In the first Salut! Forum contribution for some while, and the first from Abu Dhabi at all, Craig Courtice* tries to be even-handed about the pests whose mobile phone calls and garrulous habits add an irritating dimension to going to the movies
Forget the mosques and the palaces and the souks. The first thing I wanted to do when I arrived in Abu Dhabi was check out the movies.
Sure, watching films is my job, but going to the cinema is my favourite way to explore a new culture. In Germany, while checking out Die Farbe des Geldes (The Colour of Money) I discovered not only does Tom Cruise sound a lot more masculine in Deutsche, but the patrons prefer sugar on their popcorn rather than salt.
Since Miami has such a large Hispanic population, their theatres show more Spanish-language films (I saw the magical Intacto there). And the good folks of Sydney take advantage of their temperate climate with plenty of outdoor screenings (although it rained when I saw Rear Window near the harbour).
So what have I learned of movie culture here in the capital of the Emirates?
Well, for one the locals seem to have no problem chatting while the movie is playing. Or talking on their cellphones. The films I've watched are English with Arabic subtitles, so perhaps this is their way of understanding the story.
Or, more likely, the idea of going out to the cinema is relatively new so the etiquette isn't ingrained. The chatting is mostly annoying, but it can be charming. In a scene from Dan in Real Life, the dishdash-clad lads behind me recounted the jokes to each other in Arabic. There was a punchline punctuated by the translated punchline, doubling the humour, especially since the scene was a song about pigs.
Then there's the censorship. In Charlie Wilson's War, Tom Hanks's titular character must arrange an agreement between an Israeli arms dealer and the Egyptian government, no easy task in the early 1980s.
The not-so-subtle point of Mike Nichols's film is that this charming, aw-shucks style of diplomacy united the Middle East to help bring down the Soviets in Afghanistan, unlike the militant approach used by a certain sitting president.
One problem: the arms dealer's point of view was edited out with one jarring snip so we don't get to hear why Israel agreed to help out the mujahideen.
The censors have no problem with violence, however. There were more deaths in Kevin Bacon's Death Sentence and Rambo than in all the films I saw last year. In one scene from Sylvester Stallone's latest, our killing machine hero shoots a Burmese baddie with his trusty bow and arrow. As an added bonus the soldier falls right on a mine. Blam! Bits of body go flying through the air.
With the talking and the censorship, no one will mistake Abu Dhabi as a cinema centre. But things are changing. The city hosted the inaugural Middle East Film Festival in October and soon thereafter announced a US$500-million deal with Warner Bros to fund Arabic-language films.
These initiatives are intended to draw investment to the area, but will also help break down the censorship. After all, when a major studio invests that kind of cash, it won't stand for the product being hacked to bits.
The publicity from these deals will generate more interest in movies, which will eventually lead to more sophisticated consumers. But in the meantime, a cineaste must tolerate the limited choice and appreciate
the neat little differences.
For instance, Abu Dhabi is a great place to watch corn movies. Corn movies, like their popped relative, are those blockbusters that don't require much thought or much editing by the censors. But instead of popcorn, you can get a cup of corn. They steam it right at the counter, then mix in some salt and lemony butter. They call it Magic Corn, and who am I to disagree? As Steve Carrell's character in Dan in Real Life says at the family supper table: "This corn is an angel."
* Craig Courtice, seen here mugging up on Magic Corn recipes, is a Canadian journalist specialising in film. He has moved to Abu Dhabi following the appointment of his wife, Laura Koot, as art director of the English language newspaper some of us are here to launch. He will write reviews for the paper.