Impressions of cinema in the UAE

Blogpost, UAE cinema, Uncategorized

In The Sheik and I (USA/UAE, 2012), Caveh Zahedi is invited to make a movie for an exhibition organised by the Sharjah Art Foundation, exploring the theme of subversion.

Zahedi finds it ironic that even though he is told repeatedly that he has open rein to make whatever movie he wants, he is also given a series of quite strict guidelines, perhaps especially the idea that he cannot critique the titular Sheik, who is funding his film, and Islam.

What ensues, then, is Zahedi making a film in which, among other things, he critiques employment practices in the UAE, creating a fantasy in which the Sheik himself decides to allow guest workers in the country to be able to achieve Emirati citizenship, and thus a civil status that is on a par with the historically local population (whatever that is or might be, and which Zahedi never quite specifies). Religion also plays a key part in the film, but I shall not be touching upon that here.

Rather, I open this post with reference to The Sheik and I because towards the end of his film, Zahedi explains how so many of the people whom he meets in the UAE are, in his own terms, ‘cool.’ That is, they get his sense of humour, and they are not offended by his jokes with regard to religion and employment, since they recognise both his concern for human beings regardless of race, religion, nationality and so on (Zahedi as humanist), and that his film is not to be taken too seriously.

However, Zahedi then suggests that the people whom he meets, perhaps most especially those at the Sharjah Art Foundation that is funding his film, are ‘not cool,’ because ultimately they pull the plug on his film, meaning that he does not make the film that he wanted and instead makes The Sheik and I, a film about not being able to make a film (and thus in some senses a non-film).

Here I personally part ways with Zahedi in terms of his opinion of his collaborators in the UAE. Where he sees them as ultimately ‘not cool’ for not going with him all the way in his subversion, I see them still very much as ‘cool.’ And that they do not ‘betray’ Zahedi so much as find themselves confronted with contradictions that they already know very well and concerning which Zahedi refuses to give any quarter.

What are these contradictions? In short, they are the fact that Zahedi’s collaborators in the UAE are by no means blind to the shortcomings of their society, but they cannot go about addressing them in the way that Zahedi does – while Zahedi’s charge that they are ‘not cool’ would seem to suggest that Zahedi thinks that they refuse to address these shortcomings. If they refused to address these shortcomings, Zahedi would not even be there, and so in some senses while his film is very funny and touching, in other ways it lacks subtlety – confronting head-on issues that might otherwise be addressed in more nuanced fashion.

I open with this reference to Zahedi, then, because it strikes me that for all of the clear and necessary criticisms that could be levelled at the UAE as a nation in terms of its structure and organisation, it is important to remember that the UAE is very much a cool place with some very cool minds that are as sharp as the minds anywhere, and which share a similarly ‘liberal’ sensibility – even if that sensibility, for reasons that I cannot fully explore here (for the sake of space more than anything else), is expressed in different ways.

It is important to remember that the UAE is ‘cool,’ because it can be very easy to lose sight of this fact – as perhaps is suggested in what follows.

Should anyone care to read it, I argue in a different essay that ‘cool’ drives much of the contemporary world. That is, the contemporary world is driven by appearances, with image therefore becoming as important as, if not more important than, reality. To take images for reality, to believe in images is in some senses to worship images – in the sense of attributing worth/value to them. In some senses, then, cool is associated with the superficial – the belief in surfaces and the visible as opposed to depth and that which might elude the sense organ of the human eye (which is sensitive only to about 5 per cent of the light spectrum).

In this post, though, I use the term ‘cool’ to mean something quite different, perhaps even the opposite of the definition used in that essay. Here, to be cool does not refer to appearances and a capitulation to the society of the spectacle, whereby flashiness is used to empower the self. Rather, ‘cool’ here refers to seeing through the surface of things and understanding that certain aspects of reality lie beyond the surface – and that if we accept only the surface as real, then we have a very incomplete understanding of reality.

So when I say that people in the UAE are cool, what I mean to say is that there are as many people in the UAE who are – to use a fashionable term – ‘woke’ as there are in any other part of the world that I have visited (if I am in a position to be a judge of coolness or wokeness). Indeed, I would say that the proportion of people who are ‘woke’ and/or ‘cool’ (by my imperfect reckoning) is about the same as anywhere.

What for me is the shortcoming of Zahedi’s film, then, is that he only goes by what is visible, endlessly creating scenes that in principle give us a ‘behind the scenes’ look at what happens in the making of a/his film, but in reality never going ‘behind the scenes,’ because that which is ‘behind’ the scene can by definition not feature in a film, since films can only be made up of scenes. Zahedi insists upon making a scene and upon only scenes being real rather than accepting the reality of that which is behind the scenes.

In other words, it might be possible to say that cinema as a tool is not capable of going behind the scenes – even if many films gesture at doing this by being self-conscious, reflexive and so on. That is, cinema is (very often) superficial.

What lies behind the scenes is not all good stuff. Indeed, we use the phrase ‘behind the scenes’ to describe intrigues and conspiracies, precisely the abuse of appearances and more. The desire to expose, to make a scene out of and thus to make seen, such ‘behind the scenes’ practices is valid and in some senses necessary.

But to insist that that which is behind the scenes is necessarily ‘bad’ (as Zahedi might seem to) is to accept only the seen/the scene as real, while it is also to have ‘bad faith,’ in the sense that the invisible (that which one cannot see and in which one therefore must have faith) is bad. Is it possible for us to construct a world in which we have good faith, and in which we trust that behind the scenes some good things might be going on? Zahedi would seem not to think this possible of the UAE. But I wish to suggest here that it is, and that there is reason for good faith in and about the UAE.

The UAE is not a cinematic society, in that few are the films that have been made there and the history of cinema in the UAE is not particularly long (fewer than 25 feature films in the last 12 years). That said, as cinema begins and grows in the UAE, it is becoming increasingly cinematic.

That the increasingly cinematic nature of the UAE is tied to a burgeoning belief in images might be clarified by the link between movie theatres and shopping malls there. The vast majority of cinema screens are inside multiplex cinemas that sit inside shopping malls, where people by fashionable products in order to demonstrate through their appearance (i.e. via their projected self-image) about how valuable they are/how much they are worth/how much they should be worshipped. In other words, having been uncool, the UAE is becoming increasingly cool in the negative sense defined above: a society that invests increasing amount of money and time in appearances, including the industry of appearances that is cinema.

But this does not mean that there is not quite a lot of cool stuff going on ‘behind the scenes’ and thus cool in the positive sense that I wish to use here, and which is related to cinema in various ways.

In what follows, then, I wish to relay some of my experiences of cinema in the UAE over the course of the four months that I was working there between late August and late December 2017 – for the simple purpose of sharing my imperfect and surely problematic (superficial?!) understanding of cinema in that place with other curious/interested parties (should they exist).

Over the course of the 17 weeks that I was in the UAE, I went to the cinema 42 times (I went twice to the cinema in the USA during this period during a brief work trip there soon after my arrival in the UAE). This averages at just over twice a week. Should you care to know, the full list of films I saw there is as follows:-

It (Andy Muschietti, USA/Canada, 2017); American Made (Doug Liman, USA, 2017); The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Patrick Hughes, Netherlands/China/Bulgaria/USA, 2017); Soul Food Stories (Tonislav Hristov, Bulgaria/Finland, 2013); Stronger (David Gordon Green, USA, 2017); Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaughn, UK/USA, 2017); Flatliners (Niels Arden Oplev, USA/Canada, 2017); Victoria and Abdul (Stephen Frears, UK/USA, 2017); Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House (Peter Landesman, USA, 2017); The Foreigner (Martin Campbell, UK/China/USA, 2017); Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, USA/UK/Hungary/Canada, 2017); Scialla! (Francesco Bruni, Italy, 2011); Napolislam (Ernesto Pagano, Italy, 2015); Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, UK/Poland, 2017); The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, UK/USA/Sweden, 2017(; Blessed Benefit (Mahmoud Al Massad, Germany/Jordan/Netherlands, 2016); mother! (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2017); Human Flow (Ai Weiwei, Germany, 2017); Geostorm (Dean Devlin, USA, 2017); Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler, USA, 2017); Only the Brave (Joseph Kosinski, USA, 2017); Suburbicon (George Clooney, UK/USA, 2017); Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, USA, 2017); When Monaliza Smiled (Fadi Haddad, Jordan, 2012); Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada, Italy, 1962); Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, USA/UK/Malta/Canada, 2017); Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953); Justice League (Zack Snyder, USA/UK/Canada, 2017); Wonder (Stephen Chbosky, USA/Hong Kong, 2017); Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes, USA, 2017); Tabiib (Jim Savio, USA/UAE, 2017); The Mountain Between Us (Hany Abu-Assad, USA, 2017); Good Time (Josh and Ben Safdie, USA, 2017); Xenos (Mahdi Fleifel, UK/Greece/Denmark, 2014); A Man Returned (Mahdi Fleifel, UK/Denmark/Netherlands/Lebanon, 2016); A Drowning Man (Mahdi Fleifel, Denmark/UK/Greece, 2017); Sharp Tools (Nujoom Al-Ghanem, UAE, 2017); Mary Shelley (Haifaa al-Mansour, USA/UK/Luxembourg, 2017); Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, USA, 2017); Coco (Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, USA, 2017); White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1954); and The Killing of a Sacred Dear (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Ireland/USA, 2017).

This list does not include a programme of 8 short films that I watched at an event celebrating cultural exchange between the UAE and the UK, and which included four films from the UK and four films from the Gulf region (mainly the UAE) – an event to which I shall return shortly.

A brief glance at the above list will suggest that the majority of films that I saw are American films or transnational co-productions that include American talent and/or money. However, it should be worth emphasising immediately that there is a wide of range of films from India consistently playing at the cinemas in the UAE (I had in particular wanted to see Qarib Qarib Singlle, Tanuja Chandra, India, 2017 – mainly because I really like Irrfan Khan, who stars in it), as well as the occasional Philippine film, some Egyptian films (I was in particular sad not to be able to make it to see Sheikh JacksonAmr Salama, Egypt, 2017) – and more.

That said, American blockbusters do basically dominate the market – and in this respect movie theatres in the UAE are very ‘cool’ in the superficial sense – since a good number of the blockbusters mentioned above (for example, Geostorm) look good and have lots of loud crashes, bangs and wallops, but they do not have much depth. (Remember that this is the list of films that I saw, not the list of films that were showing.)

However, even within that list, there is clearly an appetite for work by relatively well regarded filmmakers, including Todd Haynes, Darren Aronofsky, George Clooney, Ai Weiwei, Yorgos Lanthimos and David Gordon Green. Furthermore, ‘sleeper’ films like Brawl in Cell Block 99 played, as did the Safdie brothers’ excellent Good Time, as well as experimental animation Loving Vincent. In other words, there might as anywhere be some shallow movies playing, but there is also some cool stuff – even at multiplexes in shopping malls.

If there is a distinction to be made between the films I saw and the films that showed, there is also a distinction to be made, meanwhile, between the films screening and how many people went to see them. This is anecdotal evidence, but I should highlight how on a semi-regular basis (on four or five occasions), I was the only audience member in the cinema, with audiences rarely exceeding ten – with even mega-blockbusters like Justice LeagueStar Wars: The Last Jedi and Thor: Ragnarok seeming to have relatively slim crowds when I went to see them.

What we might infer from this, then, is that the movies show and that no one is particularly interested in them. This would confirm that idea that there is no cinema in the UAE, and this is a position that seemed to be held also by a spokesman for Image Nation Abu Dhabi at the UAE-UK cultural exchange mentioned above, and which was supported in part by the British Council.

During an exchange at the event, someone asked why local films were not supported by the cinema chains in the UAE, with the response being along the lines that there is no appetite for them for the twin reason of people not being interested in movies and the perception that local films are not of a high enough quality in the sense that they do not match the production values of a Hollywood feature film.

However, to counter the first point, I would like to bring in a couple of bits of evidence. For while I did spend a fair amount of time sitting in relatively empty movie theatres while watching American blockbusters and auteur films in the UAE, I did also sit with very busy communities of filmgoers at more or less every film that I saw which was not an American blockbuster or the work of someone like Haynes and Aronofsky.

There is a film club called Cinema Space that meets three or four times a week at the Manarat al Saadiyat on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, and at which I saw a handful of films, typically foreign and/or classic (Soul Food StoriesScialla!MafiosoUgetsu MonogatariWhite Christmas). While the average audience size in the mall multiplexes was less than 10, at Cinema Space the average audience size was about 50. And with their comprehensive and varied programme, Cinema Space is about as close to a cinematheque that Abu Dhabi has – and there clearly is an appetite (more of an appetite!) for art house over mainstream work.

Further evidence for the appetite for non-mainstream work would include the occasional film screenings held at Warehouse 421 in the Mina Zayed (port) area, and The Scene Club in Dubai, which also programmes independent work. I might also mention that I curated a series of 27 films based upon the theme of mavericks (maverick actors and maverick/cult-ish films), and which took the name of DXB Experiments Presents: The Cinema. With the screenings taking place in Le Royal Méridien Beach and Spa resort, this was like the other film clubs mentioned above an example of not-quite-theatrical film exhibition. And while the 27 films were relatively mainstream, the reported average audience again of about 50 far surpasses my experience of the multiplexes in terms of audience size.

With the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in which there was a tiny amount of moving image work on display (mainly a film about land art), together with small amounts of moving image work also on display at the Abu Dhabi Art Fair (held like Cinema Space at the Manarat al Saadiyat), and with a Guggenheim and other museums promised in the future, hopefully the appetite for artistic and/or experimental cinema will also continue to grow.

That said, a seemingly greater appetite for classic, independent and/or art house cinema than for mainstream work does not translate into an audience for local films. However, here I may suggest that an enterprise like CinemaNA, which is a joint venture between New York University Abu Dhabi and Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, would again suggest the opposite. It is through CinemaNA that I saw Blessed Benefit to an audience of over 70 at the Sorbonne and When Monaliza Smiled to a full-house at NYUAD. Being Jordanian, we may say that these films are not strictly local, but nonetheless they suggest an appetite for films in Arabic.

Furthermore, I also attended a screening of Jim Savio’s locally-shot Tabiib at NYUAD, which similarly enjoyed a full house, while a triple-bill of short films by Mahdi Fleifel, the director of the excellent documentary, A World Not Ours (UK/Denmark/Lebanon/UAE, 2012), had over 30 people in attendance.

In other words, and in particular contrary to the Image Nation Abu Dhabi spokesman, it would seem that there is an appetite not just for classic, independent and art house cinema, but also for Arab and perhaps even more specifically Emirati cinema – with audiences going to watch these latter films not necessarily in spite of their low budget, but perhaps very much because of that low budget.

For, as many humans wear their wealth cosmetically as a means to demonstrate their worth/as a means to be worshipped, so, too, do movies. And so in some senses it is the more humble, less opulent film that stands a greater chance of taking us beyond appearances and which can give us a sense of what happens ‘behind the scenes,’ lending depth to the world that we see being depicted in the film. The truly cool, then, is not necessarily that which shares the values of a superficial world (that is only superficially to be cool), but that which sees through/beyond the surface and which perhaps demonstrates to us that there is a beyond the surface.

If cinema is only about surfaces, then perhaps films that go beyond and/or which demonstrate that cinema is superficial are not really cinema. Maybe, then, such films are non-cinema – even if they are still cinematic (in that they are still films). In this sense, the spokesman of Image Nation Abu Dhabi was perhaps right in suggesting that there is no cinema in the UAE. But he also did not appreciate how there positively is non-cinema in the UAE, the status of which as non-cinema is also reinforced by the non-theatrical venues in which many of the above clubs are held.

Here we reach the issue of production values. At the UAE-UK cultural exchange event, it seemed that speakers both British, American and Emirati insisted that all films have a certain (high) level of production values, and without which Emirati cinema will never get off the ground – before the speakers then (inexplicably) slamming today’s youth (millennials!) for not having the commitment (at university age) to learn the full range of skills involved in filmmaking.

Indeed, to return to the Image Nation Abu Dhabi spokesman, he invoked in his talk Woody Allen in order to suggest that the business dimension of show business is absolutely necessary – and that anyone who thinks that they can make films without also being a businessman is misguided.

The reference to Woody Allen is linked to the discussion of production values, because in order to achieve high production values, one needs money, which means that one must understand the cinema is a business. That is, cinema is inherently a capitalist enterprise, in which looking good (and thus qualifying as cinema) depends upon money. This means that young filmmakers must respect those who have money if they want to make films, since without that money, the films will not be funded. Again, cinema becomes a means for worshipping superficial values, in that the greater material worth of the rich person is deemed to be a more real worth than the measurement of humans according to a non-materialistic criterion.

It is not the UAE is a poor country. Far from it. But young people typically do not have access to money in the way that working adults do – and the UAE-UK cultural exchange event was aimed at discussing the future of film in the UAE, while also being attended by would-be future filmmakers in the UAE. To suggest that cinema requires money and that in some respects cinema is inherently conservative (since access to money is achieved by respecting one’s elders and their ethos of business) is not to encourage young filmmakers by telling them that it is possible, but to put up barriers to entry into the world of film – even though the desire to make films is clearly there given the presence of young filmmakers at the event.

The criticism of millennials by various of the speakers only clarifies further a split that the cultural exchange event drew out: that the established filmmakers and the established ways of making films do not feel enough respected, and perhaps that the young filmmakers and would-be filmmakers in the audience do not share the same conservative values as the established filmmakers.

Two examples of those conservative values might be explained. In her discussion of her career, Nayla Al Khaja somewhat jokingly explained how when she made her first short film, Arabana (UAE, 2006), she ended up with far too much money to make the film because so many people were enthusiastic to support her – and that in the end, she spent not very much money on her film but a huge sum of money on promoting her film, including by hiring a cinema and insisting upon a VIP guest list at her premiere.

Al Khaja’s entrepreneurial spirit is to be admired, and she clearly is a supporter of independent cinema in that it is she who organises The Scene Club in Dubai. But similarly this story not of making a great film but of channeling money into promotion suggests a capitulation in advance not to substance but to appearance (even if Arabana is a film about child neglect). Al Khaja is not necessarily wrong to play a superficial world at its own game, but she also implicitly accepts rather than challenges that world.

Meanwhile, the second example is the Image Nation Abu Dhabi spokesman’s reference to Woody Allen. For, as was suggested at the time, evoking Woody Allen in late 2017 as a shining light to be followed in the global film industry seems somewhat strange. That is, Allen may well acknowledge the business side of the film industry, but Allen also stands at this present time for an abusive patriarchy that objectifies women, rendering women as superficial images rather than as flesh and blood human beings with depth. The reference to Allen does not just suggest that cinema is inherently conservative, but it also suggests that cinema is inherently patriarchal.

That the Image Nation Abu Dhabi spokesman invoked Allen as a means to dismiss as naïve a question about youth filmmaking movements suggests not only that he does not understand the history of cinema (which since at least the nouvelle vague is a history defined by youth and/or by the most important filmmakers making work for very little by finding alternative ways to make films, or to make non-films if those alternative ways are not considered legitimately to be cinema), but it also suggests his own patriarchal perspective.

Given that in the audience of his talk was a group of c40 young female Emirati film students who had travelled to Abu Dhabi from a higher technical college (HTC) in Fujairah (a journey of about three hours by road), the reference to Allen also seemed especially inappropriate. But more than this, it confirmed the future of Emirati non-cinema, in the sense that if cinema is conservative and patriarchal, and if millennials do not respect cinema, and if the future generation of filmmakers (those same millennials) are mainly women… then the future of cinema is a non-superficial, non-patriarchal non-cinema – just as developments in cinema traditionally have been driven not by those who conservatively uphold its values, but by those who innovate by finding new ways to make – and to see films.

In this sense, if it is not in multiplexes but rather in clubs and in particular university spaces that alternative films get seen, then the UAE in the 2010s is not so dissimilar to the USA in the 1960s, where campuses were one of the main spaces in which young future filmmakers would see work by the likes of Ingmar Bergman – since you could not see these at the mainstream cinema, of which the younger generation had become tired, since the mainstream did not reflect their values or outlook on life. It is exposure on university campuses to European art house cinema (exemplified here by Bergman) that led to the reinvigoration of American cinema via the so-called Movie Brats that included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich and more. Again, the history of cinema is driven not by old men, but by brats – and in the UAE perhaps by female brats (with Al Khaja functioning as a kind of godmother figure, even if her emphasis on the superficial might also not quite chime with the younger generation).

What is true of exhibition is hopefully also true of production. In the era of digital media, in which ‘everyone can make a film,’ it seems clear that not only can everyone make a film, but that in some senses everyone does make films – just in formats that are not recognised by those who ‘officially’ define what cinema is.

Indeed, during my time in the UAE, I had the opportunity to speak at an event for Young Arab Media Leaders (YAML), which was attended by over 100 young media users from all over the Arab world (with the exception of Qatar). Indeed, you can see me images of me delivering my talk in the video below, and which was created after the YAML event, and which was posted by Shamma Al Mazrui, to whom I shall return imminently.

My aim is not to discuss the aesthetics/production values of this video, which may seem superficially cool with its use of slow motion, triumphant music and so on. Rather, I wish to say how, in particular during discussions after my talk, it seemed clear to me that there are young media users, including filmmakers, who are developing new ways to create and to show their work – and if cinema does not acknowledge the legitimacy of this work, then it is only cinema that will be left behind, and not the millennial generation.

Or rather: perhaps this millennial generation does not care for cinema with its inherently superficial and/or patriarchal set of values, but is instead developing non-cinema in order to create a different, better world.

In the old days, you did need vast amounts of money to make a film, which meant having contacts and so on. But nowadays, perhaps (by definition?) the most vibrant work is made without money. Or at the very least it is created with minimal budgets raised via crowdsourcing sites and by young, female voices with something to say – including, for example, Amal Al Agroobi, whose Under the Hat (Qatar/UAE, 2016) is a sweet tale of precisely old and new worlds colliding, and who is crowdsourcing money for a feature film about Philippine domestic workers in the UAE – a subject that is not a million miles from that of Caveh Zahedi’s The Sheik and I.

It is telling, then, that the YAML event was organised by Shamma Al Mazrui, the UAE’s first Rhodes Scholar and who at 22 was the youngest government minister in the world. Known for her engagement with media, Al Mazrui represents a female future of media leaders who perhaps move beyond the conservative/superficial/patriarchal values of cinema, and who instead create a different, deeper, more ‘feminine’ (non-)cinema, and/or society that moves beyond the superficial and cinematic values that define much of the world under globalised neoliberal capital.

Spending a few months in the UAE, I met many local cinephiles, whose knowledge and enthusiasm for cinema impressed me enormously, including Hind Mezaina, whose Culturist blog is one of the essential sites for discovering what goes on under the surface (‘behind the scenes’?) in the UAE.

It was lamented several times (including by some of its former organisers) that the Abu Dhabi Film Festival is no more, even if the day that I spent at the Dubai International Film Festival would suggest a vibrant capacity for cinema in the UAE. Indeed, the screening that I attended of Sharp Tools, a documentary about the late Hassan Sharif, the UAE’s best known conceptual artist, would give hope that people might support not only local films, but also local documentaries (i.e. non-mainstream films) about local artists who themselves were seeking consistently to push the envelope in terms of making art that raised consistently the question ‘what is art?’

As Sharif asked through his work ‘what is art?’, so might tomorrow’s Emirati filmmakers not simply accept the definition of cinema that is handed down to them, but instead they might continually be re-posing the question ‘what is cinema?’ in order to push the boundaries in terms of working out what it is that cinema can do. In this sense, art and filmmaking are not dissimilar to the human project of getting better to know ourselves and pursuing the ethical development of working out what it is that humans can do and learn. With bad faith, we will assume the worst and suspect that humans can realise great evil and that the quest to find out what it is that humans can do will lead only to violence. But with good faith, we might well learn that humans are capable of the most amazing and generous things.

This is not to deny the human capacity for evil, which is clearly documented even if regularly occulted because a) people do not want necessarily to see evil and b) because those who commit evil deeds do not necessarily want to be seen (evil takes place behind the scenes). But this does not mean that good can only take place in scenes (that good can only be staged). For this would be a world not necessarily of good, but of performed good – a world in which appearances of goodness would come to count for more than actual goodness, a slippage that would take us away from goodness itself.

If the UAE currently has no cinema (in a metaphorical if not in quite a literal sense), then I have faith that it will produce good if not excellent cinema before long – and that it might be all the better if that cinema includes a healthy dose of non-cinema. Indeed, the health of a nation might better be gauged not by its cinema, but by its non-cinema. In this respect, it may not at present be perfect, but the signs for the UAE are good.



Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, USA, 2013)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I was fortunate enough early this week (18-20 November 2013) to give a few talks in Sweden, at the University of Gothenburg and at the University of Skovde. At both institutions, I spoke about digital cinema, while also delivering a third paper on neuroscience and film at Skovde.

What was in particular of interest, however, was the way in which the trip allowed me to discuss with my esteemed colleague, Lars Kristensen, about his ongoing work on bicycles in cinema. Furthermore, since Skovde, where Lars works, has a strong emphasis on the study of video games, it also allowed us to discuss gaming.

In a relaxed conversation, we ended up hypothesising something along these lines: cinema has a dual tendency – for realism and for fantasy, a dual tendency also at work in video games, but which manifests itself in a different way.

Put succinctly, when cinema deals with bicycles, it often presents to us a strong notion of the physicality – of the embodied nature – of bike riding, and also of what goes into owning and maintaining a bike.

We need look no further than Vittorio de Sica’s classic Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Italy, 1948) to see this realist tendency at work in terms of how the bike is an important component in physical existence: the film tells the story of a man whose very livelihood depends on the bicycle, even if we do not see him ride it very much.

To take a less well known example, we also see in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Bibycleran/The Cyclist (Iran, 1987) the way in which the physical act of riding a bike is exhausting – a physical experience that is understood best through one’s body.

This we can compare with a film like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1982), in which we are given a fantasy version of the biking scenario: Elliott (Henry Thomas) eventually flies on his bike, in effect no longer needing physically to ride the thing, because E.T. just allows him to take off.

This latter example, E.T., is cinema as fantasy: cinema allows us at times to transcend the limits of gravity and to take off.

Now, we tend to think of computer games as not being particularly realistic, and therefore perhaps more fantastic. This is most clear in terms of the relationship of the images that we see in video games to reality: unlike analogue photographs, which have an indexical link to reality owing to the much theorised concept that photographic and cinematographic images bear the direct imprint of the light that was before the camera at the time of the image’s taking, digital images have no such link. And as a result, digital images are freed from the shackles of the real world and can depict fantastic places and deeds that defy the physical limitations of that real world.

The same applies to digital images in cinema as applies to digital images in games: digital cinema – in terms of special effects cinema – sees fantastic figures performing fantastic feats, many of which defy gravity. Flying cameras, flying characters – all unhooked from reality and existing in a fantasy realm.

While cinema commonly offers us myths of flying – of defying gravity – gaming, however, seems paradoxically to be defined precisely by gravity, at least a lot of the time. Sports simulations may involve getting the game’s avatars to perform bitchen and radical moves, including on bikes. But they also involve falling back to Earth. Mario and Sonic can jump great heights, but they always land. Lara Croft sometimes cannot jump high enough. And Tetris is defined almost uniquely by the inevitable weight of gravity – including, as the game progresses, the notion that the objects fall faster and faster the further one gets.

(To go way back through the canon of video games, I always felt horrified when Jet Set Willy would on occasion fall down from one room in his mansion and through into another, where Willy would continue to fall to his death – sometimes seven times in a row (Willy’s number of lives), since Willy would always start a new life in the exact location where he entered the last room before his death. It was agonising to watch Willy fall seven times in a row, even worse when he did this after I’d loaded the cheat version and caused Willy to have innumerable lives – i.e. he would fall and die in a loop forever.)

This discussion provides an excellent context through which to offer up a brief consideration of Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, Gravity, which I saw this evening (21 November 2013) at the BFI IMAX in London in 3D.

I shan’t do much more than allude to the way in which Gravity has something like a game structure: it is about solving problems in short order, getting from space shuttle to space station, to another space station and then – spoiler (of a sort) – to Earth (though the clue is in the title of the film, so this should not constitute too ‘bad’ a spoiler – ‘worse’ are to follow).

However, being a film that is in enormous part the result of digital animation, Gravity does also play with the dual tensions within cinema – as explained via the bicycle analogy – towards fantasy and towards realism.

For, while digital cinema can show us incredible feats performed by impossible specimens, Gravity seems instead to want to use its digital effects to convey something a lot more ‘realistic’.

This is not simply a case of the perceptually realistic images that we see of Earth and of the Heavens from orbit – excellent though these are, and important though they also are to my argument about the film.

Nor is it that Gravity is without fantasy/fantastic elements, as I shall discuss presently.

But rather, I shall propose that Gravity demonstrates the way in which something so false as a digital image can in fact function towards realistic ends. Or rather, it can function towards helping us to believe in reality.

To paraphrase Gilles Deleuze, the film offers a parable about how the power of the false (the digital image) can reaffirm our belief in the real (the world that we inhabit) – and that, arguably, this is key to the film’s power over audiences (even though some people I know have responded to the film in a way that we might in the vernacular term ‘meh’ – i.e. not particularly impressed).

(I should qualify this by saying – based upon off-blog discussions about the earliest version of this posting, that I am not particularly in love with Gravity if you want my value-judgement of the film. I found the IMAX 3D in particular annoying because parts of the images, typically Sandra Bullock’s face, blur if you do not look at them directly, and Cuarón did not push the deep focus far enough – for me, variable focus and 3D are antithetical, since my eyes want to search the depth of the image, and instead I am confronted with more blur. Beyond which, I am not particularly interested in whether a film is good or bad; these are relative and relatively pointless terms. I am more interested in what a film is trying to do, and I might – as per Gravity – cut the film some slack when it is trying to do something interesting, even if it does not achieve its aims for every audience member – hence the ‘meh’ that many people express at the film.)

Now, Gravity tells the story of how a physicist, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), tries to get back to Earth after her first space flight to work on a telescope goes horribly wrong as a result of a débris shower brought on by destroyed satellites.

She struggles with her colleague Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) to get from her space shuttle to a first and then a second space station, all the while with limited resources – before trying to get back to Earth.

So, here is a key fantasy element: there is in particular a sequence in which Kowalski reappears to Stone late on in the film. She is about to give up on her attempts to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, but he enters the Russian pod in which she finds herself and gets her to continue in her endeavours to escape/to survive.

Significantly, the film does not cut as we transition from what appears to be a realistic moment (Stone alone in the pod), into this fantasy apparition from Kowalski, and then back again to her being alone in the pod.

In other words, the fantastic seems to be on a continuum with the real, such that we cannot tell them apart. Indeed, one might infer from this that nothing else that we see is real, but instead all a fantasy – and that Stone is in fact dreaming the whole situation.

This is a plausible take on the film, but one that would only to me signal something that all viewers already know: that the film as a whole is of course a fantasy – this is a fiction film starring well known stars whom we know not to be astronauts in real life – but that this fantasy might nonetheless have an effect in the real world, that this fantasy might allow its viewers to believe (once again?) in the real world.

Perhaps the casting of those self-same stars is important here. We have Clooney, the star of Steven Soderbergh’s slightly maligned but interesting remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris/Solaris (USSR, 1972; USA, 2002). In that film, space is used as a vehicle for fantastic projection: faced with the void of space, the fact that our memories and our fantasies structure and are an inseparable part of our perception of reality becomes most tangible. In effect, we realise that humans are incapable of facing the void, of facing the reality of the enormous scale of the universe, of facing our insignificance and our death, and that we use fantasy (we use the desire to see reality as a film?) to cope with the emptiness that otherwise surrounds and perhaps is us.

Bullock, too, is the veteran of many a ‘fine’ action film – Speed (Jan de Bont, USA, 1994) is the one that most particularly comes to mind – though she also does increasingly a line in credible, realistic portrayals of ‘real’ people, as The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, USA, 2009) and 28 Days (Betty Thomas, USA, 2000) might suggest. That is, she seems to come with – and to embody – the dual concerns of gravity.

And then, perhaps importantly, we have the voice of Ed Harris as Mission Control – he being associated with ‘real life’ space travel films Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, USA, 1995) and The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, USA, 1983). In other words, Harris ‘grounds’ the film in supposedly true/authentic cinematic depictions of space/space travel, thereby reinforcing Gravity‘s credentials as a film that relates to the real world.

I mentioned earlier the shots of Earth and the Heavens from space. These are digital compositions and not ‘real’. However, in particular during the film’s opening 10 minutes, in which we enjoy a single, unbroken shot of space and then of the astronauts as they work on the damaged telescope (and conjoined shuttle), we are – or at least I was – inclined to view these images as awe-inspiring.

Conceivably, images of Earth and of the Heavens have become ubiquitous, such that we look at them without thinking very much when we see them. Nonetheless, we can look at them sometimes and feel that sense of being small, of feeling lucky to breathe, of feeling lucky – mind-bogglingly lucky – to exist at all in a universe that is so dark and cold.

The duration of the shot/take is here important: for no doubt many viewers might regard the Earth and the Heavens in an unthinking fashion, especially were they to pass by rapidly, as can often happen in films set in space. However, because we get so long to contemplate in this opening sequence (as well as at other times), the very duration of these shots helps to maximise the possibility of this sort of response.

If one still feels inclined to say ‘but we know that these are not real images, and therefore I cannot feel about them anything “philosophical” along the lines suggested here’, then perhaps my only attempt to get such a reader to reconsider would be by saying that it is perhaps important that Stone is up in space working on a telescope.

For, telescopes like Hubble in fact have digital cameras. That is, they do not take images of space that have an indexical link to reality – as per analogue photos defined above. Rather, telescopes like Hubble take digital images of space – what we see has no indexical link to what was before the camera at the time of the image’s taking, for what we see is in ‘reality’ only made up of the 1s and 0s that form digital code – and yet these digital images still form the foundation of our best, scientific understanding of the universe.

In other words, it is only in art/cinema that the indexicality issue seems to loom so large; in science, there seems to be no such problem (a likely overstatement, but I hope its spirit is understood).

And when faced with the vastness of the universe, and with our own insignificance and mortality, we are confronted with the void, with death. Perhaps it is for this reason that the film then feels compelled to suture into a disaster movie/game scenario: genre functions as the coping mechanism for us to deal with the fact that ultimately there is nothing but the void, that ultimately digital images are indices, not of the world, but of the void itself.

But cannily, the genre is, as we know, a disaster movie: Stone has to save herself from the perils of space, just as many movie characters before her have saved themselves from sinking ships and alien invasions.

In other words, the film works hard to maintain the notion of a threat of death. And here the ’embodied’ nature of the film becomes important: as many spectators testify, and as the supposedly ‘immersive’ nature of both 3D and large format cinema (IMAX) reinforce (especially when working in conjunction), it becomes as if we are ‘there’ with Stone. That is, we ‘experience’ what Stone experiences, namely a fear of death.

We particularly ‘experience’ this fear through the film’s use of sound, as has been widely noted. We are given to hearing Stone’s breathing – with oxygen forming a central theme of the film, as well as her heartbeat, and I for one as a viewer did often find myself tensing up at crucial moments.

Also key to the film is the notion of touch, and in particular of gripping. The human mirror neuron system functions in such a way that when we see conspecifics (other humans) trying to grip an object, the same neurons fire in our brain as fire in the brain of the person doing the gripping.

Here the film’s editing becomes key. For while the movie is defined by long takes that suggest massive scale – lending to the film a temporal, experiential realism (‘real time’) that sits alongside the film’s perceptual realism, the close ups of hands trying to grasp objects that will save the life of Stone (and Kowalski) give to the film a ‘haptic’ quality, such that we are not just feeling what the characters are feeling, but also feeling for something to hold on to in the same way that they are.

Perhaps it is important that the threat in this film is human caused. Aside from some potential digs at the Russians for launching a missile at one of their own satellites – the initial cause for the débris – it is not necessary for this film to resort to aliens as threat.

By making the threat ‘human’ in origin, Gravity seems to offer no escape from the void, retaining a level of plausibility that in turns helps the film to seem realistic.

As Stone begins to despair, she finds a Chinese radio operator who has a dog that barks and a baby that cries. It is a remarkable moment when Stone barks along with the dog: the barking seems to be the expression of the inner void that the film seems to want to depict.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Stone has lost a child in her past; that is, she is a woman in despair, overwhelmed by her helplessness before the lack of justice in the universe. For her, work – conceptual space travel – becomes the device that helps her to fill not the void created by the loss of her child, but the fact that the void is all around her anyway. Death is everywhere.

(Perhaps it takes a Mexican director, a compatriot of Octavio Paz, a celebrant of the Day of the Dead, to get a handle on death in this way. Although Danny Boyle’s remarkable Sunshine (UK/USA, 2007) also has a strong understanding of death within the context of a space film.)

I have repeatedly said that Gravity is realistic, and yet the film is also full of symbolic images. Symbolic images potentially challenge the idea of realism, because in real life there arguably are no symbols.

I am thinking in particular of Stone in the foetal position as star-child, or Stone continually being reborn as the film progresses, emerging from womb after womb.

Nonetheless, while symbolic, these moments also visualise something important: namely that, in being continually reborn, we get a sense in which Stone is consistently becoming. That is, she does not settle for who she is and lean back and die, but instead she consistently fights/struggles to overcome her situation.

This may be a (female twist?) on the classical male heroism of normative cinema. But on another level it suggests that Stone learns, that she consistently is taking positive lessons from her interactions with the void/with death, and using these to project herself forwards into life. In other words, even though the film has various symbols of rebirth, Gravity seems to suggest that Stone paradoxically becomes via her interactions with the void, it inspiring in her ever deeper coping strategies that come in the form of her will to survival.

If I have tried to avoid spoilers so far, I am about to offer up a description of the final scene, so you have been warned…

If movies like E.T. present a defiance of gravity – with the defiance of gravity/fantasy being a key aspect of cinema – Cuarón paradoxically (since this is a big budget special effects movie) represents gravity as inevitable. The film must be dragged down to Earth eventually.

And nowhere for me is this more clear than after Stone has landed back on Earth (conveniently in a small lake). Stone (who like all stones must fall) swims to the shore and lies on the beach. We see her grip the sand, then stand up and walk away.

Briefly we get to see during this final sequence one of Stone’s footprints in the sand. The footprint is another index: like light hitting the analogue film stock, so, too, is a footprint a direct imprint of the human standing on that spot at a particular place in time.

In other words, as Stone breathes air and touches the sand, so, too, does she make an impression on it. After much time in space touching objects with gloves (even if keeping a grip is, in every sense perhaps, key to her survival), she is now in touch with reality again.

In other words, having fled into empty space after the loss of her child, she is now able to be in and with the world again. She can believe in the world again. And so maybe the whole film is her fantasy – a fantasy of the void in order to help her escape the void and to believe in the world again.

But we also have here a sense in which the world is our only refuge from the void. Perhaps even our experiential perceptions are attempts for to us impose a pattern on what is otherwise essentially formless, what is otherwise just an empty void, dead.

As such, we cannot ever really see reality/the void, even if we can feel its presence everywhere, just as we feel gravity.

Gravity may be a film that is full of non-indexical, digital images. And yet, if the power of the false that we use/need in order not to be overwhelmed by the void is sufficient to make us believe in the world – as happens for Stone – then perhaps the power of the false that is Gravity can also help us viewers to believe in the world as well.

Digital cinema may be empty like the void; but like the void, what it can do is to spur us to embrace the world and our fragile lives as best we can.