Guns, blood and violence: is the UAE cinema ratings system effective?

The cinema is a hugely popular pastime. But a darker side to the silver screen is the presence of children at films with graphic violence.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 has a PG15 rating. The same as Jack Reacher.
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It is a packed cinema at an evening showing of Jack Reacher and most of the audience is gripped by the action onscreen.

Tom Cruise, playing a renegade investigator, has a gun in his hand and is pointing it at a man's head.

This is no surprise as his character has already seen off several assailants via violent fist fights, gun battles and car chases.

What is surprising though is that throughout this catalogue of violence, young children, some no older than 2, have witnessed his actions in their entirety.

During one particularly ear-blasting gun battle, three children charge up the stairs screaming. They had been giggling and playing at the front of the cinema in Dubai but the gunshots scared them, sending them running back to their parents. While many may consider this unsuitable content for such young minds, the children are legally allowed to be there.

Jack Reacher is a PG15, which means that as long as a child under 15 is accompanied by a parent, they can watch the film.

The current system of film classification, overseen by the National Media Council (NMC), has been in place since the 1980 Press and Publications Law was introduced.

Films fall into one of five categories - G, PG13, PG15, 15+ and 18+ - with the NMC classifying films based on their perceived suitability for different ages, the UAE culture as well as how they were classified elsewhere.

"The NMC generally adopts the classifications of the Motion Picture Association of America and the British Board of Film Classification where these exist, while taking into account cultural, moral and religious aspects prevailing in the UAE," says Juma Obaid Alleem, the NMC's director of media content.

However, the system does not please everyone.

Read any forum or blog about cinema ratings and it is awash with concerns over young children viewing unsuitable content.

"We went to see The Dark Knight Rises late last night and was disappointed to see small children in the cinema. It is a very scary, and particularly adult movie with lots of murder and violence. It is rated PG15. The tiny tot sitting near to me was whimpering and asking lots of questions, and seemed equally enthralled and terrified. He was probably around 4," writes hilsbils, who posted on the forum.

However, the NMC says deciding whether children attend is not entirely their decision to make.

"The NMC considers that parents have the right to determine whether their younger child or children are to be permitted to see films that are rated as suitable by the NMC for older children - this is the meaning of 'PG' - Parental Guidance," says Mr Alleem.

"However, the NMC always welcomes feedback from cinema-goers about the classifications/ratings awarded for individual films. In the event of strong public views being expressed, a classification can be - and sometimes is - altered."

While UAE cinemas abide by the law set out by the NMC, some have regulations of their own.

Grand Cinemas, for example, which has 12 cinemas across the UAE, has introduced a no-children policy during evening showings.

"We do not allow children aged under 5 to any screening after 7pm unless it is a G-rated family or kids' movie," says Andy Fordham, the technical and digital cinemas director at Grand Cinemas.

But generally, cinemas must comply by the law whatever the content. And this is where the subjectivity of ratings arises because what one parent considers suitable, another may not.

"Customers sometimes ask me what a movie is like and I tell them that by law they can get in but the movie has violence and scenes their children should not see," says a Dubai cinema manager from Lebanon, who did not want to be named. "You cannot deny their right to take their children in but if they listen to my advice, they don't go in."

The manager refers to last year's Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2, rated PG15 in the UAE.

"Some moviegoers were asking why young children were in there because of the scenes involving blood.

"It depends on the views of parents. For some, even if the movie is 18+ they fight with me to get their kids in. They say their kids see everything on TV but I say 'TV is your responsibility but the cinema is my responsibility'."

Dr Amina Al Dhaheri, an assistant professor of mass communications at UAE University, says children often view unsuitable films because their parents are unaware of how the ratings system works.

"Going to the cinema is part of a family's weekend entertainment here. The family want to hang out with their children until 11pm or midnight; they go to the movies but they do not necessarily understand the ratings system.

"I've never read anything about ratings in an Arabic newspaper or heard this being discussed," says the Emirati mother-of-three, who has a son aged 16 and two daughters aged 13 and 7.

"I don't attend movies but my children ask to go. For my 13-year-old daughter I have to check the ratings first and sometimes don't allow her.

"For the 16-year-old I have no control now because he goes to the mall with his friends. I don't know which movies he chooses. He may go to an 18+ and, yes, that worries me. I discussed this with my husband and he said 'he has the internet at home, he can watch any movie he wants, you cannot control him completely'.

"You should teach them what is right and wrong and then let them choose for themselves. If you control them, they will find another access."

But psychologists argue that viewing excessive violence can be damaging to children. "Exposure to movies that are not appropriate for your child can have an impact on their development, personality and belief system," says Devika Singh, a psychologist at Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre. "The distinction between fantasy and reality is not clear and children respond differently to explicit information. Some may feel stress, others may get depressed or anxious and some children start to model the behaviour they have just observed."

However, Dr Al Dhaheri says that while UAE parents would never allow their child to view sexual content, violence or bad language is considered differently. "Sex is more dangerous because the sex is taboo," she says.

The issue of what children are viewing in cinemas is not the only area of concern for moviegoers. Simply having children present is an issue in itself.

"There have been countless times in the last eight years I have been disturbed by noisy children. The cinema is a place for sitting and watching and perhaps laughing, not for running or climbing," says father-of-two Alan Devereux, the managing director of Cave Chalk, a social media training and consulting company based in Dubai.

"This is a situation that we face every day. We tell parents if they don't keep their kids silent we will take them out," says the unnamed Dubai cinema manager.

"Sometimes they listen but others don't care."

But Mr Devereux says the current ratings system is ineffective. "As I see it, the problem is rude and spoilt children being able to bully cinema staff into allowing them to watch whatever they want."

While cinemas say they vet the IDs of those they suspect are under age and the NMC regularly inspects cinemas to ensure they abide by the law, online forums say otherwise. "I went to see Looper last night and I found it good but very violent and terrifying, and deserving of its 18+ rating. Guess what? Two families with toddlers and infants watching the movie. The babies cried a lot, which perhaps disturbed some viewers, but my main concern was the toddlers who were very much awake and watching and asking questions and getting quite agitated during some of the shootings," writes hilsbils on

Babies and toddlers being exposed to excessive noise is also an issue, with some cinemas discouraging parents from taking them into screenings due to the risk of noise-induced hearing loss.

"If you hear ringing in your ears after going to a show, things were probably too loud. If you're thinking of bringing a baby or toddler, you should consider the volume a deal breaker," says Dr Sara Imani Fooladi, a clinical audiologist at MediClinic in Dubai Mall.

But it is not only the presence of distressed or misbehaving children that irritates film lovers. Adults arriving late, leaving early and having loud conversations with friends or on their mobile phones often causes verbal disagreements between moviegoers.

"We actively discourage the use of mobile phones, especially when it is brought to our attention," says Mr Fordham. "We would love to block phones in cinemas but this is illegal."

But Dr Al Dhaheri says with such an international audience in the UAE, cinema etiquette largely depends on where you come from: "People come from different backgrounds so how they watch a movie depends on their culture."