There is a moment in Black Gold, the partly Qatari-funded film about the discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula of the 1930s, when the two Arab princes meet in the desert, surveying the empty dunes that have suddenly become so valuable to them. The audience is meant to identify with either the traditional Prince Auda or the ultra-moderniser Emir Nesib. It is a moment that asks the audience to choose sides, to pick ideologies, to imagine what type of nation they would build themselves.
Films can be more than mere entertainment, they can tell people the stories of themselves and the stories of their nations. Black Gold can be read as a foundation myth for the modern Gulf states, a way of articulating the tensions between the old and the new, between competing visions of what these new nations are and will be, inherent in the foundation and rise of new countries.
Black Gold is the third full-length feature film of recent years that puts the region on the big screen and explicitly tries to tell a story about a nation. City of Life was the first Emirati film to do that, followed by Sea Shadow.
To watch them is to watch an evolving narrative about the collective identities of the Gulf countries, to see the themes that will one day form the bedrock of visions of the region.
A nation’s identity is complex, a tapestry woven from historical events, from parts of history retold in stories and in schools, the accumulation of remembered events, celebrated figures and shared culture. In important ways, it is created or at least shaped by specific decisions, often political ones: which historical periods are put on school curriculums, which historical figures are celebrated nationally, which stories from the past are told and retold, used as examples to emulate or remembered as lessons to be learned.
These stories can evolve, sometimes rapidly. The national story of South Africa changed dramatically in the 1990s when Nelson Mandela was released and apartheid was dismantled. A large part of the modern story of a relatively new nation was altered, and today the apartheid era is rightly seen as an aberration, a stain of shame. Millions of South Africans had been brought up with the idea that what they were doing to their black compatriots under apartheid was benign, or necessary, or perhaps even noble. As the politics changed, so did the national story. Now that period is recognised as a time of extreme views and bankrupt policies.
Beyond politics, culture also plays an enormous role, often an accidental one. In the days of the Soviet Union, many writers and artists were banned and others given state approval. The same occurs today in countries all across the world. Yet culture – in the form of books, films, television and music – is harder to suppress these days and harder to regulate. Success depends on too many factors, from the cost of the production, to the attractiveness of the cast. The stories that become popular are not always those that fit the interpretation of the past favoured by politicians or a ruling elite.
A running theme in the 2008 film W, a biopic of US president George W Bush, is his relationship with his father, president George HW Bush. The film strongly implies Bush Sr was disappointed in his wayward son and attributes much of Bush Jr’s policies during his presidency to a psychological attempt to surpass daddy. Critics, both left and right, cried foul: as tempting as it is to see such psychoanalytical overlays on policy, the truth is that Bush Jr’s policies were formed in the cauldron of the times. America was not a canvas for Bush to play out his daddy issues.