ABU DHABI // Two and a half years after the launch of the New York Film Academy's Abu Dhabi School, young Arab filmmakers are starting to make an impact.
The academy president, Simon Hunter, says that in spite of an initial challenge recruiting Arabs, who were afraid they may not find work after they graduate, they now fill 60 per cent of the places, and that is where he wants the statistics to be.
"These students are trailblazers," he says. "I find it extraordinarily courageous. There is no precedent for them."
Since the academy opened as the emirate's first film school, it has gone from just five per cent Emirati to 20 per cent today, in a range of areas from acting to directing.
The school's students, who are studying disciplines from screenwriting to documentary making, have produced more than 600 films, four of which have made it to the Emirates Film Competition at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival for new filmmakers.
About 170 students have passed through the school, which is tucked away in a modest campus beside Abu Dhabi TV.
"There's a culture shift happening now," Mr Hunter says. "A lot of the younger students are seeing that with the expansion of TV, with the likes of Abu Dhabi TV, MBC and Baynuna, there is actually a career they can follow in this region."
He says the students are passionate about storytelling, especially the women. "Emirati women love to tell Emirati stories."
Mr Hunter became the school's president two years ago, and in that time he says that the UAE "has become a different place".
"When I first came, City of Life [a film by the Emirati, Ali Mustafa] was the first feature film shot here. Syriana and The Kingdom were on location here, but it [City of Life] was the only film that told a story about this country."
Many initiatives have been set up in the emirate in recent years for upcoming filmmakers. In 2008, Imagenation, an arm of Abu Dhabi Media Company, which owns The National, agreed to develop up to 18 films over five years with a budget of US$250 million (Dh918m).
The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) has set up the Circle, which is a year-round initiative aimed at giving young filmmakers a start.
Fatima al Taei, 26, is one of three Emirati actresses at the school. She abandoned her bachelor's course in mass communications in Jordan to pursue a career closer to her heart. She says there are many Emirati stories to be told, from traditional fairy tales to stories of the people.
While Ms al Taei admits concern about job prospects when she finishes her one-year programme, she is not afraid to travel to pursue her dream in a "more competitive market".
Zeina Tabbara, 26, is Lebanese. Although the industry in Lebanon is much more mature, she says it is "already dense", and the UAE is the place to be. She took her undergraduate degree in the US before working in advertising in Saudi Arabia, where she grew up, before coming to Abu Dhabi in February.
Ms Tabbara is nearing the end of her one-year directing programme. She says: "There are so many more opportunities here. Knowing that I wanted to work in the Middle East, it was logical that I came to study here so that I could network in the industry."
Amal al Abdouli is one of the first Master's graduates from the school, having finished in February. Ms al Abdouli, 32, an Emirati and an art director, has worked in the industry for 10 years and says the school is a great place to cultivate young local talent.
Ms al Abdouli has worked at Dubai TV for seven years, and two years ago she opened a post-production company, High Vision. She chose the academy programme to learn more about traditional cinema techniques. It is a field in which she says Emirati men progress more easily. "There are many more men than women in this area."
Since she started out, things have changed. Ms al Abdouli says students have many more well-paid job opportunities, especially in Dubai, where she works. "Guidance for students is much better. With the growth in the private sector there are many more opportunities."
Saud al Rashed, 25, came to Abu Dhabi from Saudi Arabia, where cinemas are rare.
Mr al Rashed, an economics graduate, had worked in insurance before signing up for a one-year film-making programme. He says the role of filmmaker is crucial for telling the stories of people without a voice.
“I will attempt to bridge the gap between the ruler and the ruled,” he says. “People still think Saudi Arabia is a rich country, which it is, but they don’t see that there is poverty and massive unemployment and a booming population. We need to show the flip side of the coin.”
Last year the Jeddah Film Festival was banned by religious police. But Mr al Rashed says the county’s filmmakers must not give up, even if that means looking elsewhere for support. At last year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the Abu Dhabi Film Commission awarded the Dh367,000 Shasha grant to the Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al Mansour, to fund her production, Wajda, the story of a free-spirited 11-year-old Saudi girl coming of age in a restrictive society.
“If we keep saying the country’s not ready for it, it will never be ready for it, but there are so many talented artists there, painters, photographers, filmmakers,” he says. “Someone needs to break through, in a respectful way.”
He hopes there will be a career for him back home. “Even the culture minister is interested in the new wave of filmmakers,” Mr al Rashed says
Ali al Jabri, the director of the Emirates Film Competition, which launched in 2001 for emerging filmmakers, says the academy is vital for teaching upcoming talent the foundations of film-making, as well as complementing the many initiatives going on in the emirate.
"We all have one goal and that is to make films and support the film industry," he says.