Without many overseas audiences ever even noticing it, hundreds of big budget multi-location film productions – Bollywood, Chinese and Hollywood – have routed through the United Arab Emirates. To name but a few, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), Furious 7 (James Wan, 2015), Independence Day: Resurgence (Roland Emmerich, 2016), Kung Fu Yoga (Stanley Tong, 2017), Dune (Denis Villeneuve, 2021), Pathaan (Siddharth Anand, 2023), and threeMission: Impossibles were all partially shot there. Such operations abide by the principles of “supply chain cinema,” a mode of manufacturing that nimbly and opportunistically routes production through wherever is most amenable and efficient. Much of the appeal of the UAE resides in its superlative logistics and services, staffed by a predominantly migrant workforce enduring weakened (labour) rights and pay scales calibrated to each’s home country’s cost of living. There exist no mechanisms by which to petition for asylum and most workers depend on a system of temporary sponsorship that renders them both expendable and in a job-needy suspension favourable to short-term employers like these film companies.
The UAE markets itself to incoming projects as a somewhere that can stand in for any number of locations where it can be tricky or dangerous to shoot, be that Pakistan or Iraq. Off screen, migrants from these self-same nations populate the “local” crew; they build sets, freight, drive and cook for these productions. On screen, their neighbourhoods and their bodies lend visual plausibility to fictional recreations of places from which they have been displaced by war or economic privation. When they take part as extras (walk-ons and background performers), non-citizen inhabitants must simultaneously substitute for a home where maybe they cannot currently dwell and embody a social diversity in and for a territory that opportunistically refuses to fully absorb them as anything much other than economic agents. Constrictions on citizenship thus intensify their status as “extras,” their temporary tenure in the UAE lending a further “disposability” that benefits the lean, casualizing regimes of labour in the globalized film industry.
With many arriving fresh from revolutionary contexts or countries with sophisticated vocabularies of workplace activism and organization, what scope is there to challenge these injustices? Thinking more transnationally, as these blockbuster films often themselves do diegetically, what possibilities also exist for moving and multiplying struggles across the self-same networks that make their manufacture possible across borders?
This workshop will build on a pre-circulated excerpt from Supply Chain Cinema: Producing Global Film Workers, which examines the complicity of higher education in creating a cadre of creative sector employees inured to the vicissitudes of exhausting, competitive and forcefully casualized labour. University workforces, of course, can now, in the main, be characterized so as well. What overlapping myths underpin “making it” in both the cultural sectors and the academy? What exploitable narratives of grafting on low or no wages in the present promise increasingly unpredictable future success? Together, we will unpick how training for these elusive careers gets repeatedly framed and strategize for fairer access to and conditions within them.
Kay Dickinson convenes the Creative Arts and Industries programme at the University of Glasgow and teaches in Film and Television Studies. She is the author of Supply Chain Cinema: Producing Global Film Workers (BFI, 2024), as well as Arab Film and Video Manifestos: Forty-Five Years of the Moving Image Amid Revolution (Palgrave, 2018), Arab Cinema Travels: Transnational Syria, Palestine, Dubai and Beyond (BFI, 2016) and Off Key: When Film and Music Won’t Work Together (Oxford University Press, 2008).