Rough Cut

12.13.08

Jason Reitman, Juno, 2007, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) and Leah (Olivia Thirlby).


THE BIG BUZZ FILM last year when I left Toronto was Juno (2007), the Academy Award–winning tale of a teenage girl who accidentally becomes pregnant. “I won’t be seeing that in Abu Dhabi,” I remember joking.

When I moved to the United Arab Emirates, I thought I knew what censorship meant: no nudity or sex (or unmarried, pregnant teenagers) on-screen. This is a Muslim country, after all. What I did not anticipate was that government-mandated edits would impact my critical competence.

Censors do not edit films—they hack them. “Editing” implies sensitivity to narrative, to an artist’s intent and an audience’s needs. Government snippers make cuts that would make Godard jumpy. You will be watching one scene, the screen will go black, and suddenly you will be watching an entirely different scene. Under the right circumstances, it can be a compelling experiment in metonymic thinking. After experiencing a few “hacks,” an instinct develops for deducing the missing material. (“Oh, Steve Carell’s pants were ripped as he was dragged behind the train, so that was his butt,” say, in Get Smart [2008].) But the resultant anxiety leaves one prone to distraction; instead of experiencing the story, the viewer becomes lost in anticipating the next cut or piecing together the deleted material. The bond between filmmaker and audience is interrupted; it seems disingenuous to even critique a film. What is Quantum of Solace (2008), for instance, without 007’s womanizing?

Occasionally, a scene’s removal renders a movie incoherent. One of the first films I saw in a theater in Abu Dhabi was Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). Tom Hanks plays an American senator who convinces Egyptians and Pakistanis to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviets. At one point, a shady older man named Zvi shows up in a café. He begins to talk—cut. He never appears again. After a bit of Internet research, I discovered the reason: Zvi is an Israeli arms dealer. Emiratis will never know that this is one of few films to depict Arab-Israeli cooperation. (That said, at least I was able to see the movie. Persepolis [2007] played for one weekend before it was pulled after complaints about its depiction of Islam.)

On the flip side, films that otherwise might not have commanded serious consideration back home seem edgy here. Not only did Juno play in the UAE, it was released in theaters unedited. Elsewhere, the dialogue (“honest to blog”) would have been cloying. But in a country where girls are regularly encouraged to marry their cousins and begin procreating immediately after high school, the film seemed downright subversive.

“Naughty” material thrills. Watching Tropic Thunder (2008), I felt like a teenager sneaking a peek at porn while my parents were asleep. And like a teenager, I laughed a little too hard when Jack Black’s half-naked, heroin-addicted protagonist pleads with a gay character to untie him from a tree. “I will cradle the balls, stroke the shaft, work the pipes, and swallow the gravy,” he says. How did this make it past the censors? Such behavior could get a person thrown in prison. (As could drug use. Last year, one British tourist was sentenced to four years for having .003 grams of marijuana on the bottom of his shoe. Yet I recently saw a “Coming Soon” poster for Pineapple Express [2008].)

These films had a licentious air, but the sex was merely implied. Actual nudity made me into the most banal kind of pervert. This year, for the first time, I attended the Cannes Film Festival. It should have been an opportunity to reconnect with art in all its glorious integrity. The first screening I attended was Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness (2008). In one scene, women in a prison sell sex to their captors in exchange for food; it devolves into a gang rape, a terrifying depiction of bare human nature. But all I saw were “boobies.” This after only four months in Abu Dhabi.

Accessing unedited films in the UAE is not all that difficult; I have watched numerous DVDs featuring nudity and sex, including a bootleg copy of Sex and the City (2008)—which I might have preferred censored. At the second Middle East International Film Festival in October, I even took in The Wackness (2008), about a teenage pot dealer who loses his virginity to his psychiatrist’s stepdaughter. Officials allowed it to screen unedited because it was part of a government “cultural” initiative, and thus not subject to the same restrictions as public entertainment. The irony, of course, is that censorship is framed as an effort to protect audiences from “adult” material, but the effect is to infantilize its subjects.

Craig Courtice