Terrorists cash in on DVDs

Pirated pix fuel illicit Mideast market

The Mideast film biz is facing some chaos as it grapples with inconsistent censorship and falling box office due rampant piracy and competition from satellite TV. And piracy has gone beyond simply leaving local distribs feeling lighter in the pocket.

“There is evidence that terrorist groups are financing their activities through sales of these illegal DVDs. It’s a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but it’s probably the only illegal activity in the Gulf which isn’t punishable by prison,” says Hamad Atassi, president of Prime Pictures.

Illicit DVD vendors face only a fine or possible deportation for foreign pirates.

The irony, of course, is that religious extremists have inadvertently opened up their societies to the very Western values they claim to despise. Unfettered access to uncut films is having a positive effect, particularly in the more conservative Gulf territories. Whether through pirated DVDs sold door to door by street vendors in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E, online downloads and file-sharing or simply through parallel imports from Internet outlets such as Amazon, auds across the region can see whatever they want, whenever they want, regardless of the authorities’ attempts to curb their enthusiasm.

The result is a generation of outward-looking youths hungry for uncut Western entertainment. “The culture has definitely changed,” says Gianluca Chacra, CEO of Dubai-based Front Row Entertainment. “You see the young Emirati kids today and they’re all Eminem wannabes. People are less conservative than they were 10 years ago, and that’s partly through access to films and music.”

Nowhere is censorship, and indeed piracy, more prevalent than in Saudi Arabia. Cinemas have been prohibited for the past three decades, while up to 70% of DVDs are also banned from official releases.

There are signs, however, that authorities in the notoriously strict kingdom are loosening up.

Last year saw the first limited public screenings of animated films — to which only women and children were allowed. Members of the royal family have also recently invited Atassi to start building theaters in Saudi in anticipation of the ban being dropped altogether. “They’ll probably start with animated and family films, and slowly become a regular market, even if with heavy censorship,” Atassi says.

As for such censorship in other parts of the Arab world, sometimes the decisions can appear random.

While the U.A.E censors approved politically sensitive films such as “Syriana” and “Munich” — albeit with cuts — authorities in Lebanon, traditionally the most liberal of Arab countries, refused to release “Syriana” on account of its depiction of Hizbollah.

The censorship didn’t stop people from seeing the film, of course. “You can find copies everywhere in the market,” says the film’s Lebanon rep, Tony Chacra.

Despite the general appetite for uncut films, conservative forces continue to hold a powerful grip.

It only takes a handful of complaints for censors to buckle under pressure and cut a film. One recent example was the racy yet apolitical “40-Year-Old Virgin,” which was pulled from theaters in the Gulf and re-edited after a few complaints.

Ultimately, however, try as they might, authorities seem powerless in preventing auds from getting final cut, due to home viewing.”No matter what they do, they cannot stop the public,” says Hiyam Salibi of Italia Films, the Mideast reps for “Brokeback Mountain,” who were told by censors there was no chance the film would be approved. “All the people can see the complete version if they want.”