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The Dubai International Film Festival: Promoting Film Or Just A Show?

  • By Shezanne Cassim
  • 11 Dec, 2015

The Dubai government’s efforts to present an image of openness to film through DIFF conceals a stark double-standard by which Hollywood blockbusters are courted while homegrown creative expression is subject to harsh arbitrary restrictions.

December 9 was the opening day of the  2015 Dubai International Film Festival  (“DIFF”), the Dubai government’s flagship effort to establish the city as a hub for film. The list of international film-industry personalities linked to this year’s DIFF is impressive—Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Deneuve, and Naseeruddin Shah will receive awards—and films by directors working in the region will be showcased. Attention will be drawn to how the UAE has recently served as a filming location for a number of high-profile Hollywood productions—Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Furious 7, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Star Trek Beyond.

The Dubai government’s efforts to present an image of openness to film through DIFF, however, conceals a stark double-standard by which Hollywood blockbusters are courted while homegrown creative expression is subject to harsh arbitrary restrictions.

In April 2013, I was detained by Dubai Police because of an amateur comedy video I made that parodied teenagers in Dubai’s Satwa district, not far from where I grew up. The video poked fun at how those teenagers wanted to appear tough despite being utterly harmless.

Nonetheless, the officer who detained me—Captain Mohammed Juma Al Sayegh of the Cyber Crimes Department—accused me of being part of an international conspiracy to spread the false impression that Dubai was dangerous and lacked a police force. As a result of Captain Al Sayegh’s absurd arbitrary assignment of false accusations to a video that was clearly humorous and even made other officers laugh, I was detained for the next nine months.

Ironically, I was being held without charge or bail at Abu Dhabi’s maximum-security Al Sadr Prison for making a comedy video while DIFF 2013 was being held an hour’s drive up the E11 motorway, ostensibly to promote filmmaking in Dubai.

Though I was imprisoned for supposedly trying to show that Dubai lacked a police force, Tom Cruise was honored at DIFF 2011 for his role in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a movie—made with government encouragement—that portrayed Dubai as a playground for rogue arms dealers and foreign agents who are free to operate in the emirate without any interference from the police. Since then, Furious 7, which features outlaws running amok in Abu Dhabi with no sign of the police, was also filmed in the country with the support of the Abu Dhabi government.

It’s incongruous that I was thrown in prison for allegedly making the UAE look dangerous with a video showing youths throwing a sandal at a wall while the government endorsed a movie that  depicts a terrorist assassin firing an assault rifle and grenade launcher with impunity in downtown Abu Dhabi .

This contradiction sends the message that rather than being a sincere effort to encourage film, DIFF is merely a publicity exercise calculated to parade Hollywood celebrities and offer the illusion of the UAE’s commitment to film. Freej’s Mohammed Saeed Harib and director Ali F. Mostafa, for example, have shown that UAE filmmakers have no shortage of ability, but the UAE’s film industry will never realize its full potential as long as officials continue to arbitrarily restrict local creative expression.

It’s a perennial irony that DIFF always coincides with International Human Rights Day, when, on December 10 each year, the world honors the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its protection of free expression. Unless the UAE embraces a sincere desire to nurture a film industry of substance, Hollywood actors flying into the UAE for DIFF will, oddly, continue to be the face of UAE film, while homegrown expression is stifled.

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By Shezanne Cassim 21 Oct, 2017

Reports of travelers being locked up while on holiday in—or simply passing through—the UAE continue to regularly make news. Because the UAE has gone to great lengths to portray itself as a modern business and tourist destination, this continuous news drip makes local officials and lawyers defensive. Instead of fixing the problem, they have decided to explain that this isn’t the UAE’s fault. In at least one recent news  article  published by state-controlled media, officials have claimed that the real problem is that travelers are jailed because they don’t know the country’s laws.

But this spate of arbitrary detentions has nothing to do with travelers who don’t have a handbook of UAE laws. The problem is that, first, the UAE’s laws are unclear and unpredictably enforced and, second, people can be detained without warning for some harmless act and then be denied the right to defend themselves.

The case of Jamie Harron illustrates this point to a farcical degree. While on a two-day stopover in Dubai this July, Harron, 27, from Scotland, visited a bar. According to Harron, he touched a man’s hip while preventing a drink from spilling. That man took offense and called the police. Harron was detained and charged with drinking alcohol and “public indecency” solely on the basis of the man’s complaint. Harron, who was granted bail after five days in jail, has lost his job and has racked up over £30,000 ($40,000) in legal bills. The judge handed him a  30-day jail sentence  for the charge of drinking alcohol. He’s now waiting for a judgment on the “public indecency” charge on October 22.

Here’s the problem: it wouldn’t have mattered if Harron knew the law because the UAE's alcohol laws are not consistently enforced. Though Dubai markets itself as a great place to drink, and thousands of tourists do so in the city’s many bars,  it’s illegal for tourists to consume alcohol . The catcher is that the law is only enforced some of the time, and there’s no telling when or who will be targeted.

Knowing the law wouldn’t have helped Harron avoid a charge of “public indecency” for touching the man’s hip, either. The vagueness of UAE laws means that anyone can find any action “offensive” and have you detained just by complaining to the police. Recently, individuals have been prosecuted for a  handshake , posting a picture of a fox on Facebook, or taking  pictures of a local racetrack  or even just taking  pictures of the sunset . In the UAE, someone could find the way you walk, the way you breathe, or the way you laugh “offensive” and have you locked up with just his word against yours.

Once detained, you will be unable defend yourself because there’s no due process. Police and prosecutors are free to fabricate evidence against you, and you can be denied access to an attorney (who can’t do much to help you anyway) while judges go along with it all.

Once you’ve been locked up, you then also fall victim to the chaos of UAE courts. Judges fail to show up for work, so after spending a whole day sitting in the courtroom waiting for the judge to appear, your case will be postponed again and again over a period of months while you languish in a cell. Jamie Harron was lucky enough to get bail, but his conviction for drinking alcohol was made “in absentia” because it didn’t occur to any court official to inform him of the date of his trial.

That the spate of detentions is due to arbitrary enforcement of the law and not ignorance becomes very clear when you take into account the fact that people with connections to influential officials like UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba  can flout the country’s laws with impunity  while ordinary guys like Jamie Harron get hit hard. Until the UAE has a justice system that is predictable, accountable, and transparent, “knowing the law” will not save you from the nightmare of being thrown in jail for any reason or no reason at all.

By Shezanne Cassim 10 Oct, 2017

Dubai cops have locked up a tourist for drinking at a bar.

Jamie Harron, a 27-year-old British tourist is facing a three-year jail sentence in Dubai after allegedly putting his hand out in a bar  to stop himself spilling his drink  and touching a man’s hip. That man called the police.

Harron’s case is yet another example of how vulnerable tourists are to being arbitrarily detained in the UAE, where merely an accusation is enough to have someone jailed. Harron was charged with drinking alcohol even though he was at a bar that is permitted by the government to sell alcohol to patrons, including tourists. The Dubai government portrays the city as a modern and liberal tourist haven, but Harron’s case shows how tourists and residents are at constant risk just for merely drinking at the very hotels and other establishments the government promotes.

Harron is now facing charges of “drinking alcohol” and “public indecency.” Harron was in a jail for five days before being released on bail, but has since been trapped in the UAE for three months. He has lost his job and racked up over £30,000 (approximately $39,000) in legal fees and expenses.

Harron was expected to show up for a court hearing last Sunday, but the court moved the hearing date without informing him. Harron has now reportedly been sentenced to 30 days imprisonment for failing to show up.

UAE court proceedings are a shambles. There’s no due process, so anyone who doesn’t like your face can get you detained just by complaining to the police. Once they’re locked up, prisoners aren’t informed that they’re due in court until the morning of the hearing, judges don’t show up for work and even court clerks are completely unaware of the judge’s whereabouts or which cases are to be tried on that day. Prisoners are often not brought to their hearings by the police. It is not surprising that Harron has become a victim of the Dubai justice system’s own mismanagement.

Until the UAE brings its justice system into the modern era, visitors and residents remain at constant risk.

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