Sex And The City 2’s trip to the Middle East can either be seen as silly fun or deeply offensive. Mike Goodridge goes further and asks why Hollywood and the Gulf States aren’t making as many strides together as expected.

The relationship between the western film industry and the Middle East took a surprising twist in the last fortnight as controversy erupted over the treatment of Muslim culture in Sex And The City 2. The film curiously chose to send the four women of SATC on an extended trip to Abu Dhabi in the UAE where they proceed to get into a series of misadventures straight out of a Carry On film. That includes Samantha (Kim Cattrall) being arrested for lewd behaviour on a beach and all four women donning burkas in an effort to escape a gaggle of outraged local men.
Of course the film was refused a permit to shoot in Abu Dhabi and instead filmed in Morocco and on sets, although quite why the characters didn’t go to Morocco in the first place is a mystery.
Silly fun, or deeply offensive? The web has been abuzz since the film first screened with differing opinions. Playwright and blogger Wajahat Ali made an eloquent case for the latter on, talking about the film’s “stunning Muslim clichés” and adding: “Michael Patrick King’s exquisitely tone-deaf movie is cinematic Viagra for Western cultural imperialists who still ignorantly and inaccurately paint the entire Middle East (and Iran) as a Shangri La in desperate need of liberation from ignorant, backward natives.”
King argues that his characters are just behaving as they would in New York City and that the film’s irreverent tone should not be taken seriously.
But then perhaps the film, produced by three of the biggest names in US entertainment – HBO, New Line and Warner Bros – also highlights the, pardon the pun, gulf between the cultures of the middle east and the west. What is intended as irreverent in a Hollywood movie comes across as brazenly offensive in the Middle East. What are the norms of society in the Middle East can be read as oppressive and misogynistic in the west.
These cultural differences are perhaps the key reason why the Gulf States haven’t thrown themselves as aggressively into the international film business as was at first expected. The only real player in the region is Imagenation Abu Dhabi, a division of the Abu Dhabi Media Company, which has to date partnered in films such as Shorts, The Crazies, Fair Game, Furry Vengeance and Peter Weir’s upcoming The Way Back.
Imagenation has financing and production joint ventures with Participant Media, National Geographic Films and Hyde Park Entertainment and under the agreements, the partner companies cannot make other films outside the Imagenation partnership. That presumably means those companies won’t be making Brokeback Mountain or Not Without My Daughter anytime soon, although Imagenation’s US film-making activities are obviously driven by business imperatives rather than any cultural directives.
Perhaps more significant is Imagenation’s mandate to grow a local film industry. This week it announced the first six films in an Emirati slate that includes comedies, drama and romance. One of the projects Million’s Poet is a drama about a Bedouin girl who loves poetry but has to recruit her brother to compete in the hit TV poetry contest for her. It’s obviously down to this burgeoning local film-making community to tell local stories about women that the West can understand and counterbalance the frivolity of Sex And The City 2.
Ironically Imagenation also made a major investment in Karan Johar’s My Name Is Khan, an Indian hit from earlier in the year, which saw Bollywood once again try to crack the western market outside the diaspora with a two-hour international director’s cut. It didn’t work. Nor did Brett Ratner’s recent westernized re-edit of Kites. Whether it’s a crass US comedy or a Hindi blockbuster, some cinematic language continues to get lost in translation.