CRUEL SUMMER: Wooing the Middle East

In his second attempt at crafting an art-house short film that imitates life, Kanye West pushes beyond the obvious with “Cruel Summer”; as he woos the Middle East, impresses his peers and wins the girl.

Words by Kaleem Aftab

It’s a sign of the global penetration of hip-hop that no one batted an eyelid on the news that Kanye West chose to direct Cruel Summer in Qatar. Inspired by the new G.O.O.D album, it would be wrong to describe the result as a short film, it’s more an art installation; it can’t be played in regular cinemas as it screens on seven screens, with the action alternatively crisscrossing or jumping from one screen to another, and only occasionally does it play on all seven screens simultaneously.

If Kanye West sought a unique experience he certainly got one in Cannes. Arriving for the world premier, the select list of guests to his personal screening were asked to wait in a carpark in front of a pyramid shaped marquee (a white apex gave way to black curtains draped down the sides). While the director was nowhere to be seen, his girlfriend Kim Kardashian was happily chatting away with friends, dressed in a short silver dress, embroidered with a design seemingly chosen for it’s fusion of Arabic and American influences.

High heels and champagne glasses were the only signs of the natural order of things.

The first image appears on the screen of the ceiling. Kid Cudi opens a grill leading to a set of stairs that he starts to descend. As he does so, boots appear on the screen to the front of the audience and it’s when he enters a garage that the multiple screens play in earnest.

A voiceover kicks in, “Tonight I have the tough choice of Ferrari, Mclaren or Lamborghini.” As the cars whizz through a skyline that first looks like an American metropolis, it reveals itself as Doha’s West Bay. The music kicks in, with the bass causing tremors underneath the backsides of the audience.

By now, Kanye, dressed in white blazer over jeans and sitting one-row behind me with Kardashian’s hands on his thigh was swaying back and forth. One advantage of the images crisscrossing from all directions is that to turn my head and have an occasional glance [at them] didn’t’ seem out of the ordinary. It was all part of the experience. Occasionally he whispered to her, no doubt explaining the not altogether clear narrative.

The car thief ends up in a palace and some of the problems with putting this experimental set-up together at such short notice begin to emerge. The audio was muffled, if you’re looking at a screen in one direction and a sound comes from another the peripheral sound is hard to process, just like what happens when one is talking to a friend in a café. The narrative gets lost. West later revealed that they also had trouble with the sound mix and what we were watching was essentially a rough cut.

The plot is that the car thief sees and falls in love with a blind princess and they must overcome obstacles to find love. And it’s this love story and how it came about, that provides the intriguing back story to the production and how a Hip-Hop star went about wooing the Middle East.

The actress called Sarah A in the credits is the daughter of Doha artist Amal Al-Athem. One of the so-far unheralded aspects of West’s directorial effort is that in recruiting a local girl, he was challenging the regional gender norms.

Amanda Palmer, Executive Producer on the film and Executive Director at the Doha Film Institute, which collaborated with West on the project reveals, “We really wanted to find a Khaleeji beauty and a woman that would represent the Gulf in a postitive way. I had met Sarah’s mother, Amal, six months before, she’s a really well known local artist who has really fought for her art and the representation of women. We could have gone all around the world to find someone for this role, but everybody wanted someone from the Gulf to represent this region because it’s underrepresented.”

Sarah, a media communications student who looks like a model, was persuaded to audition for the part. “I wanted to portray how girls from the Gulf are. Some people might not accept it, but I wanted to portray them in a good way and show what Khaleeji girls are really like. The media represents us as covered and not having a voice, but Qatari girls have a voice.”

West had been hunting across the Middle East for somewhere to shoot his film, as the soundtrack reveals that the Eastern influence on the album is enormous. As the risks and challenges of using a local girl were explained to West, he excitedly proclaimed, “That’s what I do!”

The concept that West had for the story was in the mode of famous Middle-East folk tales such as Antar and Abia and Quais and Layla. “To give Kanye’s team references, cultural advisors sent out a BBM asking locals what their favorite love story is,” says Palmer. “She did this discretely and they came back with Antar and Abia, it’s about a man who is challenged by a king and father, to prove he’s worth the love of his daughter. Usually there are three challenged, but because we didn’t have 90 minutes in Cruel Summer we had one main obstacle. We told them about the reference points and the Middle East, and they began to get the reference points.”

If that wasn’t already a challenge enough for West, his main cultural advisor was Amal Al-Athem, Sarah’s mother. Luckily they became friends rather than enemies. “To be honest, I’d only heard of Kanye through my daughters,” states Amal. “I soon realised he’s not a showoff like some rappers, he’s very kind and sweet.”

Australian born Palmer weighs in, “What Kanye goes through is very similar to what happens with the Middle East, it is stereotyped; it is simplified, everybody is sensationalized. You look at what happens in his career and so much of the world wants to say he’s a rapper who has got no time but for himself and all the navel gazing in Hip-Hop. But he’s the opposite, this angel got off the plane and collaborated with everyone on every level.”

And with West willing to collaborate, the ambitious project began in earnest. The Cannes deadline was perhaps way too ambitious for a project that saw a new camera designed from scratch and a whole cinematic auditorium built from scratch. It shows in the results in Cannes and West’s willingness to reveal that Cruel Summer is a work-in-progress is perhaps the biggest sign that he’s still not happy with it.

The best scenes are those that are most abstract. The cars whizzing across the screens like a computer game, a falcon captured in super slow-motion flying through the air, and then as the car thief gets stranded in the desert, a close-up of grains of sand moving on the floor. Currently it’s a visual rather than a narrative experience. As for the forthcoming album, the soundtrack promises an album influenced by Qawalis and sounds India as much as the Middle East.

West revealed that he originally got the idea of the multi-screens from a colour pencil drawing he made at school. He reveals that he has synaesthesia, the ability to see sounds and shapes. This revelation made his musical talent seem so much more understandable.

It was the technology that got the Doha Film Institute excited, “If Kanye’s team had said we just want to collaborate on a story, we might have needed some more convincing,” says Palmer. “But because we were collaborating on something that was pioneering, that could be an art installation and a new cinematic experience, that took it to another level. The technology was so challenging and the experience was the pay off. Honestly, collaborations are a big headache, so they have to be worth it.”

Flying with him to Cannes on a night off from the UK dates of their Watch the Throne Tour was Jay-Z, who had gone unnoticed in the auditorium until Kanye gave him a “brother” shout out.

Given that the installation was put together in two months is a remarkable feat. The word is that the film may show in New York to coincide with the long awaited release of the G.O.O.D album. One thing for sure is that by then some of the rough edges will have been ironed out. As for the immersive seven screen set-up, West hopes it gets used by other directors and the idea certainly shouldn’t be ruled out as the experience, on first sampling, is better than 3D.

Kaleem Aftab is a film journalist, producer and author. Follow him on Twitter @AftabAmon.

Watch Kanye’s latest video for “Mercy” off of the forthcoming G.O.O.D Music album, which features Kanye West, 2 Chainz, Big Sean and Pusha T, below.

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