Emirati film could take culture global

Despite people's fascination for cinema in the UAE, why do so few films feature the Arab and South Asian cultures that make up the majority of the country?

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UAE residents famously love a night out at the cinema. Indeed, according to a joint poll from Northwestern University's Qatar campus and the Doha Film Institute, the country's residents are the top movie patrons in the region, with 82 per cent listing cinema visits as one of their frequent activities.

And yet how many of the dozens of films on show at the moment in the cinemas of the UAE feature stories drawn from the cultures that make up the majority of UAE residents – that is, Emirati, Arab and South Asian cultures? The answer is pitifully few and, according to the same survey, a significant majority want that to change: 81 per cent of UAE respondents said they wanted to see more of their culture portrayed at the cinema.

In one way, of course, this isn’t surprising. Everyone likes to see their life up on the big screen. Cinema has a glamorising effect on the everyday, as anyone who has walked down a New York street and been confronted with a recognisable vista from their favourite film will attest.

At the same time, cinema is a product of the culture in which it was created. Afficionados of world cinema – that insular term which usually refers to anything not made in the English language – will testify that Italian comedies are different from South Korean action movies, which are different again from Nigerian dramas. Even Hollywood blockbusters, engineered to appeal to the widest market, contain within them references, ideas and aspirations which are peculiarly American. Even the most universal truths have local roots.

But that also works the other way around, with Emirati stories having the possibility of being universalised, so that Chinese viewers could care as much about what happens to the young couple in Al Ain as they currently do about those in Los Angeles. That requires skilful filmmaking, and the infrastructure to enable it, but it is entirely possible.

The Arab world has a long tradition of powerful filmmaking, as last year’s list of the top 100 Arab films by the Dubai International Film Festival testifies. (And not merely the Arab world: Iran produced the world’s second-ever feature film in 1908.) Gradually the infrastructure is being created in the UAE, so that the current generation of filmmakers can look forward to the day their love stories, ghost stories and fantasy tales will be viewed by a broad audience from New York to Tokyo.