Shadowplay in Dubai

Saeed Taji Farouky
21 December 2005

On the opening night of the second annual Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), I stood, blinking in the beam of the spotlights and flashbulbs, trying to figure out why the plush city-state seemed so familiar to me. After five days, it finally dawned on me: Dubai is the Las Vegas of the Middle East – an oasis in the desert, a haven of relative freedom in a conservative region, and most importantly, outside the fantasy of oversized malls and opulent hotels, a rather ordinary city with ordinary problems.

Saeed Taji Farouky is a journalist, photographer and filmmaker.

Read his account of making a documentary about illicit crossings from Africa: “I See The Stars At Noon: filming Morocco’s emigration hunger” (October 2005)

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) of which Dubai is one of seven constituent elements, is in essence a conservative Muslim country. But in recent years, some of her shrewder rulers have come to realise that, sooner or later, their oil money will run out and they’ll need something else to keep them going.

Dubai’s plan is to develop tourism and business in parallel, and the film festival (held on 11-17 December 2005) is a major part of this strategy, intended to establish a free and open exchange of culture to mirror the free and open exchange of money. With the elegance of a vintage festival but the money and enthusiasm of a start-up, DIFF is trying hard to make a name for itself as a liberal, world-class festival despite being sandwiched between the notoriously puritanical regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A quick look at the festival programme reveals that, considering DIFF is headed and organised by members of Dubai’s ruling royal family, the selection of films was surprisingly progressive. High-profile screenings included Massacre (a documentary featuring Lebanese soldiers confessing to the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps), Kiss Me Not On The Eyes (an Egyptian film which tackles female circumcision, perhaps the country’s most controversial subjects) and Paradise Now (a Palestinian feature which beautifully and brutally humanises the last day in the lives of two Palestinian suicide-bombers). Smaller independent and short films were equally controversial, discussing family values in Egypt, racism in the north of England, Aids in South Africa and the effect of terrorism on the children of the middle east. It was clear from day one that the festival would not shy away from difficult subjects.

Monika Borgmann
© Saeed Taji Farouky

Monika Borgmann, one of the directors of Massacre, was surprised by the screening policies of the festival. She revealed that even in Beirut, often considered to have one of the freest media in the region, her documentary was forced to pass a board of censors. In contrast, none of the films at DIFF were required to be submitted for approval, despite the fact that the UAE’s department of external information requires approval for every other form of media, from the internet to television to ordinary cinema releases.

The UAE nationals invited to the festival made a clear statement to the same effect at the “Emerging Emirates” press conference. The authorities do not censor our films, they explained, self-censorship operates because “we are conservative and we live in a conservative country.” While self-censorship is far from ideal, and can describe anything from modesty to intimidation, it was clear that the festival organisers had decided – at least for now – to avoid confronting the business of censorship.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the festival authorities even went so far as to temporarily suspend one of the UAE’s more controversial laws by inviting Hani Abu-Assad, the director of Paradise Now, as a guest of honour. Abu-Assad is a Palestinian, but as a holder of an Israeli passport, he would ordinarily be denied entry into the UAE.

This is the face Dubai would like the world to see: a respectable international forum; a crossroads of cultures, a conversation “between east and west, between Arab and non-Arab, Muslim and non-Muslim” as the director of the festival, Neil Stephenson, declared in his opening address. However, there is another side to Dubai that was not discussed openly at the festival.

Also in openDemocracy on Dubai, film and censorship:

Mohamed Al Roken, “The Arab Gulf states: fighting terror lawfully” (December 2005)

Maryam Maruf, “Spider-man!”
(October 2002)

Saleh Bachir, “The al-Jazeera revelation” (December 2005)

Beyond the glare

I met Mr B, who did not want to be identified, in Dubai Media City, Dubai’s flagship production and broadcast headquarters for international media organisations. He is a middle-eastern documentary filmmaker who had previously lived in Dubai for two years working for a major Arab news broadcaster. As we spoke, he would look nervously over his shoulder before discussing a particularly controversial topic. “I could be deported,” he told me.

I asked for his opinion on freedom of speech in Dubai, and his answer was immediate. “At the entrance to Media City, they have this sign: ‘Freedom of Expression.’ This is a lie…you can talk about anything in the world, but you can’t talk about the problems in Dubai.” He added: “There are no real independent newspapers or channels,” claiming that corruption was wide-spread in the news media with owners and reporters routinely receiving bribes.

His claims were more than merely anecdotal. Freedom House, in its annual Freedom in the World review, rates the UAE’s media as “Not Free” and explains: “Although the UAE’s constitution provides for some freedom of expression, in practice the government severely restricts this right…Laws prohibit criticism of the government, ruling families, and friendly governments and they also include vague provisions against statements that threaten society.”

Mr B later mentioned what he considered to be two of the most widely-recognised problems that no journalist is allowed, or willing, to discuss: labour abuses and prostitution, both of which are also referred to in the Freedom House report.

In an echo of our conversation, the 12 December 2005 edition of the Khaleej Times carried a small article reporting that 360 “fake” companies had been found registered in Dubai; companies established solely for the purpose of supplying false work permits for foreign workers. Tellingly, the article focused on the fact that the companies were violating ministry regulations and had been blacklisted, only incidentally mentioning the possible exploitation of the workers themselves.

The style of the article, reading more like a government press release than a piece of hard journalism, seemed to support the statement of the Emirate filmmakers as well as the findings of the International Press Institute, a global press freedom watchdog. Rather than direct restrictions on speech, the IPI concluded, “the main problem, which remains largely hidden beneath the surface, is self-censorship.”

Alberto Arce
© Saeed Taji Farouky

Later in festival week, I spoke to Alberto Arce and Maria Moreno, a documentary filmmaking team from Spain whose film Internationals in Palestine, about non-violent foreign activists in Palestine, received a lot of attention at the festival. Their experience while being interviewed by an Abu-Dhabi television reporter led them to the same conclusion.

When, off-camera, Arce said he believed that other Arab countries were not doing enough to support the Palestinians, the interviewer asked if he could mention this on-camera, because she shared the opinion but would not have been allowed, or would not have felt safe saying it herself. Moreno agreed that the reporters and journalists at the festival seemed very aware of what they could and could not say, stating simply “we have the possibility to say something that people inside [Arab] countries can’t say.”

Mohammad Makhlouf was the organiser of the festival’s Arabian Shorts programme, a selection of short fiction and documentary films either from or about the Arab world. At the Arabian Shorts press conference, he also expressed the concern that Arab governments, journalists and filmmakers were afraid to discuss the real, controversial issues affecting their societies. He explained that he chose the films featured in Arabian Shorts specifically to tackle subjects that the middle east was otherwise silent about.

The fact that such a dedicated forum is needed reflects the dire state of free speech in the middle east in general. But it is pleasantly ironic that Dubai, in which domestic voices cannot speak freely, provided Makhlouf with the perfect combination of money, international exposure and a surprisingly hands-off policy to allow him to challenge so openly the idea of limited expression. His approach would probably not have been possible at other respected Arab film festivals such as Ramallah, Cairo or Beirut.

Looking beyond the admirable intentions of DIFF 2005, however, the enduring question is whether the festival can maintain this approach as it grows in reputation and profile. It is still young, but if it continues without giving in to the political and religious pressure that it will undoubtedly face, it has the potential to be an extremely powerful and highly regarded platform for a progressive middle-eastern media.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData