Huddled around a camp fire in the dunes, a group of young Emirati men drink vodka from plastic cups. Later, in the VIP area of a club, they swig magnums of champagne, eyeing the Western girls in miniskirts dancing by their table.
This week, these scenes will be on big screens all over Dubai. They’re from City of Life, the nation’s first big-budget feature film, written and directed by Emirati Ali Mostafa. ‘Ten years ago, no way would I have been able to show that,’ Mostafa tells Time Out. ‘I’m surprised I’m able to show it now.’ Others are similarly surprised, and disappointed. The film was recently leaked on the internet and Mostafa has experienced some adverse reactions. ‘I met some local girls in a mall who said, “How can you show this?” I’m like, “Isn’t what you [usually] see in the cinema 20,000 times worse than what you see in City of Life?” And they’re like, “Yeah, but we expected more from an Emirati.”’
While some locals may take offence at these scenes, the fact that they’ve not been cut before the film hits multiplexes shows a marked change regarding the UAE’s censorship of celluloid. Of course, there remain ‘non-negotiables’. A public cinema must not offend the nation’s social and religious values, meaning any sexual or nude scenes are immediately cast to the cutting room floor (for example, when Time Out sat in on a censor’s viewing of the film Moon, the only thing to be cut – perhaps ironically, considering the title – was a shot of Sam Rockwell’s rear end as his character took a shower). Also up for the chop is anything that could be offensive to religion (not just Islam) and anything that criticises the rulers of the UAE and surrounding Arab nations. But when you consider that a film such as Syriana, about Islamist terrorism, made it to UAE cinemas, you can appreciate that censors are becoming more liberal.
Mohammed Mutawa, a senior staff member in the censorship department at the National Media Council (NMC), sums up the difficulty of his job when he tells us that ‘90 per cent of material – films, music, video games – is from outside our culture’. Inevitably, elements of this imported material will conflict with the UAE’s social values. Still, the department rarely bans films, with sometimes humorous results. Morgan Freeman is entirely missing from the UAE version of Bruce Almighty because censors cut all depictions of God. Contrary to popular belief, Sex and the City was not banned here. But because all scenes of a sexual nature were cut, cinemas decided not to screen it – probably because there were only about 30 minutes of the film left to screen (who knows whether the same will happen with the Abu Dhabi-based sequel). Mutawa concedes: ‘People see things differently. Some see only beauty in certain scenes, whereas others [will be offended]. I might enjoy a film, but we have to do what the law says. There are rules.’
City of Life director Mostafa says he thinks ‘the psychology of seeing it on the big screen’ has drawn objections to the more risqué parts of his film. True, there seem to be different rules for public and private viewing here. Juma Alleem, director of the NMC’s censorship department, confirms it is not illegal to possess an uncensored film on DVD in the UAE because ‘it is a personal effect. There is no official intervention because it is for personal use.’ He also tells us that DVDs for sale in the UAE aren’t as censored as in the cinema because he lacks the technology to cut them. Therefore, if there are only ‘one or two’ sexual scenes, a DVD is released. If there are ‘too many obscene scenes’, it is banned. That’s why Watchmen, for example, was near incomprehensible in the cinema, but it’s possible to buy the DVD and see the film in its entirety – sex scenes and Dr Manhattan’s perennially naked presence included. This too signals a liberal approach, especially when you consider that neighbour Saudi Arabia does not condone viewing films at all.
Cameron Mitchell, general manager of CineStar cinemas, wholeheartedly agrees. ‘We’re very fortunate that the UAE is as liberal as it is,’ he tells us over coffee at the chain’s new multiplex in Mirdif City Centre. He confirms that other GCC countries aren’t nearly so relaxed. Mitchell also offers an insight into why more controversial films, though not banned, may not make it here. ‘Cinema is a very expensive business,’ he says. ‘A lot don’t make any money. You have to make sure you screen the right thing.’ So most cinemas are unwilling to take risks. As John Chahine, general manager of regional distributor Italia Film, tells us: ‘Believe it or not, we released Brokeback Mountain [laughs]. It didn’t do well. But it was only in two multiplexes. ’
However, Chahine thinks this may change. He has worked here for eight years, and says the difference between what he could screen when he started and what he screens now is remarkable. ‘For a movie like Syriana or The Da Vinci Code to pass is like a 90 per cent change,’ he says. And as the movie business here grows bigger, with new cinemas and new exhibitors coming into the market, companies will seek to gain a competitive edge by giving more films a chance to shine. Chahine explains that Shutter Island had a bad first week here. Usually such a film would have been taken off right away, but, believing in its potential, some exhibitors chose to continue screening it. It has now been running for five weeks.
Ultimately, perhaps boundaries will be pushed most persistently by local filmmakers. The UAE’s first female filmmaker, Nayla al Khaja, said in an interview in February: ‘If they expect [us] to make films that are only positive, without any reference to reality, that will be the death of filmmaking.’ She has resisted this, with her critically-lauded short film, Arabana, tackling the taboo of paedophilia. Similarly, Mostafa defends his depiction of decadent Emiratis by declaring: ‘I did what I thought was real.’ He concedes the film could have delved even further, but reasons: ‘I didn’t need to make a film that was so unnecessarily controversial that no [Emirati] could ever make a film again. I’m just scratching the surface.’
Yet even the ability to scratch it is rapid progress, in line with the myriad other leaps and bounds made by Dubai. It may not suit some, as Mostafa has found, but if change is going to happen, all the better it comes from UAE citizens. Let’s see what people make of City of Life. It may prove more important than we realise.
City of Life is in UAE cinemas now. View Nayla al Khaja’s short film, Arabana, on www.youtube.com.