ABU DHABI // International film producers are more eager than ever to find new and exotic shooting locations. But senior Abu Dhabi officials say they are unwilling to assist productions that reinforce negative stereotypes. Film executives repeatedly reject requests to shoot movies with story lines about terrorism in the capital. They do so out of concern that those films will promote negative images of the region.
David Shepheard, director of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC), said: "A lot of the scripts we get still come through with terrorism themes. We politely say that is not appropriate for here." Stefan Brunner, chief operating officer of ImageNation, said he is astounded when people send scripts in which Arabs are portrayed as terrorists. ImageNation is the film production arm of Abu Dhabi Media Company, which owns and produces The National.
"We definitely do not want to show that," he said. "We would rather focus on stories of normal people in a high-quality way, and allow worldwide audiences to see what real life is like here. It's not all war, oil or conflict - it's real life." By 2014, Abu Dhabi is expected to be one of the most sought-after fresh film locations in the world, according to industry professionals. The government has invested billions of dollars into the local film industry.
"Our medium-term plan is that when the studios open in the new TwoFour54 site in about four years, we will have many more companies and fantastic state-of-the-art production facilities making it a more interesting offer to the industry," said Mr Shepheard. The TwoFour54 Mena Zayed project will be a 600,000 sq metre media precinct between Lulu Island and Saadiyat Cultural District. It is due to open in 2014.
ImageNation has partnered with five major studios to date, including Warner Brothers and Hyde Park Entertainment, with a combined budget of US$1 billion (3.6bn) to produce eight Hollywood-style movies a year and three Arabic movies. Mr Brunner said they are focusing on training residents on all the various aspects related to movie making so that established companies have everything they need to film in the capital, including an experienced crew. ImageNation is also working with ADFC to promote Emirati filmmakers and feature films, he said.
Among the industry's success stories is Nayla al Khaja, an Emirati who received global recognition for her documentary film, Unveiling Dubai. Her cameras followed a German visiting Dubai for the first time, showing how his image of the region dramatically changed. Since then, Ms al Khaja has stretched boundaries by tackling topics such as paedophilia, secret relationships and cultural misconceptions.
"We need to focus on pushing our voices here to be heard all over the world," she said. "We need to tell our stories from our perspective. This will help not just entertain but also educate the world and break many misconceptions." One such misconception, she said, is that the Middle East is a hub for terrorism. "Hollywood is a giant marketing tool. If terrorism is a hot subject, then they will continue to make films because they will get an audience for it," she said.
"We need to counter that by producing films that show the other side of Arabs, and find an avenue to cater to the rest of the world - perhaps by working with Hollywood or finding other alternatives." The ADFC is in talks with various government film offices in Canada regarding a possible co-production agreement. "Those types of agreements take a long time to put into place," Mr Shepheard said. "It is part of our push to get Abu Dhabi to be seen as a serious filmmaking location. Partnerships and agreements with places like Canada, and other major countries that have a well-developed industry, are important."
Mr Shepheard said ADFC receives at least 30 queries a month for film shoots from local and global producers. "The industry here is less than five years old," he said. "But we have come an awfully long way and moved very quickly. Many other countries and cities are looking at how Abu Dhabi has set itself up to be a movie-making hub." Mr Brunner said he believed the fledgling state of the industry here can be used to Abu Dhabi's advantage. "Because it is a new industry, we are able to learn from the mistakes of others and see what works and what doesn't," he said.
"For example, Hollywood lost track of the cost of movies and marketing budgets over the past few years and had to reconsider certain issues due to the financial crisis."