x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

By any means necessary

Saloon If you're in this business to make a lot of money, Spike Lee tells local directors, get out. Effie-Michelle Metallidis finds out more.

Spike Lee: "Forget about Hollywood. Hollywood debases and demeans."
Spike Lee: "Forget about Hollywood. Hollywood debases and demeans."

If you're in this business to make a lot of money, Spike Lee tells local directors, get out. Effie-Michelle Metallidis finds out more.

Joseph "McG" McGinty Nichol paced the stage in a conference room at the Shangri-La Abu Dhabi. McG - the director of the Charlie's Angels films, the producer of The OC television series, the mastermind of the Pretty Fly for a White Guy music video - was halfway through the first masterclass of this year's Abu Dhabi Circle Film Conference, and he had already run out of things to say. As the half-full room watched, he scanned the crowd, looking for help. He called up James Gianopulos, the CEO of Fox Films, and Kathleen Kennedy, of the Kennedy/Marshall company, but kept scanning "Spike," he said, spying Spike Lee and his signature tortoiseshell glasses sitting off to the side of the room. "Come on up here for a minute." Lee had spoken earlier in the day, and was obviously in no mood for an encore. But he obligingly trotted up the steps to the stage, taking a place next to Gianopulos and Kennedy.

"Spike," said McG, continuing to pace, "I can't imagine the things you've had to go through in Hollywood. You know, you've had to - he's had to deal with oppression, you know? Of Hollywood. You know with, for example, dealing with race - you know race, he's chosen to combat the prejudice, and he's, you know - I don't know about you, but nothing was ever handed to me. Right, Spike? You have to work for it - right?" After levelling a dubious sideways glance at McG, Lee took the microphone and talked for a few minutes about hard work.

The next night, Lee gave his own masterclass to a room packed with industry professionals, young Emirati students and Arab filmmakers from across the region. At 51, with slightly greying hair, he looks more academic than activist, but his tone still conveys the ambition and attitude of the film student who almost got kicked out of NYU almost 20 years ago. "Forget about Hollywood," he told his audience. "Hollywood debases and demeans. Hollywood always has a villain. Today, it's terrorists from Arabic and Islamic countries. So the response is, you have to tell your own story."

Despite Lee's emphasis on local stories, the audience seemed fixated on Hollywood. A woman raised her hand and, after lauding Lee as a "phenomenal activist", asked what the Arab community in the West can do to turn its youth into "Spike Lees". "Excuse me," he interrupted her, "But why do you expect Hollywood to tell stories about Arabic nations?" The lady began to protest, and Lee interrupted again. "Ma'am," he said patiently, "Why do you expect the UK and the US to tell Arab stories? You have to tell your own stories. Look, this place has more money than God. The resources are here. You just have to implement it."

A young Sudanese actor raised his hand and asked if he will ever be able to play anything other than a terrorist in Hollywood. Lee shielded his eyes from the spotlight to see the man. "Sir, again. Why are you expecting Hollywood to do this for you? I see a filmmaker here. I see a producer there. Everything you need is here in this room." To many film lovers in the audience, Lee was a household name, his films beamed through satellites and cable packages, his story of self-made success told in countless glossy magazines. "Ten years ago, I remember I would sit with my friends, speaking about Spike Lee," said Hisham Zaman, a Kurdish-Iraqi filmmaker who was in the conference's directors showcase. "When you see Spike, you think he is a god." But, he added, "Then you meet him and see he is a person. He has struggled in his own way and he didn't become a director by complaining that this is all Hollywood's fault."

"You need to bust your culo," Lee told the class, picking up steam. A murmur of confusion rippled through the crowd until he clarified by adding "There are no overnight success stories. You need blood, sweat and tears. If you are in this business to be famous or make a lot of money, get out. If you want to be filmmakers, you need to work hard." Saeed al Dhaheri, an Al Ain-based filmmaker, was delighted by Lee's no-nonsense advice. "We need people to tell the truth, who wake you up, who shake you up," he told me after the talk. We were standing alone in the conference room, listening to the cacophony of people vying for photo ops with Lee outside.

Through the door I watched Lee stay calm amid the furore, even as multiple iPhones were thrust in his face and sweat from the powerful lights rolled down his face. I was reminded of the night before, when Lee had briefly showed up at a reception for Arab filmmakers at the Shangri-La's pool area. Then too he resolutely wore his creased pants and blazer, handkerchief angled just so despite the intense humidity. He stood against a column, back to the pool and crowd while he checked his messages, his glasses slipping slightly, unmistakably Spike Lee.