies have been made about it. Anyway, in 2005 the talents of Orlando Bloom and Liam Neeson were lent to the telling of this saga, in which Balian of Ibelin travels to Jerusalem during the infamous Crusades. He winds up being the protector of the city and its people, quite the role for a blacksmith from the Middle Ages who has lost his family. But nevertheless, he takes on the challenge.
The dramatically-titled Kingdom of Heaven is set in Jerusalem, which some say was the birthplace of Jesus and thus Christianity (this is up for debate as Bethlehem is also widely and more traditionally believed to be his birthplace, but either way, the two cities are a mere 6 miles apart). It was filmed exclusively in different areas of Morocco and Spain.
2. Fair Game
Fair Game was made in 2010, and stars one of my favorite actresses, Naomi Watts, as CIA operative Valerie Plame. She finds out that her identity has been leaked by her own government as a payback of sorts because her journalist husband wrote an article bashing the Bush Administration. This was done to discredit her husband of course, and is based on the true story of the people who actually went through this. Basically, the New York Times piece had accused the Bush Administration of fabricating the fact that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq to justify the war there, an assumption many Americans had and still have.
There were many filming locations around the globe that made Fair Game such a great movie. They are: Jordan, Egypt, Malaysia, and the United States. As far as Malaysia goes, the government there has unfoiled 9 ISIS attacks before they were able to happen (and nabbed several ISIS suspects), and as a moderate Islamic country, they say they expect more. And while Egypt is not fond of ISIS, American troops there have been called “sitting ducks” in the country known for pyramids and pharaohs, when it comes to threats from ISIS.
Viggo Mortensen, J.K. Simmons, and Omar Sharif star in this 2004 tale about a down-on-his-luck cowboy of Native American ancestry who travels to Arabia with his horse to compete in a deadly race across the desert. The year was 1890, and the story of Hidalgo is not fictional. The 3,000-mile race is called the Ocean of Fire and had been held annually for centuries. It was a survival race across the Arabian Desert, though why anyone would want to attempt it is beyond me. But this cowboy and his mustang were once billed as the greatest the West had ever known, so a wealthy sheik invited them to compete that year, in a race that at the time had been reserved only for the finest Arabian horses ever bred. Legend has it that this rider was the first and only American to ever compete and win the Ocean of Fire race, though parts of the story are disputed as to how true they are.
As with so many films on this list, while the movie takes place in one part of the Middle- Eastern world, it was filmed in another- Morocco. Yes, again. It seems to be a favorite locale for filming desert movies. Hidalgo was also filmed in California, Montana, South Dakota, and Oklahoma.