Should cut films be pulled from UAE cinemas completely?

Cultural sensitivities are a major reason for cuts made to films before they are shown in cinemas. But should they be screened at all if it removes critical scenes or plot developments and make the film incomprehensible?

Aflam audience members. Despite the growing interest in independent films there are still very few, if any, shown on the big screens in the UAE. Courtesy Aflam film club
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Going to the cinema can sometimes be an unintentionally confusing experience.

Audiences for the British romcom I'll Give It a Year emerged from screenings somewhat earlier than they might have expected, and with unanswered questions about what they had just seen.

About 12 minutes had been removed from the film to ensure that it conformed to the UAE's cultural values. As a result, several scenes had clearly been abruptly terminated and a major plot development excised completely.

But when such cuts are necessary, would it be better not to screen such films in the first place and save audiences the Dh35 price of a ticket?

The answers cast light on what studios choose to show in the UAE, where the decision to screen or not screen a film can be economic as well as cultural.

"When we receive the movie from the studio, we receive the original film. We show it to the National Media Council and they decide whether the movie needs cutting and [what] scenes should be cut from the film," says Simon El Khoury, of Gulf Film distributors, who work throughout the region.

"We have to cut them, we don't have any other choice. Of course we have to send [the list of cuts] to the studio to show them that these are the scenes that should be cut.

"After we do the cut we don't show it to them again. It's not only us, it's in the whole world."

Distributors, cinema chains and studios have another choice, of course, which is to not show films with significant content that conflicts with what is acceptable here. Problems arise not with films that are clearly outside cultural norms - such as the Oscar winning 2010 Black Swan - but when the film is shown with cuts that can make the story barely coherent, Meanwhile, there is also a plethora of independent films to choose from that could reach cinema screens completely unadulterated.

So would a distributor ever decide to voluntarily pull a film from the market rather than make the cuts and risk compromising the integrity of the film? "We have never had this situation," Mr El Khoury says. "This never happens. It's usually a maximum of five minutes that we cut, it depends on the movie itself.

"Usually when we cut something from a movie we don't cut conversations, we just cut a scene; for example when there is nudity. That's the only thing when some people notice there has been a cut."

UAE law does not ban films, but requires the removal of any scenes involving "moral turpitude, or violating religious morals or values on which state and society are based". The decision to screen such films after cuts rests entirely with the industry.

While distributors are understandably anxious to screen imported films with big Hollywood stars and stories designed to attract mass audiences, there is an agreement that producers retain the right to withdraw a film from any market if they are unhappy with the required cuts.

Last year fans of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo were left disappointed on being told the Hollywood film remake would not be shown in cinemas in the Arabian Gulf.

The producers of the US$90 million (Dh330.5m) film declined to make the cuts required by the authorities in the region, including in the Emirates.

"Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to make the cuts that were necessary for it to be screened," Piroska Szakacs, of local distributors Empire International said at the time. "The filmmakers wouldn't allow it."

Clarification of the UAE's official position was given by Juma Obaid Alleem, of the National Media Council. In an interview last year, he explained that it was the council's role to call for "particular scenes of language" to be removed in accordance with UAE law.

The NMC is also able to decide to refuse permission for public screening of a film in any category of classification if the film "seriously breached content standards", he said.

This vetting procedure is not unique to the UAE or Gulf. The British Board of Film Classification is an independent, non-governmental body in the UK which classifies video works including video games, films and programmes released on DVD or Blu-ray, or distributed by means of download.

Like the NMC, it classifies according to a law - the Video Recordings Act 1984 - and will not classify anything which is in breach of criminal law. Without a classification a film or video is not allowed to be released for public viewing.

In its most recent guidelines the BBFC states: "If a submitted work raises issues or concerns that cannot be addressed by classification at a particular category, cuts or other changes may be required as a condition of classification."

Such intervention, the guidelines say, is most likely to be related to material that promotes illegal activity, sexual violence or sexualised violence which endorses the behaviour, or graphic images of real injury, violence or death presented in a salacious or sensationalist manner.

While people seem to understand and appreciate the need to ensure films reflect the moral values of the country in which it is to be shown - especially those who may be offended by certain images - all agree that the edits need to be done well and without confusing the plot.

815 Studios, a British film and production company in Dubai, says: "As filmmakers in the UAE, it's frustrating, especially when key scenes are cut, destroying the entire plot."

Another film to be shown despite lengthy cuts was the 2009 Watchmen, based on the graphic novel of the same name. The heavy editing became a talking point among fans on the internet, when several scenes involving the main character - a blue-skinned physicist with super powers - were cut because he appeared nude.

One user of the UAE Community Blog wrote at the time: "Who is it that decides to bother importing and showing a movie in which the main character is going to repeatedly be cut from the final 20 minutes." Other films that reportedly received heavy editing, compromising the film's integrity, include Angelina Jolie's In the Land of Blood and Honey, Love in the Time of Cholera, Killer Joe, The Reader and Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantamo Bay.

Yet while some films are shown despite major cuts, other critically acclaimed productions that would pose no problems to the country's censors never make it here at all or show for only a very short time - simply because distributors believe that the audience is not large enough and prefer to stick with sure-fire Hollywood - and Bollywood - blockbusters.

Claudia Corbelli manages two film clubs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai that show the best of international cinema, free, every month. Its next screening in Abu Dhabi is When I Saw You, a 2012 Palestinian drama film directed by Annemarie Jacir that won awards at the Cairo International Film Festival and the Carthage International Film Festival in Tunisia, but has not been screened in large cinemas here.

The Scene Club, in Dubai, has attracted more than 5,500 members in the five years it has been running. Each month it organises screenings of independent feature films or short films from around the world and invites the film's director to attend the event and host a question-and-answer session at the end.

"On average we have 270 people that show up for the screenings," Ms Corbelli says.

"About 700 people book and because it's free and things pop up not everyone can make it. Regardless, the turnout is high and that's 700 people on a monthly basis who express interest in attending. With an independent film we are filling up the whole cinema."

The films are screened in an auditorium at the Dubai Knowledge Village Conference Centre, usually during the first week of the month.

The club doesn't charge for two reasons, Ms Corbelli says. "Both clubs are non-profit, and to develop an independent-film community you need to educate people first and make it accessible for them."

The Scene Club and Aflam, the Abu Dhabi club that screens modern Arabic cinema, were founded by the Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja, who is also the chief executive of D-Seven Motion Pictures, a fully fledged production house.

Despite the growing interest in independent films - Aflam's membership has grown to 2,150 since it was set up in January last year - there are still very few, if any, shown on the big screens in the UAE.

Typically, the only time such films are shown in cinemas here is during the successful annual Abu Dhabi and Dubai film festivals, which grow in popularity each year.

Keeping independent films out of the bigger cinemas is probably a commercial decision, Ms Corbelli says.

"It costs less to get the rights to screen an independent film but obviously what comes back into their pockets is less," she says. "If you leave it down to one player, ie, the cinemas, I don't think it will change. It will take some sort of lobbying by cultural bodies and film-festival people and collaboration.

"The films at the film festivals should be followed up in the cinemas, but that doesn't happen."