x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A reel of big ideas that needs more support to get rolling

Filmmakers in the Gulf, like the nations themselves, are still defining themselves. In the UAE they could use a little extra help.

Marwan Al Hammadi has no doubt about what the nascent film industry in the UAE needs to move forward. "Education, education, education," he said quickly. "The government needs to give us a good education and a serious one. The film industry is ultimately responsible for the image of our country."

Mr Al Hammadi is in the second year of his applied media course at Dubai Men's College, and was one of a handful of young Emiratis and other Gulf nationals showing their films at the annual Gulf Film Festival at the weekend.

His 15-minute short titled Qitat, or Cats, was an insight into one of the more extravagant sides of domestic life in the UAE. It focused on four owners of wild cats and, through a series of interviews, cleverly allowed viewers to make up their own minds about the moral and practical responsibilities of keeping lions, tigers and cheetahs as pets.

"I was confused myself," he said, when asked whether he approved of the practice, in which more than 3,000 people in the UAE keep dangerous animals in captivity in their homes. "But I knew I was responsible to raise a balanced opinion in my film."

Mr Al Hammadi's film was screened on Friday afternoon in the official competition of Gulf Students' Shorts.

It was part of a comprehensive roster of 347 films from across the region and the world showing at the annual festival, now in its fifth year. The quality of screenings varied, with highlights including Tora Bora, the opening feature from veteran Kuwaiti director Saad Al Faraj. There were low points as well, with some stumbling attempts from students clearly struggling to match their peers' achievements.

The audience was just as varied, with a healthy mix of film enthusiasts from the Gulf countries, including many expatriates - but something was missing.

Doaa Agrama, an Egyptian filmmaker and critic encapsulated the problem. "The Gulf film industry still has no identity," she said. "If you watch an American film, even if it has a French director, you are still clear it is a Hollywood movie. It was made under the parameters of their rules. Films from this part of the world have nothing to fall back on."

Although there are many film festivals hosted in Abu Dhabi and Dubai each year, organisers are often more concerned with the number of celebrities gracing the red carpet at the glamorous openings than supporting the grass-roots cinematographers growing up on their own soil.

As Mr Al Hammadi said, maybe it is time to focus on education. The UAE still has no government-funded film school. There is a branch of the New York Film Academy (NYFA) in the capital and universities and colleges do offer courses in filmmaking, but there is no real focus; nothing, as Ms Agrama said, to draw strength from.

Mariam Al Serkal, a student at London Film School, talked to me after the screening of her 17-minute short London in a Head Scarf. It is a frank personal documentary about the cultural obstacles she faces as an Emirati women studying abroad without a mahram, or male guardian. She poses the question whether she is jeopardising her chances of finding a suitable husband by choosing a path considered to be too independent.

"Film is a delicate matter," she said. "It is not about just picking up a camera and practising, it is about all the people you are surrounded by and the inspiration they bring."

Filmmakers in the Gulf, like the nations themselves, are still defining themselves. The question also involves audience maturity. Put an Emirati film in the box office and it might flounder in the face of competition from Hollywood rivals, but there are ways to educate viewers. Festival organisers could tie up with local TV channels and screen the films to wider audiences.

Perhaps domestically, there could be more funding opportunities that would give leverage to the clear talent existing within the region.

Of course, the festivals are a crucial part of the industry's development. Without them we would never get to see films from Saudi Arabia, nor would students like Ms Al Serkal or Mr Al Hammadi find audiences.

But the opportunities should not start and end with these festivals. Whether or not that will change, only time will tell.


Anna Seaman is the editor of an arts and culture magazine based in Dubai

On Twitter: @anaoanna