Many apologies for sending you the same newsletter two weeks in a row last week – which I did then follow up with a new one – which I hope you received. This was all caused by the fact I was running around with my pants on my head last Friday morning as I had too many things to do before flying off later in the day to Abu Dhabi from where I returned yesterday
I was in Abu Dhabi to run a screenwriting course for budding Arab film-makers, working with them on scripts for short films they will shoot in the next few months.
One of the writers pitched a story about a woman going on a date with a man – ‘The woman is nervous and unsure of herself, says the wrong thing. It’s not a success and It comes to nothing. CUT TO a few years later – the woman is now married. In a restaurant with her husband and two children, she sees again the man she went on a date with for the first time. Suddenly transformed from the relaxed, calm woman she normally is, suddenly she reverts to being the nervous, flustered woman of a few years before.’
I thought, Hmm well it’s OK as far as it goes, not bad but there’s not much complexity to it. I asked the writer why she wanted to tell this story.
She responded, ‘You’re not allowed to go on a date’. I failed to understand, she repeated it. And then everyone else in the group tried to penetrate my obtuseness. I didn’t understand that sentence because it was simply outside my experience. In the UAE, ‘you’re not allowed to go on a date’ – this is more than it being not socially acceptable. It’s a taboo. (In fact the short film will be called TABOO).
So many on the course had a hunger to tell stories about the peculiarities of their lives – such as the above. The first afternoon they all pitched the three ideas they had been asked to come with.
These stories reminded me of the power of fictional story-telling. I learnt more in that hour about their country and their lives than I could have done in weeks as a tourist – about their traditions, about their concerns, and particularly about gender politics.
One other story that was pitched was about a rich woman and her maid from a Far East country. The woman of the house is concerned with the superficial trappings of her life – her house, car, the staff who work for her. Her maid has left a young daughter behind in her home country to work for the rich Middle Eastern woman. The Middle Eastern woman neglects her own children as she pursues the high life. The crunch comes when the rich woman hears her own young daughter call the maid, ‘Mummy’.
This was another excellent story that expressed so much about UAE society. You’ll get an idea of the excellence of the quality of the stories pitched if I tell you that this wasn’t the best of this writer’s 3 story ideas.
My experiences threw into sharp relief the excellent account 2Phils alumnus Danielle Wager (Thank you Danielle!) had shared about the Jan 17 BAFTA masterclass forum, ‘Why don’t more women write for TV?’ debate – part of the ‘Totally Serialized’ 3 day event.
This is definitely a debate that is worth exploring (and I intend to explore it this coming weekend when 10 out of the 12 Channel 4 course writers are women) but it seems, in comparison, a relatively pallid issue when a girl says quite straightforwardly and without a hint of self-pity, ‘You’re not allowed to go on a date.’
Another story on the UAE course, simply entitled ‘Abaya’ concerned a Kuwaiti girl who at the end of the film gets to a state of such personal crisis that she sets light to her abaya (the black ‘cloak’ and headscarf worn by women in Arabian and North African countries). By the end of the session, though, between them the writers had decided that this image needed adapting – they felt this would never be allowed to be shown. I felt my ignorance again – when she started pitching her story, I didn’t even know what an ‘abaya’ was.
What was so refreshing and exciting about these stories were that they all came from such a completely different cultural tradition – and many of the stories concerned the clash of superstition and tradition with contemporary life.
It was a week that reminded me how many amazing stories there are out there – and how stories with a different national or cultural basis (dull as I’ve made it sound in that phrase) can be so dramatically and narratively exciting.
My feelings of cultural ignorance \ dislocation were set up at the start of the day when the ‘housekeeping’ intro consisted of directions to mens and womens toilets – and the prayer room.
One of the writers talked about his love of cinema – but how he doesn’t often bother going to see films in the UAE – when I asked why, he quoted the example of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET which has been released in the UAE with 45 minutes of the version we’re seeing, missing. I was also told that the film THE BOOK THIEF has been banned in Kuwait. Having just been to see this (the film is released in the UK on Jan 31st) I couldn’t begin to imagine how this could be considered culturally sensitive enough to be banned. The film has a voiceover at beginning and end by a personification of ‘Death’ – and this apparently is what got it banned.
But mainly what I learned from the week is how powerful stories can be when you as a writer have a strong personal reason for telling them, an ‘agenda’ and a passion behind the story you’re telling.
The other side of the coin were the serial killer and drug-dealing stories that some of the male writers wanted to tell. Most of these were relatively uninteresting – because they had no real connection to the world in which the writers lived, felt under-researched and derivative of the less interesting part of the US and UK film culture.
Until next week,
All the best
Jan 24th 2014