x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Emirates earns a supporting role in global cinema

Programmes such as Enjaaz and Sanad are putting filmmakers in touch with the resources they need to make their projects happen, from scriptwriting to producers and funding.

Nujoom Alghanem, director of the documentary film Hamama.
Nujoom Alghanem, director of the documentary film Hamama.

One of the biggest stories from December’s Dubai International Film Festival was Susan Youssef’s Habibi, a romance set in Gaza that took home a decent-sized shelf-worth of awards, including Best Film in the Arab features category. While the film’s success is testament to the efforts of the director – the first to shoot a feature in Gaza in 15 years – it’s another nod of appreciation for Dubai. The emirate may be a world away from the occupied Palestinian territories, but it was listed as co-producer country thanks to the festival’s very own post-production fund, Enjaaz, without which the film might never have been made.

Habibi aside, anyone who has watched more than a handful of titles at the Dubai or Abu Dhabi film festivals over the past few years might have noticed the increased presence of the UAE in the credits. Several films last year gave proud recognition to Image Nation Abu Dhabi, the production house owned by Abu Dhabi Media, the owner of The National, which has been helping finance various international titles, such as Contagion and The Help, along with local films, including Sea Shadow and the forthcoming horror movie Djinn. But these are just the major names. Away from the big-budget productions, there’s a growing library of smaller films from across the region that have been produced with assistance – such as the Enjaaz programme – coming from the UAE.

Set up in 2009, Enjaaz awards up to US$100,000 (Dh367,000) to filmmakers of Arab origin to allow them to finish their production after shooting is complete, helping finance work such as sound editing and colour correction. There are two cycles a year for applicants, in February and August, and the resources to support up to 15 projects annually.

“Three years back we realised that people hadn’t structured their funding,” says Shivani Pandya, DIFF’s managing director. “As they neared completion of their films, they were running out of money, so we stepped in at the post-production phase, which we formalised with Enjaaz.” Shivani says there are around 22 films that have been through the programme.

As well as Habibi, last year’s festival line-up featured 13 other Enjaaz productions, including the controversial Beirut Hotel (which has subsequently been banned in Lebanon). In 2010, Enjaaz-supported films such as Hamama, from Emirati filmmaker Nujoom Al Ghanem, and Hisham Issawi’s Cairo Exit, received their world premieres.

But Enjaaz isn’t the UAE’s only post-production fund. Over in the capital, there’s Sanad, from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which annually doles out up to $60,000 to aid a project’s post-production, as well as up to $20,000 for development to help get a project off the ground. “Right now, the fund has $500,000 per year to give out,” says Marie-Pierre Macia, the Sanad director.

Like Enjaaz, Sanad has two cycles where people can apply, in January and June. And although it was only set up in early 2010, there have already been a slew of Sanad-support features at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Four were screened that year, including Here Comes the Rain, by Lebanese director Bahij Hojeij, which went on to pick up several international awards. In 2011, there were five Sanad titles, among them In My Mother’s Arms, by Iraqi director Mohamed Al Daradji. As a nice circle, Al Daradji’s previous film, Son of Babylon, which had its world premiere in Abu Dhabi in 2009 and earned him Variety’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year, also received post-production support from the festival before the establishment of Sanad.

The stipulation for both Enjaaz and Sanad is that the project must involve someone of Arab origin, in Enjaaz’s case the director, with Sanad the director or producer. Closer to home, however, both last year set up arms focusing on GCC talent. The new Enjaaz Gulf Shorts category will this year begin welcoming applicants to be one of five to receive up to $50,000 to produce their short. Similarly, Sanad Emirati will support up to five short film projects from the GCC each year, with financial amounts unspecified.

Although the monetary support is no doubt the major assistance, both film festivals are at pains to highlight that it’s not merely money that they are offering, and that simply throwing financial resources at something isn’t the way forward.

“Money is available, but if you don’t make a success of it, nobody is going to give you money again,” says Pandya. “We want to nurture filmmakers, to give them assistance where they need it. Financing is, of course, a key aspect, but we don’t believe it’s the only aspect.”

To this end, support is now available for regional filmmakers long before there have been any thoughts of post-production, right at the initial scriptwriting stage. Beginning in 2010, DIFF’s Interchange programme, in cooperation with the European Union, has been linking talent from the region with European film professionals, with five-day workshops in Italy and Dubai. “The idea is that we have Arab scriptwriters as well as European scriptwriters so that not only are we helping them develop their projects, we’re helping them become part of a bigger group,” says Pandya. Alongside these workshops, there’s now a programme to help attach producers – of which there is a significant shortage of across the region – to each script. “So then the chances of the film being produced are far higher.”

And, with the festival having started in 2004, there are already numerous stories of films that have gone through the various stages available. Pandya points to Amreeka, about a Palestinian family moving to the US.

“It first came, I think, in 2007, and was part of the Dubai Film Connection, the co-production side of the festival, and in 2008 came back as a work in progress, which we helped push. Connections were made and it was eventually premiered in Sundance in 2009 before going on to win Best Actress in Dubai.” Pandya adds that in the interim, the director Cherien Dabis linked up with Memento Films, which has come on board to produce her next film, May in the Summer. “So here are things that are maybe not tangible as such, but it’s just such a beautiful story.”

In Abu Dhabi, there is the Sanadlab, a two-day event held during the festival that provides filmmakers on its programme a mentor
for one-on-one script with treatment sessions.

“They will also meet producers who can join the project,” says Macia, who says they’ve had more than 200 scripts and 100 post-production films apply for the grant.

But film funding and support aren’t solely confined to the film festivals. For the past five years, the Abu Dhabi Film Commission has awarded the Shasha Grant, its $100,000 screenwriting competition for rising Middle East talent. Last year’s prize, awarded in November, went to Mahmoud Al Massad, the Jordanian filmmaker who received acclaim for his 2010 documentary This Is My Picture When I Was Dead.

Shortly before last year’s Shasha prize was awarded, Image Nation Abu Dhabi teamed up with Twofour54, Abu Dhabi’s media hub, to launch Arab Film Studio, aimed at identifying and training budding Emirati filmmakers. The new initiative’s first move was to open its Short Film Competition, which will give winners access to various courses covering the filmmaking process. While actual funding was not part of the project, it’s clear that efforts are now being made to broaden the pool of UAE filmmakers who might be competing for film funding in the future.

But although the UAE has certainly fuelled a growth in opportunities for budding filmmakers from within the country and further across the region, this hasn’t always meant it’s easier for them to access such assistance.

“The funds are certainly growing, but the number of films are growing at the same time, says Lebanese filmmaker Simon El Habre, whose Sanad-supported documentary Gate #5 received its world premiere at last year’s DIFF. “There’s more competition, but it’s actually great because you can see that there’s a movement beginning.”

The growing size of the Arab sections in regional film festivals is testament to the increased support for Arab filmmakers, but a major issue beyond funding a production is actually getting it screened commercially. Cinemagoers may flock to see obscure titles during a festival, but once the red carpet is rolled up, box offices almost immediately revert to the usual Hollywood and Bollywood affairs.

Efforts have been made to change this – such as the two-week runs for various Arab films DIFF arranged at Reel Cinemas in the Dubai Mall – but at the festival last year the DIFF Distribution Award was announced to encourage distributors to get on board. Distributors acquiring Arab films shown at DIFF 2011 stand the chance of winning up to $60,000 should they manage to get the film in cinemas before the next festival.

“There are lots of films being made, but they aren’t getting theatrical releases,” says Pandya. “These awards will give greater visibility for Arabic films, not just in the region, but globally.”

There have been some major headlines in terms of UAE filmmaking over the years, including City of Life in 2009 and Sea Shadow last year. But quietly in the background, the country has been creating a platform where films from across the region can find the support, financially
and in terms of networking, to grow from a basic script to a polished, finished project, and now to find it an audience.

The UAE may itself still be at an early stage of its film career, but with the number of programmes seemingly increasing each year, expect to see it listed in the credits of many more films in the future.

aritman@thenational.ae