First Published: 2006-04-17

 
‘Tolerant’ Dubai censors two US films
 

Oscar-winning ’Syriana’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’ draw ire of censors in conservative Gulf states.

 

Middle East Online

By Sam Dagher - DUBAI

It took four months for UAE censors to comb through 'Syriana'

Two Oscar-winning US films have caused headaches for government censors in the conservative Muslim Arab states of the Gulf, including booming and relatively tolerant Dubai.

"Syriana" is a sinister tale of the United States' goals of "fighting terrorism", promoting democracy in the Middle East and securing its oil and military interests. It premiered in theatres in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Wednesday with two minutes of controversial scenes cut out.

Before it could be released, it took four months for censors to comb through the movie, partly shot in Dubai two years ago

Missing from the UAE version were scenes showing mistreatment of Asian workers in the Gulf, and references to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a late Saudi king.

The movie has already opened in Egypt but is unlikely to be screened anywhere else in the Middle East, distributor Shooting Stars said.

It has been assailed by many as anti-Arab, anti-US or both.

The movie's co-producer and co-star, George Clooney, won an Oscar for best supporting actor at last month's US Academy Awards.

As for "Brokeback Mountain", a story of two male cowboys falling in love in the conservative American West, its Beirut-based distributor, Italia Films, said it had dropped plans to try to show the movie in the Gulf after discussing its taboo topic with concerned ministries and receiving negative feedback.

"We asked whether a film with such a subject would be approved. They told us they would rather not deal with it," Jean Shaheen of Italia Films said.

The movie won three Oscars including one for best director.

Homosexuality is a serious offence in the Gulf, punishable by flogging and imprisonment. In February, 11 men were sentenced to six years in jail in the UAE after a raid on a gay party in a desert hotel.

Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all to varying degrees censor or ban books, music, magazines, newspapers and films they deem offensive to social and religious values or threatening to their political stability and security.

Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia bans movie theatres altogether.

"Kuwait has the toughest censorship. Fifty percent of movies are banned," said Salim Ramia, founder of Dubai-based Gulf Film.

His company is the largest distributor and exhibitor of films in the Middle East outside Egypt.

Many say censorship has spurred piracy and even clandestine Internet screenings of movies like "Syriana" and "Brokeback Mountain" in the region.

On a recent afternoon Chinese vendors were seen hawking pirated DVDs of both films and hundreds of others at an outdoor coffee shop in Dubai's centre.

The practice of censorship in Dubai clashes with the image the city wants to project as a cosmopolitan business centre and a glamorous tourist destination aiming to attract 15 million visitors by 2010.

"It is part of the gimmick. If you come as a tourist, sit on a beach, eat well and do a desert safari then you are not going to see the things that are contrary to what they advertise," Ramia said before quickly adding that Dubai's censors were "open-minded".

Aleem Jumaa, head of the Dubai censorship office, said: "We would never allow anything that is disrespectful to the country or the president, causes security problems, insults religions, exhibits immorality like nudity or promotes vices like alcohol and drugs."

He said these prohibitions were outlined in the country's printing and publishing law.

Jumaa said "Syriana" was an exception because his office felt it required a second opinion from authorities in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the seven-emirate federation and the source of its oil wealth.

The cut scenes show Asian workers fired from an oil rig and one of the labourers, Wassim, getting into an argument with police who beat him and his father with batons.

Wassim is later lured by a radical Islamist cleric.

The poor pay and living conditions of Asian migrants toiling on Dubai's projects received plenty of media attention after a violent riot on March 21 at the site of Burj Dubai, slated to be the world's tallest skyscraper.

UAE censors also did not like a comment made by US actor Matt Damon's character that a major Saudi construction company owned by bin Laden's family "air-conditioned (the holy city of) Mecca and made billions and billions".

They also cut a brief shot showing late Saudi king Fahd, who was a close US ally, in a framed photograph posing with the powerful and corrupt lawyer character played by Canadian actor Christopher Plummer.

A spokesman for the movie's distributor said censors went over the script and told the makers to remove all references to Gulf leaders and countries before allowing them to shoot here.

So what emerged was a country somewhere in "the Persian Gulf" and events and characters that appear to be a composite of the real thing.

The ailing wheelchair-bound emir has an uncanny resemblance to king Fahd while the succession struggle between his two sons brings to mind events in gas-rich Qatar 11 years ago when the current emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani overthrew his father in a bloodless coup.

 

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