Huddled around a camp fire in the dunes, a group of young Emirati men drink vodka from plastic cups. Later, in the VIP area of a club, they
swig magnums of champagne, eyeing the Western girls in miniskirts dancing by their table.
This week, these scenes will be on big screens all over Dubai. They're from City of Life , the nation's first big-budget feature film, written and directed by Emirati Ali Mostafa.
Ten years ago, no way would I have been able to show that, Mostafa tells Time Out. I'm surprised I'm able to show it now.
Mostafa defends his depiction of decadent Emiratis by declaring: I did what I thought was real. He concedes the film could have delved even further, but reasons: I didn't need to make a film that was so unnecessarily controversial that
no [Emirati] could ever make a film again. I'm just scratching the surface.
While some locals may take offence at these scenes, the fact that they've not been cut before the film hits multiplexes shows a marked change regarding the UAE's censorship of celluloid. Of course, there remain non-negotiables . A public
cinema must not offend the nation's social and religious values, meaning any sexual or nude scenes are immediately cast to the cutting room floor. Also up for the chop is anything that could be offensive to religion (not just Islam) and anything that
criticises the rulers of the UAE and surrounding Arab nations.
Mohammed Mutawa, a senior staff member in the censorship department at the National Media Council (NMC), sums up the difficulty of his job when he tells us that 90% of material – films, music, video games – is from outside our culture
. Inevitably, elements of this imported material will conflict with the UAE's social values.
Still, the department rarely bans films, with sometimes humorous results. Morgan Freeman is entirely missing from the UAE version of Bruce Almighty because censors cut all depictions of God. Contrary to popular belief, Sex and the City
was not banned here. But because all scenes of a sexual nature were cut, cinemas decided not to screen it – probably because there were only about 30 minutes of the film left to screen.
City of Life director Mostafa says he thinks the psychology of seeing it on the big screen has drawn objections to the more risqu้ parts of his film. True, there seem to be different rules for public and private viewing here.
Juma Alleem, director of the NMC's censorship department, confirms it is not illegal to possess an uncensored film on DVD in the UAE because it is a personal effect. There is no official intervention because it is for personal use. He
also tells us that DVDs for sale in the UAE aren't as censored as in the cinema because he lacks the technology to cut them. Therefore, if there are only one or two sexual scenes, a DVD is released. If there are too many obscene scenes
, it is banned. That's why Watchmen , for example, was near incomprehensible in the cinema, but it's possible to buy the DVD and see the film in its entirety – sex scenes and Dr Manhattan's perennially naked presence included.