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Cinema in Bahrain: Do They or Don’t They?

December 1, 2014


In my last post I wrote about the massive influx of Saudis into Bahrain every weekend. Many of them head straight to the cinemas, since such institutions are not allowed in the Kingdom.

The cinemas in Bahrain are as good as any in the west. In the multiplex I go to there are big seats (for big bums!), lots of leg room and all the trimmings: ice cream, popcorn, soft drinks, frozen yogurt and even crepes. You can book online, or you can get your tickets at the box office with minimal waiting even at peak hours.

The locals and the Saudis tend to go for the blockbusters. The current trailers are advertising The Battle of the Five Armies – the latest in the Hobbit series – and some ghastly horror movie about malevolent forces in a newly-discovered pyramid. The Bahrainis like crime too, so Night Stalker, about a body-chasing news cameraman, is also on the list.

All fine and dandy if you want to watch splattered orcs, monsters in tombs or murder in America. But the moment two pairs of lips move closer together, zap! The censor strikes. I have learned through past experience that movies shown in Bahrain that feature people doing what comes naturally to propagate the species tend to be very short.

But surely, I thought, Brad Pitt’s Fury would escape the censor’s razor. It’s a war movie after all – probably the most graphic portrayal of the Second World War since Saving Private Ryan. Pitt and his tank crew fight their way through German forces on their last legs but still resisting fanatically in the last month of the war.

About halfway through the movie there’s a scene where Pitt’s character and his newbie gunner enter an apartment in a town square in search of any remaining soldiers who might be hiding out. They discover a woman who turns out to be hiding her beautiful young niece. The two soldiers close the door, put their guns down, and Pitt produces a tin of eggs for auntie to cook. A brief respite from the mayhem outside, where drunken GIs loot the town and pass the local women around.

Young newbie charms the niece by playing the piano, and eventually they go next door. One minute he’s reading the girl’s palm, and the next minute they’re coming out of the room. Something’s happened, but thanks to the censor, we don’t know what. Judging from the smile on the young lady’s face it must have been something good. Was it a peck on the cheek or something more adventurous? No way of telling.

Either way, subsequent events put a shocking complexion on the encounter, about the only moment of “normal” human interaction in the whole movie.

Yes, after thirty-five years of coming and going from the Middle East, I know about the cultural sensibilities around love and sex, and I don’t expect them to be changed for my benefit as a movie-goer. But just occasionally I’m struck by the irony of a society whose values allow the media to publishing photos of dead bodies from road traffic accidents, where it’s quite OK to watch people’s heads being blown off in movies, where public executions are commonplace, yet where even the slightest hint of intimacy between two consenting adults is deemed to be off limits. It’s as though hate is quite acceptable, yet the love that makes the world go round is not.

A few months ago I wrote here about the motivation that leads young people in my country and others in the west to seek jihad in Iraq and Syria. I called them backpackers with attitude – kids who seek excitement in the name of religion, but whose desire for battle has parallels with the risk-taking rite of passage that is the gap year. A Saudi friend gave me further fruit for thought when he wondered whether the prospect of a night or two with an enslaved Yazidi or Christian woman, or a jihadi marriage, however short-lived, might not be an equally powerful lure. These kids may have been born in the west, but the moral code most of them grew up under is not much different from that prevailing in the Middle East.

If that should be the case it’s a strange and deeply saddening thought. But I guess sexual prudery has been the norm for longer in remembered history than it has not – ever since, perhaps, early man sought to hide his breeding mates from predatory rivals.

I would be the first to agree that the modern cocktail of attitudes to sex and love that was triggered by the “sexual revolution” of the sixties and seventies has had some sorry consequences: the spread of sexually-transmitted disease, sex trafficking, internet pornography and so forth. But equally to create a mystery out of the sexual act must surely warp the perception of those who live in a society in which it is an unmentionable subject. Those whom the authorities do not permit to witness a screen kiss may well have watched its ultimate conclusion a dozen times by going to porn sites that – no matter how hard the information police try to block access to them – can still be accessed by an IT-literate generation that’s smarter than the censors.

In the west, the attitude of a whole generation of youngsters has been influenced by internet pornography. Boys approach their first sexual contact with girls with the expectation that what they have watched on the internet is the norm. Girls feel obliged to meet that expectation by behaving in ways that they might find deeply unnatural and uncomfortable. But at least on TV and at the movies they can experience an alternative narrative that often portrays sex as an act of love rather than a degrading power game.

In countries where a simple kiss crosses a moral red line, one worries that an exclusive diet of pornography is likely to be even more corrosive.

Nothing I say or write is likely to affect the fundamental reality that in many parts of the world where sexuality is circumscribed by cultural taboos and religious belief, thwarted desire and warped perceptions result in sexual harassment and barbaric practices – Eve-teasing in India, groping in Egypt, female genital mutilation in Sudan for example. And widespread sexual ignorance within many countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia leave whole societies exposed to disease, unhappiness and lack of personal fulfilment.

I may not be able to change that reality, but I don’t have to like it.

From → Film, Middle East, Social, UK, USA

  1. Reblogged this on oogenhand.

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