x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Directors pitch their passions in Busan

Three regional directors are pitching their projects at the Busan International Film Festival

Ascene from Youssef’s film, Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf. JSusan Youssef
Ascene from Youssef’s film, Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf. JSusan Youssef

When audiences watch a film, rarely is a thought given to the arduous road taken by the directors and producers to see their film on screen. It’s a journey that often begins years before, with filmmakers travelling the world trying to raise finances so that they can take their ideas and scripts from page to screen.

Not even a successful first film is a guarantee that another project will be financed. At the Asian Project Market, held from today until Thursday as part of the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, three regional directors – Susan Youssef, Maryam Najafi and Koutaiba Al Janabi – will pitch their projects in the hope of winning one of the prize grants on offer, or meeting a financier who will provide a vital bank transfer that will ensure their films hit our screens in the next year.

Maryam Najafi

The Iranian-born director Maryam Najafi made Kayan, which was set in a Lebanese restaurant and premiered at Busan in 2011. She says of her new project: “Jannat [meaning paradise in Arabic] is a drama set in Dubai. It’s the story of a young Korean girl who goes to Dubai in the hope of building a new and independent life. I think the city of Dubai is a microcosm of the ambitions of the modern world at large and as such it is the perfect location for such a story to unfold.”

Jannat is being billed as a UAE, Korea and Canada co-production, with some funding already in place. The script is complete and Najafi is currently contacting potential cast and crew, as attracting the right people could make the film a more attractive financial proposition.

What will already be enticing for financiers is that the project has been selected for the Asian Project Market in the first place. Only 30 projects are selected and these include filmmakers whose previous projects have won prizes at the Cannes International Film Festival, such as Japan’s Naomi Kawase and Iran’s Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

The event is set up as a competition, with nine awards. “I find the competition aspect of the market a bit odd but exciting at the same time,” says Najafi. “Most of the projects are in the development or preproduction phase, so there are a lot of unknown factors about all of them that might make it a bit difficult to judge and choose – especially this year with so many big-name directors.”

The reason many established filmmakers are here is because the chances of a selected film actually being made is high. Many big financiers are present in Busan.

On the pitching process, Najafi says: “At the end of the day, I think the most important thing is to be ‘good in the room’, as they say, and present your project with passion and conviction regardless of who you are pitching it to.”

Koutaiba Al Janabi

In 2010, the Baghdad-born Al Janabi won first prize at the Gulf Film Festival for his film Leaving Baghdad. His latest project, The Window, which has received funding from the Doha Film Institute, is being billed as an Iraq, UK and UAE production. It’s about an unhappily married Iraqi man who turns to terrorism as a means of escape.

Al Janabi also has another film in production, Daoud’s Winter, set during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. It has been selected for the Interchange Programme run by the Dubai International Film Festival and Torino Film Lab.

Susan Youssef

Youssef is no stranger to success. Her first film Habibi won Best Film, Best Actress and Best Editor at the 2011 Dubai International Film Festival in the Muhr Arab category as well as Best Feature in the Prize of the International Critics for Arab films.

Youssef says of her film, Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf: “With her father imprisoned on dubious terrorist-related charges, a teenager from Arkansas searches for identity in the headscarf and motorcycle. This feature is an extension of my short, by the same name, that was an official selection for the Sundance Film Festival in 2005. It is the first Arab-American feature film led by a muhajiba protagonist and to explore the ramifications of the Patriot Act on Arab-Americans.”

Youssef’s success with Habibi has led her to Busan.

“Busan was actually the first film festival to invite my first feature Habibi in 2011, before even our admissions to Venice and Toronto. As a result, I made a close bond with Ji-seok Kim, the director of programming. When I was in Cannes this past spring, Ji-seok had a conversation with me about BIFF’s interest in expanding to include Arab films and directors, as they consider us Asian.”