While sales of warm clothing might already be unfeasibly high across the UAE, it's probable that there was a small spike in purchases of hats, gloves, scarves and warm jackets during the first week of February. But for a group of UAE-based filmmakers, these were going to be essential items for survival at the annual Berlinale film festival, which thanks to an unexpected February frost across Europe that saw temperatures in Germany fall to -15C, was set to be one of the coldest on record.
Assembled by the German Embassy in cooperation with the Goethe Institut and the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, the group was taking part in a special visit programme, aimed at introducing them to the 11-day Berlinale, which wraps up today, and giving them opportunities to meet studios, production companies, hear about funding opportunities, build contacts and generally find assistance to help them in their filmmaking endeavours. And despite the German capital waking most mornings to a fresh layer of snow, a tight schedule ensured that there was little time to worry about numb feet.
Included on the list of events was a video bus tour around the city, a trip to the Reichstag and a visit to the Film Museum in Potsdam. Then there were meetings with organisations such as Robert Bosch Stiftung, one of the most renowned German film funds, a visit to Flying Moon Filmproduktion, which has a strong focus on international co-productions, and meetings with the World Cinema Fund, which has helped support regional success stories such as Paradise Now and Ajami. One of the events saw the group networking with other young international filmmakers, where they had to present themselves and their work on laptops.
"It was a bit like a laptop wedding," says Adel Saeed Al Jabri, a 23-year-old Emirati from Abu Dhabi, who is the coordinator of the annual Emirates Film Competition. "But it was great for networking, I got a stack of business cards."
For Nizar Sfair, a 31-year-old Lebanese filmmaker living in Dubai, the trip was providing some great opportunities for meetings with potential co-producers. "I've already had a few meetings looking for cooperation. I'm thinking of applying to the Robert Bosch Stiftung for funding," he says, adding that he has already been dreaming up some ideas for film projects in Germany and that Wild Bunch, the major French film production and sales company, was potentially interested in an idea of his set in Beirut.
The group came on board the trip through various means. Hana Makki, a Yemeni/British filmmaker living in Abu Dhabi, was invited by the UAE branch of an organisation called Women in Film and Television.
"The Goethe Institut basically asked them if they would recommend anyone and they suggested me, which was fantastic," she says.
Makki's latest short film The Journey, which was one of the winners of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission's Aflam Qaseera (Short Film) production fund, was receiving a special private screening at the festival. "It's great, I'll get to see it on the big screen."
Aside from visiting Berlin for the first time, the trip was enabling Makki to meet a producer she was hoping to work with on her next project, a documentary. "She's very interesting and the film commission has said it would hopefully arrange some co-production meetings as well. I'm crossing fingers and toes."
The youngest of the group, the 21-year-old Emirati Reem Al Falahi, was selected from a number of applicants from the Dubai Women's College, where she studies applied communications and has produced several short movies. Al Falahi, together with fellow Emirati Hind Al Hammadi, who works for the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, found that sometimes they could get into screenings – which were often packed out – due to their appearance, which sometimes confused door security. "One time we were asked if we were with Shah Rukh Khan's party," claims Al Hammadi.
The Swiss/Emirati documentary filmmaker Manal Wicki, who flew to Germany a few days earlier to see a friend, said that the Berlinale was one of her favourite festivals. "I like its vibe and the kind of films they show. This trip is a great opportunity to not only watch the films, but meet people and see what a film festival like this is all about."
One of the only complaints from the group was that they weren't able to get tickets to all the screenings that they wanted. But this was a situation that affected many attendees, with thousands descending on ticket booths from the crack of dawn each morning and ensuring almost every film was sold out.
The Emirati presence at the 62nd Berlinale wasn't only confined to the group from the Goethe Institut. The Abu Dhabi Film Commission was in town, scouting for potential films to be shot in the UAE capital. There were also representatives from the Dubai and Abu Dhabi international film festivals. And over in the Berlinale Talent Campus, a six-day summit for up-and-coming filmmakers that involved 350 people from 99 countries, the Emirati filmmaker Khalid Al Mahmood was one of the attendees.
"I'm trying to make the most of it," he says, pointing to a timetable packed with lectures, discussion, workshops and excursions. Al Mahmood, who worked on Sea Shadow and whose 2010 short film Sabeel won several awards, says he initially applied to be a part of the Goethe Institut group. "It sounded great, but then my application for the Talent Campus came through," he says.
The biggest problem for Al Mahmood, he says, is trying to figure out how to squeeze everything in. "This afternoon, there is a presentation by Mike Leigh, as well as a talk with [the French film director] Tony Gatliff. And they're both on at the same time," he explains. "It's impossible to go to everything."
Over in the European Film Market, the festival's business hub, Sea Shadow was being given a special screening for international industry professionals.
While it may be a few years off, the hope is that the group of UAE-based filmmakers visiting Germany this time around could be the force to help ensure that future Berlinales include many more Sea Shadows. Let's just hope next time it's not quite so cold.
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