For four UAE-based filmmakers, the Berlin Film Festival offers an opportunity to connect with the leading lights of European cinema.
Adventures in celluloid for UAE filmmakers
Among the attendees at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival, which began on Thursday, are four UAE-based filmmakers who have been taken there by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC). The aim of their visit is to enable the filmmakers to meet the leading players of the European film industry, with the goal of identifying new business and film production opportunities. The four are Eva Star Sayre, the business director of Veritas Films; the actor, director and producer Nawaf Al Janahi; Amina Dasmal, the producer and founder of Alcove Entertainment; and Butheina Hamed Kazim, a strategy and business development manager at Dubai Media Incorporated.
The ADFC has partnered with the European Producers Club to allow the delegation to spend four nights in Berlin and attend a series of special events, workshops and networking opportunities with international producers and filmmakers.
The four producers arrived with projects that are in various stages of development and it's likely that these projects will be the next major productions to be made or developed in the UAE over the coming years.
Eva Star Sayre arrived in Berlin on the back of the successful launch of Teta, Alf Marra (Grandma, A Thousand Times), which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Doha Film Festival and had its European Premier at the Rotterdam Film Festival last week.
Executive Producer on that project, Sayre arrived in Berlin touting a new project that she will produce, working once again with Beirut born Grandma, A Thousand Times director Mahmoud Kaabour. The project is being produced by Veritas, which has its offices in Abu Dhabi at 2454.
"We were invited to apply by ADFC, who knew that we were the leading non-fiction filmmakers in the region," says Sayre. "I have come to Berlin to raise money for our next film which is called Champ of the Camp which I'm very excited about."
"There is a singing competition in the labour camps of the UAE every year - mostly Pakistani, Indian and some Nepalese. It has been going on for about three years and I think it's one of the most inspiring events in the country. It gives these guys a chance to perform in front of their peers, it's an elimination style competition with a lot of drama and it goes over a month and someone gets crowned a winner and these guys are so talented and have such passion for singing and performing, it's all Bollywood repertoire of course and this competition is completely closed off to the public."
"We heard about the competition and we arranged for the last three year's winners to perform at Mahmovies!, and that was the first time they had performed for a crowd of strangers. Now we are going to film the new competition this summer and give a glimpse into something you can't normally access and it has everything, singing, drama, and humour. The dramatic arc is built in for you."
She explained how ADFC were helping to get financing for the project: "I have non stop meetings here in Berlin. ADFC and the EPC, they have suggested some meetings for us, they have customised it to a certain extent for each of the producers. For me I'm looking to meet commissioning editors and sales agents from around the world. We are also still talking to film distributors about Grandma, A Thousand Times and maybe I'll catch a film if I'm really lucky, but I'm not holding my breath for that actually."
Butheina Hamed Kazim, in addition to working with Dubai Media Incorporated also produced the documentary film Letters to Palestine, which premièred at the Dubai International Film Festival last year.
"I'm working on two different projects right now," says Kazim. "My objective here at the Berlinale is to look for distribution partners and broadcasters in Europe for the film that I produced last year called Letters to Palestine. The second project that I'm trying to raise funds for is a project called Handheld Stories. It's from an educational initiative, out of which we will produce a film called New Direction Home. That is something that we're producing across the refugee camps across Jordan and within Palestine and we are working with a big team in Dubai. We are hoping to find partners here to come on board and help because access to Arab filmmakers particularly in Palestinian areas is going to be difficult and so it will be important to have European partners."
She says that at the Berlinale, "There have been meetings that have been set up with European sales agents and there are some we have connected with separately that we shall be meeting with, as well as the extended networking events that will be happening throughout the whole period. Just us being here is great, because it's very easy to have Abu Dhabi say that they sent a delegation and not have anything happen but this is something that is actually very productive and allowing us to be straightforward with the challenges that we have and the production of films. Also in terms of Berlinale particularly it has been historically criticised for not having a particularly Middle Eastern focus on films and contents and so this is a great step forward in that direction."
The Circle director Nawaf Al Jahani is in the process of cutting his new film Sea Shadow (funded by Imagenation, the movie producing arm of Abu Dhabi Media Company, which also owns The National) and despite having the film in the can, the challenges of creating partnerships, raising awareness and creating interest from the film industry players is great.
"Sea Shadow is in post-production right now and hopefully soon the film will be completed in the next couple of months," says Al Jahani. "One of the goals of the ADFC is to connect professionals from the UAE with the international market and have that connection then make it possible for more collaborations on more projects and more films. I have projects that could benefit from European co-productions or even full production and this is a great place to find chances like that."
He says that he is already looking to his next film after Sea Shadow, "Let's do the meetings and see what happens." As a director he feels that "Berlinale is a great place to meet like-minded people and do business because it's a really professional place that is totally about the deals and making films happen. So whether you're a film producer or a director it really is a great place to meet guys who can be those you can collaborate with in the future."
Since making The Circle, he says, "Filmmaking in the UAE is definitely better because things are moving on every year, more initiatives are happening and there are more opportunities and I think for the younger generation it is becoming easier to get involved in field of cinema as whole. It's still going to take time. Until today I would say we don't have film industry yet, we have film movement."
Amina Dasmai says, "I have quite a few projects that I'm working on, because as a producer you don't know what will fly or not. The one that I have here is from a book The Boy in The Oak that was written illustrated by Jessica Albarn and we took that and made a short promo for the feature last November showcasing what the animation film will look like. The director is Luke Losey and its narrated by Jude Law and the score is being done by Damon Albarn of Blur."
On her slate of projects is also another animation film and Dasmai also worked on a film showing at the Berlin Film Market called The Caller, a psychological thriller starring Stephen Moyer, Rachel Lefevre and Luis Guzmán.
Dasmai added that it's not just connecting to European filmmakers that the trip is allowing; I think the benefit of coming here as a group is that it also allows us to connect with other people from the Middle East making films and also see how we might be able to work together in the future."