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La culture pop dans la péninsule Arabique

UAE Filmmaking beyond Arabization, Cosmopolitanism, and Exceptionalism

Dale Hudson

Résumés

Plus de 60 long‑métrages de fiction ont été produits aux Émirats arabes unis (EAU) depuis le tout premier en 1988. Peu d’entre eux ont néanmoins suscité un engouement suggérant que le cinéma émirien puisse être constitutif de la culture populaire. Le premier film financé par l’entreprise publique de production cinématographique, Image Nation Abu Dhabi, était Djinn (2013), mettant en scène le personnage d’une djinnesse, issu du folklore local, sous la direction d’un réalisateur hollywoodien. À sa sortie, il fut tourné en ridicule par les critiques et largement ignoré par le public. Cet article examine comment les réalisations émiriennes pourront s’inscrire dans la culture cinématographique des EAU en réévaluant les cadres qui définissent le public des films aux EAU et en comparant deux films qui présentent des citoyens émiriens aux côtés d’expatriés arabes, européens et sud‑asiatiques, nous permettant ainsi de penser le cinéma émirien au‑delà de l’arabisation, du cosmopolitisme et de l’exceptionnalisme.

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  • 1 Transliterations of proper nouns are left as found in Latin script sources. When the Arabic origina (...)
  • 2 The other films are Laʿnat Iblīs/The Curse of the Devil (UAE, 2010) and Paranormal Activity (UAE, 2 (...)

1More than 60 feature‑length narrative films have been produced in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This achievement is remarkable since the first, Ali Al Abdul [‘Alī al‑‘Abdūl]’s bir sabīl1/The Wayfarer, appeared in 1988 and sustained production only after 2010. However, few films have generated an excitement to suggest Emirati filmmaking is popular culture: many premièred at festivals, some had short theatrical runs, a few sold on DVD or VOD (video‑on‑demand). Some were financially supported by state agencies; others, privately. The state media production company Image Nation Abu Dhabi entered feature filmmaking by supporting young Emirati filmmakers and hiring foreign ones to “mentor” and produce content. Its first feature, Djinn (UAE, 2013; dir. Tobe Hooper), was an experiment, a Hollywoodized version of Maher Al‑Khaja [al‑Khāja]’s Wījā, Al‑ghurfa al‑khāmisa/The Fifth Chamber of Ouija (UAE, 2009), which had already used the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah’s Al Jazirah Al Hamra (“red island”), a settlement abandoned in 1968 and considered a haunted ghost town, as a setting for local folklore of the female djinn Umm Al Duwais, who seduces men to their peril. Al‑Khaja’s film and its sequels are Emirati interpretations of global popular culture, adapting the device of the “found video,” popularized by The Blair Witch Project (USA, 1999; dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez), to the UAE context.2 (figure 1)

2Djinn, however, seemed at odds with the local popular culture: directed by a Hollywood veteran, it felt disconnected from the UAE. With a story about Arab expatriates, Djinn attempted to translate an emerging element of UAE popular culture into top‑down engineered UAE pop culture.

  • 3 Hudson, 2017.
  • 4 Hjort & Mackenzie, 2007; Iordanova et al., 2010.
  • 5 Crane, 2002, p. 2.

3Despite becoming the largest producer of narrative features on the Arabian Peninsula and having the most lucrative theatrical market in the Middle East, Emirati films have not really entered UAE film culture. Filmmaking and film culture do not overlap like as they do in China, India, Nigeria, South Korea, and United States, where locally produced films constitute a pop culture that is popular with domestic and foreign audiences. With its heterogeneous population, Bollywood and Hollywood films are more popular in UAE cinemas than, as might be assumed, Egyptian films. Independently produced Emiratis films have nonetheless become local hits, adapting slapstick antics from Egyptian cinema, as Kuwaiti filmmakers have also done; and state agencies have begun to copy this formula. Unlike Egypt, the UAE does not have a majority Arab or Arabic‑speaking population. It is multilingual and multicultural: Arabic, English, and Hindi are official court languages in Abu Dhabi, and Arabic‑language signage is often transliterated English. The UAE is difficult to locate on traditional maps or atlases of world cinema.3 It challenges scholars to reevaluate frameworks, sometimes informed by ideas of “people and cultures” that originate in area (and even orientalist) studies to insert the UAE into a “Middle East,” “Middle East and North Africa (MENA),” or “Arab World.” It also does not conform to film studies’ traditional categories of national, regional, or world cinema, contributing to ongoing interventions about “cinemas of small nations” and “cinema at the periphery” that notice what others overlook.4 Critical frameworks for culture and globalization, such as cultural imperialism, network flows, audience reception, and—perhaps, most applicably—competitions, which implies a strategic selling of “national” culture on global market, are more relevant.5

4This article reevaluates frameworks that define UAE film audiences, considering how academic research imposes frameworks that are more applicable to Egypt or Lebanon that to UAE, thus misaligning questions with cultural location. It uses a critical reevaluation of such methodologies to examine how UAE filmmakers negotiate the stigma of “small nation, big budget” associated with Djinn to speculate whether and how UAE filmmaking might become part of a UAE film culture, that is, part of popular culture rather than a highly produced pop culture on offer to the global marketplace of film production. To this end, the article analyzes the role of state and private entities in cultural productions of both nation and nationalism, particularly in relation to Arabization, cosmopolitanism, and exceptionalism. It then analyzes how and when Emirati filmmaking and film culture intersect in two contrasting films about Dubai.

Producing nation without nationalism

  • 6 MacLean, 2017.

5Formed of the union of seven emirates, UAE national identity is facilitated by infrastructure, including postal and telecom systems (Emirates Post, Etisalat), national identity cards (Emirates ID), currency (AED), and roadways—all of which shifted self‑identification from family or tribe to muwāṭin (citizen) and eventually “Emirati.”6 Filmmaking is mode to construct nation. While a selective focus on Emiratis is understandable in a country whose independence from Britain came only in 1971 and whose population is roughly 90% noncitizens, it can have the unintended consequence of reinforcing notions of purity and contamination, manifesting in xenophobia and racism against Africans, non‑Gulf Arabs, South Asians, and Southeast Asians (often by fellow expatriates), prejudice against “half Emiratis,” particularly when non‑Emirati parents are not Arab or western, evident in testimonies in Amal Al‑Agroobi [Amal al‑ʿAqrūbī]’s short documentary Niṣf Imārātī/Half Emirati (UAE, 2012), blindness to anti‑Black prejudice, evident in film discussed below, and acceptance of social orders organized around ruling families and family names.

  • 7 Image Nation Abu Dhabi previously split operations between Image National International and Image N (...)
  • 8 Miller et al., 2004.
  • 9 Pereira, 2019.

6With “nation” featured prominently in its brand, Image Nation media company adopts a two‑pronged approach of financial income from foreign production and cultural investment in domestic filmmaking.7 It supports both Hollywood‑style film‑as‑product, whereby “entertainment” functions as primarily as instrument for financial extraction and secondarily as one for political influence, and, less frequently, French‑style film‑as‑“cultural exception” to the lawlessness of free trade, whereby film is considered as more than box‑office receipts.8 Some of its films move between pop and popular culture. My Name Is Khan (India, 2010; dir. Karen Johar), for example, destigmatizes disability and critiques post‑9/11 U.S. Islamophobia, though perhaps sidelines reflections on post‑26/11 Indian Islamophobia. Contagion (USA/UAE, 2011; dir. Steven Soderbergh), by contrast, inserts Abu Dhabi’s name, rather than rival Dubai’s, onto world maps and into dialogues to promote the brand—and perhaps also distance the UAE from global capitalism’s assumptions about a Middle East, destabilized by civil war, despotism, religious fundamentalism, and terrorism, thus risky for financial investment. Image Nation’s orientation to Hollywood has made its facilities and services too expensive for Arab independent filmmaking, which once received development and post‑production through the festivals in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.9

  • 10 Kolker, 2005, pp. 44–45. Hollywood mostly directs its films to audiences who are white, middle clas (...)

7Image Nation leans heavily toward producing a pop culture of film, television, videogames, and other digital content, as part of the UAE’s larger post‑oil economic strategies. Cultural interventions are not a priority. Pop culture is generally a commodified version of popular culture, designed to maximize profit. It is by definition conservative, offering pleasures to socially privileged audiences, who can recognize how they see the world in stories told in comics, film, music, novels, and television. Most U.S. audiences, for example, consider Hollywood movies apolitical and mindless entertainment, not agents of U.S. ideologies. Film is entertainment only when its politics are largely invisible to audiences acculturated to them. Classical Hollywood’s “invisible style” is more than a careful set of rules regarding the framing and cutting of images according to continuity, chronology, and coherence. It is “ideology at work” insofar as it generates assumptions and expectations that film’s relationship to social realities.10 Minoritized U.S. audiences are generally more attune to this politics, but they are also sometimes unaware how the films can be alienating to non‑U.S. audiences.

  • 11 Danan, 2006. These films accept Hollywood films as a component of French culture in less formally e (...)

8Since the UAE is privileged in the financial sense, it is useful to consider ways that other film‑producing state compete against Hollywood in both pop and popular culture. Founded in 1992 by French filmmaker and producer Luc Besson, EuropaCorp competes with Hollywood‑style genre films by making its own, mostly in French language, though sometimes in English. Its films challenge Hollywood’s historical dominance of the French theatrical market since the end of the second World War by imitating (perhaps more than indigenizing) Hollywood’s formulas and styles. Rather than the arthouse films typically associated with French “national cinema,” EuropaCorp produces what Martine Danon terms a “postnational” cinema.”11 It generates revenue and accepts Hollywood as a part of French popular culture that does not endanger French identity. Outside France, EuropaCorp and other French films compete through strategic maneuvers that signal France in different ways. They also can appear as forms of cultural imperialism, particularly in regions formerly under French colonial or imperial rule, such as Lebanon and Tunisia. The state organization UniFrance deploys arthouse films to promote French culture globally.

  • 12 Higson, 1989, p. 44.
  • 13 Fanon, 1952. For a discussion of Josephine Baker’s own escape from pre‑Civil Rights U.S. racism int (...)
  • 14 Shaheen, 2009, defines negative stereotypes for Arabs and Muslims as “reel bad Arabs” in Hollywood, (...)

9While national cinema might seem a way to resist cultural imperialism, it can also naturalize “internal cultural colonialism,” as Andrew Higson explains.12 Internal colonialism is evident in filmmaking that addresses itself to most socially privileged audiences, who are seldom questioned about their national identity and belonging. Content, however, is only one variable in understanding how national can slide into nationalist or imperialist. Contexts and relationships matter in ways that can be understood by considering how external colonialism functions through cultural productions, even after formal independence. Djibril Diop‑Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (Sénégal, 1973) famously satirized what Frantz Fanon termed as “black skin, white mask” (internalized racism of French universalism) in a scene of the two protagonists, Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang), riding aimlessly to a looped chorus of Josephine Baker’s “Paris, Paris” (1949), a not‑so‑subtle reminder that the former colonial metropole was hardly “a corner of paradise on earth” (sur la terre un coin de paradis) for “les Noirs.”13 Much like Mory and Anta will never feel as comfortable in France as Baker and her white co‑stars, many UAE residents—and even some citizens—do not have the social privilege to claim Emirati identity. Whether arthouse or commercial, UAE filmmaking selects or organizes signifiers of cultural identity against the legacies of misrepresentation, not only in western films, but also in Egyptian and Indian ones.14 Emirati films construct ideas of cultural identity much like other cultural productions, such as heritage, museums, music, poetry, and visual arts. They tend to minimize the presence of Africans, Iranians, South Asians, and non‑Gulf Arabs.

10Focusing on the complexities of film culture allows scholarship to adjust its critical framework, as the UAE are often conflated with the Middle East or the Arab World. Alternatively, Emirati filmmaking is defined as a national cinema, a concept that varies widely, but it generally accepts the state (i.e., nation‑state) as an equivalent for the nation. In a few cases, states and nations align in largely monocultural states like Japan, South Korea, and tiny European ones (e.g., Finland, Iceland); most do not, particularly the largest like Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and United States. Andrew Higson described national cinemas in terms of film produced, distributed, and exhibited; films consumed by audiences; or films conveying cultural identity. The latter two are most important in the postcolonial context.

  • 15 Mostafa’s City of Life (UAE, 2009), Al Janahi’s The Circle (Kuwait/UAE, 2009), Al‑Murry’s Thawb al‑ (...)

11UAE filmmaking begins before free zones of Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 and Dubai’s Studio City—and the state support through Image Nation. Hani Al Shaibani and Majid Abdulrazak self‑produced features long before they existed. Others benefited from development funds offered by the festivals, though most self‑funded their films. Ali F. Mostafa, Nawaf Al Janahi, Saeed Salmeen Al‑Murry, and Humaid Al Suwaidi received support for second features only after the success of their first features.15 Some popular films were produced outside state infrastructure and financing. They typically depict social values about family and friendship, alongside cultural practices, such as mait [mēt] (a team sport) to ḥajwala (drift racing).

  • 16 The most popular genre is comedy, including Mazraʿat Yaddū/Grandmother’s Farm (UAE, 2013; dir. Ahme (...)

12They often have exclusively Arab casts, positioning Emirati protagonists as clear heroes.16 Domestic spaces of villas, farm houses, or private vehicles and retreats to Ras Al Khaimah’s remote Jebel Jais can become havens from UAE’s transitory diversity. Films quickly move from national to nationalist through negative stereotypes that stigmatize certain expatriates (i.e., working class and nonwestern) as “foreign.”

  • 17 Koch, 2019, p. 187.

13The state is not the only agent of exclusionary nationalism. Natalie Koch locates corporate productions of nationalism, noting that they “not only hail an imagined ‘ethnic national’, but also the cosmopolitan ‘expat’ figure” since both are “key audiences in contemporary articulations of nationalism in the Gulf.”17 These groups largely control film production in the Gulf, with Arab and Indian expatriates controlling part of distribution and exhibition. National identity is sometimes produced “competitively” in the sense of branding. Ideas of Khalījī (“Gulf”) identity, largely defined by the GCC, suggest that identity, culture, and heritage are addressed both inwardly to citizens and residents and also outwardly to the so‑called free markets.

  • 18 Kanna & al., 2020, p. 6.
  • 19 Kanna & al., 2020, pp.13, 12.
  • 20 Kanna & al., 2020, p. 8.

14UAE filmmaking participates in this mix of public and private productions of national identity, culture, and heritage that itself intersects with ethnoracial hierarchies structured into law and ignored as customs and traditions. Corporate nationalism’s selective hailing to citizens and privileged expatriates is part of what Ahmed Kanna, Amélie Le Renard, and Neha Vora define as “Gulf exceptionalism”, which is distinct from orientalism but shares common features, notably rendering “‘culture’ as fixed in timeless ideas of Bedouins, Islam, indentured labor, and gendered repression,” anchored to notions of the “ruling bargain” of rentier theory that allegedly erases any possibility for civic discourse.18 Gulf exceptionalism ensures that westerners and other elite expatriates (wealthy non‑Gulf Arabs and South Asians) enjoy “preferential treatment and self‑segregation,” which they define as complicity with “ethnoracial stratification” that began long before independence and the oil boom.19 De‑exceptionalizing, they argue, requires postcolonial frameworks.20

  • 21 Elsheshtawy, 2019, p. 179.
  • 22 Kanna, 2010; Elsheshtawy, 2010. Elsayed & Webb, 2020, provide an overview beyond the UAE, noting th (...)

15Gulf exceptionalism allows a particular kind of Emiratization based on Emirati Arab identity to intersect with a complementary discourse of cosmopolitanism, granting privilege selectively through the kafāla (sponsorship) system. Mostly associated with business and tourism, cosmopolitism can function as a depoliticizing and dehistoricizing concept that sounds tolerant and “business friendly.” Yasser Elsheshtawy finds the UAE’s cosmopolitan demographics camouflage realities of segregation.21 Scholars have attempted to redeem the term by adding various modifiers (e.g., vernacular, “from below,” cosmo‑politics, etc.), but cosmopolitanism in UAE is largely corporatist and nationalist. Ahmed Kanna and Yasser Elsheshtawy locate selective privileges for cosmopolitan expatriates within corporatized or neoliberal structures of governance.22 In films, it frequently appears in characters who prioritize consumerism over social purpose, for example.

  • 23 Emiratization is a state policy that mandates employment quotas for citizens to the private sector, (...)
  • 24 See, for example, Khalaf, 2000; Gilbert, 2011; Koch, 2015. As postcolonial and transnational femini (...)
  • 25 Hudson, 2019.
  • 26 Potter, 2014, p. 8. Exell, 2018, pp. 324, 314. By contrast, Qatar’s Bin Jelmood House, part of the (...)
  • 27 In Qatar, Doha’s Souq Waqif is an Arabized reconstruction of the historical Souq al‑Farsi, literall (...)

16Gentrification also stages a reinvention of the past, typically as an exclusively Gulf Arab one. Informally, Emiratization appears in Arabizing English or Persian names for streets and neighborhoods, or renaming them after ruling families.23 It intersects with constructions of cultural heritage in pearl diving, camel racing, and falconry, often linked to tourism in post‑oil planning.24 Emiritized revivals of sea and pearling songs are another component, alongside Arabizing the dhow.25 Productions of identity, culture, and heritage are addressed both inwardly to citizens and residents and also outwardly onto capitalism’s free markets where nations “compete.” The Dubai Museum, for instance, narrates history from prehistoric to present times, based on Gulf‑Arabized heritage that erases African, Iranian/Persian, and South Asian contributions26 although it is located in Al Bastakiya, named after Bastak in Iran due to its historical Huwala (or ‘Ajam, that is, Persianized Arabs or Arabized Persians) inhabitants, but Arabized as Al Fahidi after an eighteenth‑century fort owned by the ruling family.27

  • 28 I thank Frédéric Lagrange for this reference.

17Colonialism’s legacies do not continue of their own momentum. Westerners produce nationalist spectacle as “authentic” cultural experiences, diminishing or excluding non‑Arab elements of Emirati culture alongside contributions of Arab expatriates, recruited from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Story of a Fort, Legacy of a Nation (2013), for example, was a Cirque du Soleil‑inspired retelling of the history of Abu Dhabi’s Qasr al‑Hosn (colloquially, “old fort” or “white fort” in English) that erased Africans, Iranians, and South Asians to construct an all‑Gulf‑Arab narrative, mentored in resource extraction by benevolent Brits. With media production, film and television now participate in this nationalist project. The three‑part documentary History of the Emirates (UAE, 2019; dir. David Lee), produced by Image Nation, offers another retelling of selective history, minimizing the presence of Africans, Iranians, and South Asians, who continue to be othered in Emirati films as “workers,” “maids,” and “nannies.” With a title in Egyptian Arabic, Bitā‘ kollo casts social media star Hani al‑Masri [Hānī al‑Miṣrī) as the quintessential Egyptian swindler/con man. Yemenis are also characterized as comedic foils to heroic Emiratis, as in Al‑‘amm Nājī fī l‑Imārāt /Uncle Naji in UAE (UAE, 2019; dir. Ahmed Zain). Some films attempt to bypass local stereotypes, as in Shaghghālatunā Arjantīniyya/Our Argentinian Maid (UAE, 2018; dir. Hamed Saleh) with its sexualized Latin American grifters posing as maids whilst simultaneously reproducing stereotypes of domestic labor that “absconds” with money.28

  • 29 Black Arabs also appear as background in other Gulf features, such as Barakah Meets Barakah.
  • 30 Hopper, 2015, pp. 220, 219.

18When present at all, Blackness in most UAE films is associated with comedy or villainy, evident in Mazraʿat Yaddū 2/Grandmother’s Farm, Part 2 (UAE, 2015; dir. Ahmed Zain), Ḥajwala/Hajwala: The Missing Engine (UAE, 2016; dir. Ali Bin Matar and Ibrahim Bin Mohammad), Hajwala 2: The Mysterious Mission (UAE, 2018; dir. Ibrahim Bin Mohamed and Hasan Aljaberi), Bitā‘ kollo (UAE, 2019, dir. Aḥmad Zayn), and ʿAlī wa‑ʿliya/Ali and Alia (UAE, 2019; dir. Hussein Alansari).29 Descendants of African slaves were brought to the Gulf to work in the labor‑intensive pearl diving and date production. Today, they self‑define as Arab, rather than Afro‑Arab or Black, due to shared “benefits of citizenship in a rentier state” and the “shared experience of poverty in the twentieth century.”30 On screen, however, Black characters are often typecast as buffoons and bullies, not substantially different from the orientalist stereotypes of Arabs in classical Hollywood films.

  • 31 In Arabic, the setting is described as “في مكان ما في الوطن العربي” in an intertitle.

19Models other than Egyptian and Hollywood film also exist. Despite the disclaimer that its story is set “somewhere in the Arab homeland,” Majid Al Ansari’s Zinzāna/Rattle the Cage (UAE/Jordan, 2015) explores the complex social politics in the UAE during the 1980s between Arab expatriates and Emirati citizens through the genre conventions of Park Chan‑wook’s films in South Korea’s Hallyuwood, Anurag Kashyap’s “alternative popular” films in India, or Quentin Tarantino’s “video‑shop generation” films in Hollywood.31 The film’s script might have been written for the United States, but its story becomes Emirati in ways that might be immediately obvious. Comparably, Ali F. Mostafa’s From A to B is a male‑bonding road movie that adopts some of the antics of Hollywood and Bollywood films. It also tells a story about three second‑generation Arab expatriates and their tenuous connections to a home where they have never lived. They navigate between different dialects of Arabic and code‑switching into English, much like characters in Bollywood films switch between Indian languages with code‑switching into English, as well as hybrid expressions in Hinglish (Hindi‑English) and Tanglish (Tamil‑English). These films show how the UAE is shaped by expatriates and how the UAE shapes them. Emirati culture is shaped by encounters.

Adjusting framework to notice UAE audiences

20If Arabization, cosmopolitanism, and exceptionalism can encourage audiences to self‑segregate and ignore ethnoracial hierarchies, then academic scholarship might offer counterpoint by looking at film culture. Audience studies, however, require adjustments to methodologies devised elsewhere. Oscillating between “Middle East,” “MENA,” and “Arab World” as its scope, a 2016 study by Northwestern University in Qatar (NW‑Q) in collaboration with the Doha Film Institute compared five primary sites of analysis—Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE—three of which are majority Arabic‑speaking. In its examination of popular and art/independent films, a primary concern was representations of Arabs and Islam, extending the “people and cultures” focus from traditional area studies.

  • 32 Schoenbach & al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/industry/2016/film/#s37.
  • 33 Schoenbach & al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/industry/2016/film/#s37. In the UAE, average bo (...)

21Quantitative data confirms market penetration by non‑Arab media in the UAE: only 8% of the 426 films screened at the largest cinema chains in the UAE were Arabic‑language ones in comparison with 20% of 206 in Egypt.32 Revenue was equally divided between Arabic‑ and non‑Arabic–language films in Egypt, whereas almost 97% of revenue in UAE cinemas was generated by non‑Arabic–language films.33 Revenue, of course, does not tell the entire story. Audiences might sit through only twenty minutes of a film to snack on nachos and rest before returning to shopping, yet these short visits are quantified as a ticket sale and shape perceptions. By limiting data to major chains, neighborhood cinemas, screening mostly Indian films, are excluded. Bias privileges formal distribution to obscure the significance of informal modes, such as pirated video, unauthorized file‑sharing, or torrents, as part of UAE film culture.

  • 34 Ganti, 2013, 137–159.
  • 35 Schoenbach & al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/industry/2016/film/#s36.
  • 36 The study distinguishes between Arabic, English, and French to determine the “three most common lan (...)

22The NW‑Q study acknowledges the high percentage of non‑citizens in UAE but does not differentiate non‑Arabic–language films, notably Bollywood and Hollywood, as it does between Arabic–language films from Egypt, Lebanon, and UAE. Another of the survey’s unmarked biases is its use of western film genres, thereby making many Indian films unclassifiable since such genres are not relevant.34 By differentiating between Arabic and non‑Arabic, the study interprets, rather than simply categorizes, quantitative data on commercial film exhibition in the UAE, which has the largest number of screens (374 versus Egypt’s 295) and the highest percentage of screens per million inhabitants (41 versus Egypt’s 3) in ways that are hardly transparent.35 The 97% revenue for non‑Arabic content is not only English‑language content from Hollywood but also Hindi‑, Malayalam‑, Tamil‑, Telegu‑, and Tagalog‑language content from India and the Philippines. The same holds for radio.36

  • 37 Schoenbach & al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2014/question/film/percentage‑of‑people‑ (...)
  • 38 For “Nationals” (Emirati citizens), the percentages are 71% for English, 39% for Arabic, 67% of Hin (...)
  • 39 Schoenbach & al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2014/question/television/percentage‑of‑p (...)

23NW‑Q supplements quantitative data with audience research: 79% of respondents screen films in English, 52% in Arabic, 46% in Hindi, 6% in Malayalam, 5% in Urdu, and 1% in Tagalog.37 Audiences understanding Hindi or Urdu, of course, understand both. If Urdu films designates Pakistan, then Hindi and Malayalam films designate India, thereby minimizing the presence of Indian films by differentiating Indian languages and not differentiating Arabic dialects; that is, Hindi and Malayalam together are quantitatively equal to Arabic. Bias structured into quantitative metrics validates Hollywood and Egyptian industries as models, as Emirati filmmaking has done without interrogating their biases and reaching larger audiences. It simultaneously devalues South Asian and Southeast Asian industries, which might open Emirati filmmaking to expatriate audiences in addition to citizens. Breakdowns in data by “nationality” reveal UAE citizens attended more Hindi films than Arabic ones, as did “Asian Expat” (i.e., South Asian expatriates) and “Western Expat,” with only “Arab Expat” preferring Arabic to Hindi films.38 Television revealed different results with UAE citizens and Arab expatriates preferring Arabic‑language television; South Asian expatriates, Hindi‑, Malayalam‑, or Urdu‑language television; and western expatriates, English‑language television.39

  • 40 Mitra, forthcoming 2021.
  • 41 Dennis, 2014, p. 21.
  • 42 Ibid., p. 31.
  • 43 Schoenbach et al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2014/survey/methodology.html.
  • 44 Dennis, 2014, p. 25.
  • 45 Ibid., p. 26.
  • 46 Diwanji, 2020, p. 28.
  • 47 Dennis, 2014, p. 31.

24Data suggests the audiences are less inclined to foreign media inside their homes. Much like Turkish and Korean television dramas in the past, Indian films and television serials are increasingly available dubbed or subtitled into Arabic for Emiratis and Arab expatriates who do not understand Hindi.40 An earlier study in 2014 notes that Hindi film, music, and television were “popular among [South] Asian expatriates in Qatar and the UAE.”41 Other statistics, however, seem questionable, such as “84% of [UAE] nationals say they watch UAE‑produced films specifically.”42 Since relatively few UAE‑produced films were exhibited then, it might be more indicative of national pride than actual practices. Surveys were conducted only in Arabic and English with adult subjects, excluding “visitors with no residence permit, farmers, servants, the mentally disabled, and those in labor camps.”43 The most popular means of watching films are television (92%), internet (75%), and discs (53%) with the majority (55%) indicating that they never go to cinemas.44 For South Asian expatriates, however, 71% go to cinemas.45 This statistic is hardly surprising: in India, nearly two billion tickets were sold in 2018.46 Hits from Bollywood also appeal to non‑South Asian audiences in the UAE, as “one‑third of all film viewers watch films from India,” notes the report for audiences in the Gulf, Mashriq, and Maghreb.47 The survey frames it question to privilege financial revenue, another traditional bias in communication and industry studies. Film also produces and alters social perceptions. The survey raises questions that its analysis ignores, namely, why South Asian and Southeast Asian expatriates are not watching Emirati films?

  • 48 Alsharekh & Springborg, 2008, p. 9.
  • 49 Lawson & Al‑Naboodah, 2008, p. 15.
  • 50 Ibid.
  • 51 Mourtada‑Sabbah & al., 2008, 121.

25The NW‑Q studies extend frameworks for Gulf scholarship that localize “MENA” to “Gulf” but still overlook historical interconnections with Africa, Iran, and South Asia. In their anthology on popular culture in the Gulf, Alanoud Alsharekh and Robert Springborg noted: “Gulf culture is distinguishable from other Middle Eastern cultures, hence it needs to be appreciated and analysed in its own right and not some derivative form.”48 The chapters, however, examine almost exclusively Arab and Arabic‑language popular culture. The first foregrounds “cultural pluralism” and points to limited scholarly attention to “indigenous components of popular culture,” implying “nouveaux riches citizens” are lured by “the icons and mores” imported by “expatriate labourers” who arrived as “oil revenues flooded over the country” (my emphasis).49 Despite language of cultural submersion, the chapter acknowledges a multicultural history that is only recuperated in archaeology, thus a distant past rather than a contemporary reality.50 A latter chapter on media notes that “little has been said about the impact of imported media upon the cosmology of the indigenous Emiratis,” focusing on (western) consumerism mixing with Muslim and Bedouin virtues.51

26In UAE, analytics privilege Arabic‑language media as part of Middle Eastern or Arab media ecologies. In so doing, they distort reality. As the multiple languages for commercially exhibited films indicate, multiple audiences cannot be collapsed into a single “national” (state‑wide) audience, nor can non‑citizens be excluded. If the UAE were to attempt to produce monolingual films for such an audience, English would be more viable than Arabic since many citizens and residents speak English as a first, second, or third language. Multilingual films might make more sense since many people speaks two or three languages daily. UAE filmmaking might model itself after Bollywood, rather than Hollywood or Egypt, since Bollywood films code‑switch between different languages to depict the realities of Bangalore, Delhi, and Mumbai, while Egyptian cinema largely homogenizes dialogues to a movie Cairene and Hollywood uses U.S English.

  • 52 Ciecko, 2010.

27Film distribution and exhibition are rapidly changing from national audiences in theaters to niche audiences on VOD. Business models are shifting from audience‑driven metrics to supply‑driven metrics, as subscription VOD services compete for the largest selection. Entering the VOD market for Arab films back in 2011, Dubai‑based Front Row Filmed Entertainment signed an agreement with Netflix in 2016, vastly increasing availability and variety of Arab films. Front Row has VOD deals with OSN, alongside Du, Etisalat E‑Vision, and Vodafone to bypass cinemas via mobiles. Most films have English subtitles. Some are subtitled in Arabic for non‑native‑speakers of Gulf dialects. Hajwala 2: The Mysterious Mission is available with Arabic, English, and Hindi subtitles. Increased availability of Emirati films on VOD suggests a mode by which they might enter popular culture. The uncertainties of reopening cinemas after pandemic curfews in 2020 might prove another driving force to align how audiences access films with how they access television: at home. Film culture may emerge as a “private cinema,” much like 16mm prints of Egyptian films were screened in private homes in Saudi Arabia in what Anne Ciecko calls a “non‑public cinema.”52 However, segregation of audiences into private homes does not mean that Emirati films need to ignore a substantial non‑citizen market of audiences that do not seem to have been acknowledged as important, either socially or financially.

Contrasting relationships with Dubai

  • 53 The transliteration of the film’s title adopts the non‑Egyptian “j” for the letter ج, which would b (...)
  • 54 Walters, 2008.
  • 55 Leotta, 2016.

28Tensions between filmmaking and film culture are evident in two films set in Dubai. Ali F. Mostafa’s self‑funded Dār al‑ḥayy/City of Life (UAE, 2009) and Mohammed Saeed Harib [Ḥārib]’s state‑funded Rāshid wa‑Rajab/Rashed & Rajab (UAE, 2019) were heavily promoted in Arabic‑ and English‑language media.53 Although made a decade apart, comparing them does not imply a directional “trend” in filmmaking. Instead, it suggests two contrasting relationships to Dubai: City of Life is independent, its two most recognizable stars, Sonu Sood and Natalie Dormer—both household names today—were less known at the time, while Harib had already proven his marketability as creator of the popular animated Ramadan serial Freej (UAE, 2006–2013), which Rashed & Rajab references in a cameo of human costumed as the character Umm Sallūm. In Hollywood lingo, Rashed & Rajab is a pre‑sold property. More significantly, it was supported by Abu Dhabi’s Image Nation, whereas Mostafa established private capital and product placement as modes of financing filmmaking before Image Nation.54 His production company AFM Films raised 20% of his budget through the latter.55 As a brand ambassador for companies like Alfred Dunhill and Land Rover, Mostafa’s cameo in City of Life is its own sort of brand placement.

  • 56 Simon, 2009, proclaims: “The stylistic mélange also suffers from clichéd dialogue, cut‑rate special (...)
  • 57 Chubb, 2010.
  • 58 Hudson, 2020.

29City of Life was eagerly anticipated as the first “big budget” Emirati feature, but it was immediately ridiculed by western reviewers, perhaps eager to shame the UAE for audaciously making films without western tutelage.56 Describing the film as “edited together in such an amateurish ‘just out of film school’ style as to invite ridicule,” one foreign critic tried to blame the film for her unfair criticism rather than consider that there is more than one way to make a film.57 Like its characters, City of Life is multicultural, not only in its stories about citizens and expatriates, but also in its style. It mixes elements of Bollywood films, Arab musalsalāt, and western soap operas to reject a unified (and colonizing) point‑of‑view.58 City of Life remains remarkable as one of the few Emirati features that acknowledges the majority South Asian population as more than background to stories about Emiratis. The film challenged media stereotypes of Dubai as a “mecca” for opportunistic westerners and a “hellhole” for helpless South Asians and disproved the stigma of small nations with big budgets.

  • 59 Chatterjee, 2014.

30City of Life screened at Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) and at the Gulf Film Festival (GFF) before opening in cinemas, where it played for nine weeks and proved an Emirati film could compete on limited screens against Hollywood films with access to 300+ screens.59 Only after its success did Image Nation and twofour54 finance Mostafa’s later features, Min alif ilā bā’/From A to B (UAE, 2014) and Al‑Mukhtārūn/The Worthy (UAE, 2016). Inspired by a Shahrukh Khan‑lookalike contest in Dubai, City of Life emphasizes what Bollywood producers call “the emotions.” The film mobilizes emotions of hope through an open‑ended multi‑character structure. Audiences hope Indian expatriate Basu (Sonu Sood) becomes a Bollywood star to support his aging parents back home, Romanian expatriate Natalia (Alexandra Maria Lara) becomes a mother and ballet instructor, Emirati national Faisal (Saoud Al Ka’abi) marries his best friend’s sister, and Old Filipino (J.R. Itlas) wins an AED 1m lottery. The presence of Bollywood is inescapable. Even Natalia’s white friends are fans of Peter Patel, the celebrity whom Basu resembles. Basu also works as a dancer to playback music in the Bollywood Club. Dubai is closely associated with Bollywood due to a constant stream on film shoots and stars purchasing second homes. Before approaching Hollywood celebrities, the DCTCM hired Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan for Dubai’s #BeMyGuest campaign (2017–2019), a series of videos that offer reasons for Indians not only to visit—but also to feel at home in—Dubai.

  • 60 The animated Sha‘biyyat al‑Kartūn (UAE, 2006–2017; cr. Haider Mohammed) addresses all matter of sub (...)
  • 61 Bharadwaj, 2010.

31City of Life ends with the segregated lives of Dubai’s different nationalities colliding in a horrific automobile accident that leaves Basu disfigured and Faisal’s best friend Khalfan (Yassin Alsalman) dead, while pregnant and unmarried, Natalia is uninjured. Rather than a neat happy ending, it offers a messier open one that recognizes inequality and injustice but allows opportunity and resilience. The film engages self‑critique on controversial topics: Emirati fathers placing their sons in positions of power without proper qualifications or even ambition, and Emirati sons partying with gold‑digging (white) expatriate women.60 Controversy included stories that the film was banned by censors until “a phone call from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.”61

  • 62 Born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Jordan, Chung is a half‑Vietnamese/half‑Korean comedian.

32By the time Image Nation funded Rashed & Rajab a decade later, the film festivals had been cancelled. To capture media attention, it was released at Eid al‑Fitr and hyped as part of Image Nation’s strategy for lucrative markets in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. The film draws upon Egyptian actor Shadi Alfons’s television popularity with Arabic‑speaking audiences from Bassem Youssef's political satire TV show Al‑Birnāmig (Egypt, 2011–2013) and Saturday Night Live bil Arabi (Egypt, 2016–2018), both cancelled due to censorship, and with English‑speaking audiences for his role in the Hulu’s Ramy (USA, 2019–present; cr. Ramy Youssef, Ari Katcher, and Ryan Welch). Rashed & Rajab also marks the collaboration between Emirati filmmakers Rami Yasin, Ali F. Mostafa, and Majid Al Ansari, who produced the film. Gulf celebrity Wonho Chung also makes a cameo, presumably as an ambulance medic.62

33Like City of Life, Rashed & Rajab uses roadways that typically segregate social groups as sites where they collide, though here in moments of slapstick. An Egyptian delivery man Rajab (Shadi Alfons) exchanges bodies with an Emirati business executive Rashid (Marwan Abdullah Saleh). Not wanting to tell their wives, they impersonate each other. Class and cultural difference are established earlier when both wait at the same traffic signal each morning. Rashid ignores his daughter and texts while driving a luxury sedan; Rajab is attentive to his daughter and traffic on his delivery motorbike. Rashed is obsessed with work and ignores his family; Rajab is loving but unambitious. The film’s humor hinges stereotypes. Rashid’s boss (Haifa Al Ali), for example, constantly surrounds herself in clouds of perfume, perhaps to make the figure of the competent female executive less threatening to male audiences.

34To pass as Rashid, Rajab must speak in Emirati Arabic (ramsa) and work in an office; to pass as Rajab, Rashid must speak Egyptian Arabic (Cairene). Part of the film’s promotion included stories of the actors coaching one another. Alfons spent his youth in Kuwait, and Saleh watched Egyptian films as a child. For Arabic‑speaking audiences, the comedy emerges in inter‑dialect and slapstick jokes. After their identities exchange, Rajab‑as‑Rashid invites Rashid‑as‑Rajab along with Rajab’s wife Hosniya (Doaa Mostafa Ragab) and daughter to live with them to avoid a lawsuit. The film parodies Emirati fears of being sued by Arab expatriates, looking to monetize misfortune. Rashid‑as‑Rajab exposes Lebanese businessman (Fady Ebrahim), who openly boasts about fleecing the Emirati company NRG (“energy”) in French, assuming an Egyptian driver would not understand. Rajab‑as‑Rashid learns how to straighten his ‘igāl (cord) over his ghutra (headscarf), struggles with Emirati Arabic and the way to tie a wuzār (white cloth worn under a kandura), which comes undone and drops to the floor. Rashid‑as‑Rajab has to adapt to Cairo Arabic and Egyptian middle‑class taste for plump women, as opposed to his wife coming straight out of Zahrat Al Khaleej magazine’s fashion section. The body re‑exchange happens when Rajab‑as‑Rashid falls from the balcony onto a neon‑lighted, tree‑shaped sculpture near the pool. Unable to swim, he sinks to the bottom of the pool, where is he rescued by Rashid‑as‑Rajab, only for a live wire to fall into the water and shock them back into their original bodies. The film ends with scenes of the two families bonding.

  • 63 Lagrange, 2013.

35The film represents a pan‑Arab partnership between the UAE’s financial resources and Egypt’s cultural capital and enacts an idea of modern Emirati families that is consistent with other Image Nation productions, such as Qalb al‑ʿadāla/Justice (UAE, 2017), a series about a young lawyer adapted from a Hollywood scenario set in Los Angeles, less organically than Al Ansari’s Zinzāna. Rashed & Rajab, however, forges friendship between Emirati and Egyptian families at the expense of non‑Arab characters through negative stereotypes that reinforce ethnoracial hierarchies. It shares certain features with Freej, whose comedy is sometimes based on “false friends” between Emirati and Egyptian dialects, as Frédéric Lagrange argues.63 Otherwise, comedy is often rooted in stereotyping and stigmatizing non‑Emirati characters and Rashed & Rajab shares this feature.

  • 64 Newbould, 2019.

36Journalists noticed the film’s representation of Indian and African/Black Arab characters.64 Rajab purchases a magic pendant from Shanika, a (non‑Black) Arab woman in dark makeup and kinky wig, extending blackface in Egyptian cinema without the irony necessary to make it a satire.

37Even the cartoon‑like characters and stylized cinematography are insufficient in this regard. There are, however, intercultural moments of comedy that do not involve racism. When Rashid’s Indian maid Maria (uncredited actor) confesses to his wife Latifa (Sheema) that she borrows her clothes when she parties with friends, Latifa scolds her, dropping Hindi words into Arabic, suggesting an element of cultural affinities. Comedy is contingent upon not noticing ethnoracial hierarchies. Rajab’s Indian boss, Raj Komar (Alex Gee) finds him less competent than his fellow delivery persons. When Rajab attempts to defend himself with his ability in Emirati Arabic, Komar commands a newly hired man to speak in English, French, Italian, Japanese, and Emirati Arabic. The film’s reception opens questions about repeating Cairo’s blackface—or Hollywood’s and Bollywood’s indifference to prejudice based on caste, class, gender, race, religion, or sexuality.

38Both films recognize Dubai’s multilingualism. Conversations in City of Life take place in Dubai‑accented Gulf Arabic, postcolonial languages (e.g., Hindi among Gujarati and Kashmiri characters), British and global English. Conversations in Rashed & Rajab take place in Emirati and Egyptian dialects. Toggling between multiple languages or dialects, the films represent how the UAE does not always conform to dominant categories of western social sciences and humanities of regions or national cinemas. But both films also whitewash elements of reality. In City of Life, taxi driver Basu lives in a private flat in Kamara, rather than a shared dormitory room in a labor camp. Comparably, Rashed & Rajab presents Rajab as a deliveryman, who improbably sponsors his entire family and live outside a labor camp. Rashed & Rajab minimizes differences between wealthy Emiratis and working‑class Egyptian expatriates by distancing this expatriate group from African, South Asian, and Southeast Asian expatriates. By contrast, City of Life acknowledges ethnoracial segregation but aspires to challenge them by playing upon emotions that drive empathy, rather than cheap laughs that fuel prejudice. City of Life “punches up,” whereas Rashed & Rajab “punches down.” City of Life engages with an existing film culture in the UAE—popular films and television series from different contexts, whereas Rashed & Rajab attempts to engineer a kind of pan‑Arab pop culture.

Reconciling filmmaking with film culture

39Emirati films are important for their representations of Emiratis on screen. Since pleasures reside in familiarity, pop culture is politically conservative, suggesting reasons that both citizens and western expatriates, in particular, are often unaware or indifferent to the use of negative stereotypes in UAE filmmaking to define a kind of idealized Emirati identity. Other audiences notice such details immediately. UAE filmmaking does not need, however, to ignore or stereotype expatriates, particularly ones who share elements of culture. It can open itself to consider the UAE’s connections to the world via the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Much like the Peninsula began to appear in South Asian films, dating to Dubai Chalo/Let’s Go to Dubai (Pakistan, 1979; dir. Haider Chaudhry) and Vilkkanundu Swapnangal/Dreams for Sale (India, 1980; dir. Azad), so too can Emirati films recognize that the UAE’s stories involve more than idealized Emiratis and villainized “foreigners.” Dubai‑based Pakistani filmmaker Shazia Ali Khan’s Pinky Memsaab (Pakistan/UAE, 2018) represents Dubai in terms of class and regional difference between two female Pakistani expatriates. Much like City of Life avoids some of the harsher realities of Dubai faced by South Asians, the mujra (dance hall) avoids representation of prostitution.

40The Malayalam‑language C U Soon (India, 2020; dir. Mahesh Narayan), however, acknowledges human trafficking by tricking young Indian woman into coming to Dubai and surrendering their passports. Films set in Dubai have been produced by Indian, Nigerian, Pakistani, and Philippine filmmakers due to the city’s familiarity, not exotica.

41Emirati films screen at commercial cinemas, alongside Hindi‑language films from Mumbai (Bollywood), Malayalam‑language films from Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram (Mollywood), English‑language films from Los Angeles (Hollywood), Telegu‑language films from Hyderabad (Tollywood), Tamil‑language films from Chennai (Kollywood), and Tagalog‑language films from Manila. Commercial films from North Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia reflect expatriate audiences from these places but also serve as reminders of historical exchanges through maritime trade, caravans, and religious pilgrimage before the direct and indirect British and U.S. imperialism. Extracting Emirati films from this context distorts how they function in relation to other films. Their content alone does not determine the entirety of their meaning to audiences.

  • 65 Le Renard, 2019.
  • 66 Yunis, “Film as Nation,” 2014, p. 70.

42Unwittingly working against this critical understanding of popular and pop culture within the postcolonial and globalized contexts of the UAE are the ubiquitous contemporary Arab film series, typically modelled after film festivals with an emphasis on showcasing directors rather than engaging in critical discussions raised by films. These series come and go. Some are organized by Emirati filmmakers, eager to claim a space for marginalized Gulf Arabs under the cultural rubric of “Arab” that historically was often denied to them because they were considered “too mixed” with Iranians and South Asians; others, by newly arrived western expatriates with no formal training in critical race theory, film studies, Gulf history, and postcolonial studies. At their worst, such expatriates come to perform, embody, and regulate what Amélie Le Renard calls a “western privilege” that ignores the collateral damage of well‑intended initiatives.65 In one of the earliest studies on Emirati filmmaking, Alia Yunis called attention to ways that western executives in the newly opened production companies try to please their Emirati employers with “promises of international fame without really knowing how to tap into the culture’s stories.”66 Contemporary Arab film series are often another manifestation of well‑intended, yet ill‑informed, foreigners looking to please their Emirati partners.

  • 67 Vora & Koch, 2015, p. 542.
  • 68 Sabry, 2010, pp. 1–22.

43Neha Vora and Nathalie Koch make an important argument about researching the Gulf and Peninsula: “Besides simply being inaccurate, it is academically untenable to produce knowledge about the Gulf (or any country for that matter) by centering on nationals [citizens] rather than the full range of inhabitants, the majority of whom, especially in [Qatar and UAE], are not legal citizens.”67 This argument can be extended to cultural productions, including film series, as they do for the visual arts in both the commercial realm of art fairs and the noncommercial realm of exhibition spaces and museums. In addition to their truncating Arab cinema from its long histories, which include radical opposition to western‑style arthouse and commercial filmmaking, the series tend to be counterproductive in the Gulf since that fail to notice how Arab culture, as Tarek Sabry has argued, was never “pure” but always a product on encounters.68 Moroccan ideas of Arab culture and identity, for example, are very different from Lebanese ones, despite the common experience of French colonialism and imperialism. They are shaped by much longer histories of encounters. Gulf ideas of Arab culture and identity are different from both, evident in the different Arabic dialects, as well as different foods, clothing styles and fabric patterns, and stories. These encounters are evident in the variety of films that play at free‑standing and even mall cinemas.

44The “common sense” definition of Arab culture and identity as representing shared culture, language, and religion unfolds into contemporary Arab film series, which play differently in the Gulf than they do in Egypt, France, Israel, Tunisia, or the United States. In many ways, these series reject what Emirati and other Gulf filmmaking offers, which explains why Emirati films seldom feature in these series.

Figure 7. El Dorado Cinema on Sheikh Zayed the Second (aka Electra) Street, Abu Dhabi, before closing permanently in 2017.

Figure 7. El Dorado Cinema on Sheikh Zayed the Second (aka Electra) Street, Abu Dhabi, before closing permanently in 2017.
  • 69 Shafik, 2016, p. 39.
  • 70 Shohat & Stam [1994] 2014. This book has been translated into a dozen or more languages, including (...)
  • 71 Yunis, “Red Carpet Education,” 2014..

45Contemporary Arab film series tend to prioritize the western‑friendly Arab films that Cannes and Venice exhibit. They address symptoms, rather than causes, of social problems. With the elimination of funding under UAE festivals, independent filmmakers are increasingly vulnerable to European co‑financing, which, as Viola Shafik argues, often demands catering to western tastes.69 Co‑productions have a long history of extending eurocentrism, as Ella Shohat and Robert Stam made clear decades ago.70 In this way, these series contribute to what Yunis described as a “red carpet education” wherein placing students in internships at the film festival received greater attention to formal film education above basic technical and vocational skills.71

46Aspects of critical film culture, rooted in historical context and organized with expertise, are beginning to emerge in the wake of the termination (or “postponement”) of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF) and Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), and more significantly, the Emirates Film Competition (EFC) after their 2014 editions and the Gulf Film Festival (GFF) after its 2013 edition. Nezar Andary of Zayed University (ZU) Abu Dhabi worked with Özge Calafato of ADFF to program a documentary series, sponsored by the British Council, structured on providing historical context and opening thinking about the category of “Arab documentary.” Andary is creative director of Al Sidr Environmental Film Festival, supported by ZU Abu Dhabi and the Environment Agency–Abu Dhabi (EAD), which refocuses thinking about film from art and entertainment to social purpose.

  • 72 Visit the NYUAD Institute website (https://nyuad.nyu.edu/en/institute‑events.html) for details on t (...)

47Other ZU Abu Dhabi faculty made substantive contributions to film culture, most notably Alia Yunis and Sascha Ritter’s work with students on ZUMEFF (Zayed University Middle East Film Festival), which offered an alternative to film as cultural tourism for privileged expatriates and instead addressed itself to educating students. From 2009 to 2014, the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute collaborated with ADFF on film series on Muslim culture in Indian cinema, Naguib Mahfouz’s contributions to classical Egyptian cinema, historically significant films from around the world, and selections from the festival’s programming in Middle Eastern, North Africa, and South Asian films—all of which were followed by discussion by scholars with expertise rather than industry practitioners.72 To different extents at different moments, even larger film festivals challenged film as cultural tourism before being cancelled. The most prestigious and longest running, DIFF, initially focused on African and Asian filmmaking. Arabizing it departed from the multicultural or syncretic focus on Arab and African filmmaking at the Carthage Film Festival, one of the oldest and most prestigious nonwestern films festivals.

48For EFC, ADFF, DIFF, or GFF to have made a more substantial contribution to developing a vibrant UAE film culture that would actually support UAE filmmaking, they would have been better conceived as a cinéclub than annual film festivals. Cinema Space in Abu Dhabi and Cinema Akil [‘Aqīl] in Dubai offer year‑around programs of narrative and documentary films that situate classical and contemporary Arab films within the wider context of film history to contribute to critical film culture. The reopening of the Abu Dhabi Cultural Center suggests another venue towards such a film culture. The Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) supports film culture through screenings and supported filmmaking through grants before the EFC was created. Its Sharjah Film Platform now constitutes an annual space for non‑commercial filmmaking. SAF also launched the Africa Institute, which extends the cultural connections between the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. These initiatives continue aspects of what EFC did, but they do not replace it. The EFC short films reflected the multiethnic and multicultural composition of the UAE and wider Gulf.

49These films may have lacked the Hollywood polish of short films produced by Image Nation in its Arab Film Studio today, but they often acknowledged multicultural popular cultures (in the plural, with all the inequalities that can be imagined), rather than national or regional pop culture. The filmmakers remembered the films that they enjoyed in their own childhood, along with the ones that their parents loved. They drew upon them rather than translating stories that they wanted to tell into the foreign formulas of Hollywood or even Egyptian filmmaking. Unlike Bollywood, Hollywood, and Mollywood films, whose releases are anticipated, Emirati films often open and close without much notice.

50Some Emirati films also present models for a popular and pop culture of filmmaking for a multicultural UAE. Hani Al Shaibani’s Khallik Shanab (Sport a moustache [= “be a man”]) (UAE, 2019) is a comedy about three friends who have wild night after drinking tea laced with a drug that Khamis (Mohamed Alkendi) buys at a massage parlor in Thailand. He was told that it would help him “be a man.” Called “the fat guy,” the Afro‑Arab Khamis is the comic foil. Among other activities, the three friends crash the wedding of a wealthy Indian by stealing Indian wedding clothes from three others, including the groom. Ghannom (Ammar Rahma) inadvertently marries the bride, which she prefers to a 60‑year‑old groom from Mumbai that her father selected. Since Ghannom watches Indian films, he (improbably) speaks almost fluent Urdu. The film includes a song‑and‑dance in Hindi with the chorus “shaadi hai” (“it’s a wedding”), followed by one in Arabic, “khallik shanab” (“be a man.”).

51Al Shaibani’s film offers a different configuration of Arab and South Asian cultures than earlier Emirati films, suggesting a way to reconcile UAE filmmaking with UAE film culture—and move the discussion beyond Arabization, cosmopolitanism, and exceptionalism.

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Newbould, Chris, “Review: Emirati film Rashid & Rajab Brings Sitcom Slapstick to the Big Screen,” The National, 04 June 2019, https://www.thenational.ae/arts‑culture/film/review‑emirati‑film‑rashid‑rajab‑brings‑sitcom‑slapstick‑to‑the‑big‑screen‑1.869877.

Pereira, Nikhil. “Face‑to‑face: Gianluca Chakra, MD, Front Row Filmed Entertainment,” Digital Studio ME, 13 August 2019, https://www.digitalstudiome.com/32657‑face‑to‑face‑gianluca‑chakra‑md‑front‑row‑filmed‑entertainment.

Potter, Lawrence G., “Introduction,” The Persian Gulf in Modern Times (ed. Lawrence G. Potter), New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 1–20.

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Schoenbach, Klaus, Wood, Robb, & Saeed, Marium, Media Industries in the Middle East, 2016, Doha, Northwestern University in Qatar, 2016, 08 March 2016, www.mideastmedia.org/industry/2016/.

Shaheen, Jack G., Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2001), updated edition, Northampton, Olive Branch Press, 2009.

Shafik, Viola, Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity (1998), updated with a new postscript, Cairo, American University of Cairo Press, 2016.

Shohat, Ella and Stam, Robert, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (1994), updated version, New York, Routledge, 2014.

Simon, Alissa, “The First Feature Substantially Funded by Dubai Feels as Soulless as the City in which It Unfolds,” Variety, 15 December 2009, https://variety.com/2009/film/reviews/city‑of‑life‑1200477860/.

Srour, Némésis, “Quand Bollywood fabrique la ville : une (contre) histoire de la péninsule Arabique à l’écran,” Arabian Humanities, no. 11, 2019, pp. 1–20.

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Walters, Ben, “Can Dubai Become the City of Life of Emirati Film?” The Guardian, 23 December 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2009/dec/23/dubai‑international‑film‑festival.

Yunis, Alia, “Film as National Building: The UAE Goes into the Movie Business,” CINEJ Cinema Journal, vol. 3, no. 2, 2014, pp. 50–75.

Yunis, Alia, “Red Carpet Education: The Persian Gulf Approach to Film Festivals,” Film Festival Yearbook 6: Film Festivals and the Middle East (eds. Dina Iordanova and Stefanie van de Peer), St. Andrews, St. Andrews University Press, 2014, pp. 270–283.

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Notes

1 Transliterations of proper nouns are left as found in Latin script sources. When the Arabic original is obscure or ambiguous, academic transliteration is added between brackets at the first occurrence.

2 The other films are Laʿnat Iblīs/The Curse of the Devil (UAE, 2010) and Paranormal Activity (UAE, 2012). Al Jazerah Al Hamra is presently an archeological site, as well as a location for music video and film shoots. The abandoned and crumbling buildings have even served as a Hollywood stand‑in for Afghanistan.

3 Hudson, 2017.

4 Hjort & Mackenzie, 2007; Iordanova et al., 2010.

5 Crane, 2002, p. 2.

6 MacLean, 2017.

7 Image Nation Abu Dhabi previously split operations between Image National International and Image Nation Abu Dhabi. Frequent reorganizations have resulted in consolidation under the latter division’s name.

8 Miller et al., 2004.

9 Pereira, 2019.

10 Kolker, 2005, pp. 44–45. Hollywood mostly directs its films to audiences who are white, middle class, thin, heterosexual, able bodied, and secular Christian or assimilated Jewish, and, above all, capitalist.

11 Danan, 2006. These films accept Hollywood films as a component of French culture in less formally experimental and politically ambivalent ways that the (male) New Wave filmmakers. including Jean‑Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Also, see Hudson, 2006.

12 Higson, 1989, p. 44.

13 Fanon, 1952. For a discussion of Josephine Baker’s own escape from pre‑Civil Rights U.S. racism into France where her Americanness avoided the tinge of French colonial and imperial guilt, see Sweeney, 2004, particularly “’I’ll Say It’s Getting Darker and Darker in Paris’: Josephine Baker and La Revue nègre,” pp. 37–54.

14 Shaheen, 2009, defines negative stereotypes for Arabs and Muslims as “reel bad Arabs” in Hollywood, European, and Israeli films. See Hudson, 2019 and Srour, 2019 for different arguments about the stereotyping of Gulf Arabs in Bombay and Bollywood cinema.

15 Mostafa’s City of Life (UAE, 2009), Al Janahi’s The Circle (Kuwait/UAE, 2009), Al‑Murry’s Thawb al‑Shams/Sun Dress (UAE, 2010), and Al Suwaidi’s Abdullah (UAE, 2015) were produced without direct state funding. All received support on their later films: Al Janahi’s Ẓill al‑baḥr/Sea Shadow (UAE, 2011), Al‑Murry’s Sayer Al Jannah/Going to Heaven (UAE, 2015), and Al Suwaidi’s Musk (UAE/Qatar 2018), as did Abdulla Al Kaabi for his first feature Al‑Rijāl faqaṭ ‘ind al‑dafn/Only Men Go to the Grave (UAE/Iran, 2016) and Al‑Murry’s brother, Amer Salmeen Al‑Murry’s shiq ‘Ammūrī/Fan of Amoory (UAE, 2018; dir. Amer Salmeen Al‑Murry) and Ghost (UAE, 2020). Other festival films include 11 Days: A Journey through Real Lives (UAE, 2018; dir. Sudheer Konderi), Dalāfīn/Dolphins (UAE, 2014; dir. Waleed Al Shehhi), Wilāda/Birth (UAE, 2017; dir. Abdulla Hasan Ahmed), and Nādī l‑baṭṭīkh/Watermelon Club (UAE, 2017; dir. Yaser Al Neyadi).

16 The most popular genre is comedy, including Mazraʿat Yaddū/Grandmother’s Farm (UAE, 2013; dir. Ahmed Zain), Abood Kandaishan [‘Abbūd Kandīshan](UAE, 2014; dir. Fadel Almheiri), Mazraʿat Yaddū 2/Grandmother’s Farm, Part 2 (UAE, 2015; dir. Ahmed Zain), Iḍḥay fī Abū Ẓabī/Edhay in Abu Dhabi (UAE, 2016; dir. Rakan), Lisa (UAE, 2016; dir. Ahmed Zain), Iḍḥay fī Thailand/Edhay in Thailand (UAE, 2017; dir. Rakan), Kart Aḥmar/Red Card (UAE, 2017; dir. Nasser Al Tamimi), ‘Awār Qalb (Broken heart) (UAE, 2018, dir. Jamal Salem), Frīj al‑Ṭayyibīn (UAE, 2018; dir. Ahmed Zain), Weṣalnā Wallā Ba’dnā? (Are we there yet)? (UAE, 2018; dir. Aisha Alzaabi), Filfil Abyaḍ (White Pepper) (UAE, 2019; dir. Jamal Salem), Khallik Shanab (Sport a moustache) (UAE, 2019; dir. Hani Al Shaibani), Safar Iḍṭirārī (Compulsory Journey) (UAE, 2019; dir. Nasser Al Tamimi), Bitāʿ kollo (UAE, 2019; dir. Ahmed Zain), Azma Māliyya (UAE, 2020; dir. Rakan), and Naḥs XL (UAE, 2020; dir. Nasser Al‑Tamimi). Another popular genre is thrillers, including Kaimrah/Camera (UAE, 2017; dir. Abdullah Al Junaibi) and Tariq Alkazim’s A Tale of Shadows (UAE, 2017), and sequel A Tale of Shadows, Illusions (UAE, 2020), and Until Midnight (UAE, 2018). Melodramas include Kibrīt/Match (UAE, 2017; dir. Obaid Al Hmoudi). Romances include Shabāb Shiyāb/On Borrowed Time (UAE, 2018). Aerials (UAE, 2016; dir. Ali Zaidi and Ghanem Ghubash) is considered the first sci‑fi feature from the UAE. Barajoun Entertainment’s English‑language Bilal: A New Breed of Hero (UAE, 2018; dir. Ayman Jamal and Khurram Alavi) on the historical figure of Bilāl bin Rabāḥ and Tent Picture’s Catsaway (UAE, forthcoming; dir. Fadel AlMheiri), about stray cats in Abu Dhabi in 1999 when the iconic Volcano Fountain and Old Souq still existed. Khorfakkon (UAE, 2020; dir. Ben Mole and Maurice Sweeney) is the first historical narrative feature produced in the UAE, looking back to rebellions against Portuguese colonialism during the sixteenth century.

17 Koch, 2019, p. 187.

18 Kanna & al., 2020, p. 6.

19 Kanna & al., 2020, pp.13, 12.

20 Kanna & al., 2020, p. 8.

21 Elsheshtawy, 2019, p. 179.

22 Kanna, 2010; Elsheshtawy, 2010. Elsayed & Webb, 2020, provide an overview beyond the UAE, noting that “in the decades after World War II, uneven oil‑based prosperity, the pressures of the Cold War, pan‑Arab nationalism and the resurgence of political Islam all buffeted cosmopolitan aspirations in varying directions” (124).

23 Emiratization is a state policy that mandates employment quotas for citizens to the private sector, recognizing vulnerabilities by dependence of foreign labor. UAE, 2020.

24 See, for example, Khalaf, 2000; Gilbert, 2011; Koch, 2015. As postcolonial and transnational feminists demonstrate, cultural tradition can camouflage patriarchy and racism.

25 Hudson, 2019.

26 Potter, 2014, p. 8. Exell, 2018, pp. 324, 314. By contrast, Qatar’s Bin Jelmood House, part of the Msheireb Museums in Doha, attempts to destigmatize slavery and blackness.

27 In Qatar, Doha’s Souq Waqif is an Arabized reconstruction of the historical Souq al‑Farsi, literally Persian market, also founded by Huwala.

28 I thank Frédéric Lagrange for this reference.

29 Black Arabs also appear as background in other Gulf features, such as Barakah Meets Barakah.

30 Hopper, 2015, pp. 220, 219.

31 In Arabic, the setting is described as “في مكان ما في الوطن العربي” in an intertitle.

32 Schoenbach & al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/industry/2016/film/#s37.

33 Schoenbach & al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/industry/2016/film/#s37. In the UAE, average box‑office revenue in 2015 of USD 467,000 for non‑Arabic films and USD 173,000 for Arabic films; by contrast, USD 134,000 for non‑Arabic and USD 521,000 for Arabic in Egypt. Schoenbach et al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/industry/2016/film/.

34 Ganti, 2013, 137–159.

35 Schoenbach & al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/industry/2016/film/#s36.

36 The study distinguishes between Arabic, English, and French to determine the “three most common languages on radio,” which seems to categorize Hindi/Hinglish stations like Gulf News Broadcasting’s Hum FM (subsequently acquired by Zee Entertainment in India) and Abu Dhabi Media’s Radio Murchi (a UAE footprint of the Indian radio station) as “English.” Schoenbach & al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/industry/2016/radio/#s55.

37 Schoenbach & al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2014/question/film/percentage‑of‑people‑who‑watch‑film‑tv‑in‑the‑following‑languages.html#nationality%5B%5D=%3D+1&nationality%5B%5D=%3D+4&nationality%5B%5D=%3D+2&nationality%5B%5D=%3D+3.

38 For “Nationals” (Emirati citizens), the percentages are 71% for English, 39% for Arabic, 67% of Hindi, 9% for Urdu, 11% for Malayalam, and 2% for Tagalog. For “Asian Expat” (South Asian expatriates), the percentages are 65% for English, 1% for Arabic, 88% of Hindi, 14% for Urdu, 18% for Malayalam, and 3% for Tagalog. For “Arab Expat” (Arab expatriates), the percentages are 78% for English, 53% for Arabic, 46% of Hindi, 5% for Urdu, 6% for Malayalam, 1% for Tagalog. For “Western Expat” (western expatriates), the percentages are 76% for English, 32% for Arabic, 56% of Hindi, 7% for Urdu, 9% for Malayalam, 2% for Tagalog. Schoenbach & al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/industry/2016/radio/#s55.

39 Schoenbach & al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2014/question/television/percentage‑of‑people‑who‑watch‑film‑tv‑in‑the‑following‑languages‑1.html#nationality%5B%5D=%3D+3.

40 Mitra, forthcoming 2021.

41 Dennis, 2014, p. 21.

42 Ibid., p. 31.

43 Schoenbach et al., 2016, http://www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2014/survey/methodology.html.

44 Dennis, 2014, p. 25.

45 Ibid., p. 26.

46 Diwanji, 2020, p. 28.

47 Dennis, 2014, p. 31.

48 Alsharekh & Springborg, 2008, p. 9.

49 Lawson & Al‑Naboodah, 2008, p. 15.

50 Ibid.

51 Mourtada‑Sabbah & al., 2008, 121.

52 Ciecko, 2010.

53 The transliteration of the film’s title adopts the non‑Egyptian “j” for the letter ج, which would be phonetically transliterated as “g,” perhaps suggesting an Emiratization of Egyptian Arabic.

54 Walters, 2008.

55 Leotta, 2016.

56 Simon, 2009, proclaims: “The stylistic mélange also suffers from clichéd dialogue, cut‑rate special effects and a distractingly ugly score.”

57 Chubb, 2010.

58 Hudson, 2020.

59 Chatterjee, 2014.

60 The animated Sha‘biyyat al‑Kartūn (UAE, 2006–2017; cr. Haider Mohammed) addresses all matter of subjects.

61 Bharadwaj, 2010.

62 Born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Jordan, Chung is a half‑Vietnamese/half‑Korean comedian.

63 Lagrange, 2013.

64 Newbould, 2019.

65 Le Renard, 2019.

66 Yunis, “Film as Nation,” 2014, p. 70.

67 Vora & Koch, 2015, p. 542.

68 Sabry, 2010, pp. 1–22.

69 Shafik, 2016, p. 39.

70 Shohat & Stam [1994] 2014. This book has been translated into a dozen or more languages, including Arabic, but it has not been translated into French.

71 Yunis, “Red Carpet Education,” 2014..

72 Visit the NYUAD Institute website (https://nyuad.nyu.edu/en/institute‑events.html) for details on these programs.

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Dale Hudson, « UAE Filmmaking beyond Arabization, Cosmopolitanism, and Exceptionalism », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 14 | 2020, mis en ligne le 24 février 2021, consulté le 13 avril 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/6297 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.6297

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Dale Hudson

New York University Abu Dhabi

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