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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Meet Kenton Oxley and Hassiba Freiha: the first couple of Emirati cinema

The husband-and-wife production team tell us why the film industry is strong enough to stand on its own two feet

Kenton Oxley and Hassiba Freiha. Courtesy
Kenton Oxley and Hassiba Freiha. Courtesy

Kenton Oxley has plenty to say about the current state of the UAE film industry, and among the first is that he believes it’s time the government stepped back and let the private sector fend for itself after years of offering incentives and funding for productions taking place in the UAE. “Abu Dhabi’s industry has had bumps in the road, but it is now beginning to do what it needs to do. I don’t think the government needs to be involved in the private ­sector anymore. We’ve proved that you can make big international productions without government assistance or funding and now we want to try and do the same things in other markets.”

Oxley is well-qualified to offer an opinion. The British national came to the UAE around the turn of the decade, previously working in the UK broadcast and production industry for ten years. He was formerly part of the team at twofour54 that developed the 30 per cent rebate for production, and a firm believer that such systems work and should be continued, despite his call for less government help elsewhere. Now, he is the founder and chief executive of Knockout Productions, an Abu Dhabi production services provider that has previously acted as a local producer in the UAE on shows and movies including Top Gear and The Grand Tour, as producer for the shoot in India for the ITV drama Next of Kin, and is currently in Malaysia, where Knockout is providing production services to The Crown producer, Left Bank, for season seven of the Cinemax/Sky actioner Strike Back.

It’s unusual to hear someone talk so optimistically about the state of the UAE’s private production sector. It’s far more common to hear tales of lack of funding and support, and an absence of skilled professionals from local filmmakers, but Oxley is a pragmatist. “I was part of the original studies on the rebate, and I’m a big believer that they work. Do I think that will result, overnight, in the whole of your camera department or the whole crew being Emirati? Of course not. The British film industry took over 100 years to get to where it is now,” he says. “But do I think crews coming in will need hotels and food, and bring money into the economy? Yes. I still get emails from Qasr Al Sarab to say ‘thank you’ for shooting Bang Bang and Baby there because they are booked out every weekend for destination weddings. What you’re talking about, the local industry, that takes time to develop.”

Oxley notes that currently, Knockout is one of few production companies bringing revenues into the UAE, not only through the productions it has helped to bring to the UAE, but also, as an entity based in Abu Dhabi, through the revenues it brings in from its international work across five continents. There’s also a kind of altruism to Oxley’s international work, albeit a rather familial one. Oxley’s Emirati wife, Hassiba Freiha, runs Knockout’s sister company Intuitive, which is dedicated to original content creation. Both companies were set up under a scheme that sought to assist local entrepreneurs, and currently, many of the earnings from Knockout’s day-to-day work that help to make other people’s ideas become reality is diverted straight back into the Emirati film industry as funding for Intuitive’s first feature – an as-yet-unnamed film for which Freiha is currently finessing the script. The movie will be around 60 per cent in Arabic and 40 per cent in English, and is likely to film in Jordan, Morocco and Abu Dhabi.

Naturally, Knockout will act as producer for the film, and the crew includes members that have worked on films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Peter Rabbit. Oxley has high hopes for the finished product: “I’m quite proud of what we’re doing – bringing in our international experience to apply proper script development, proper production standards and international levels of finance to make a show that isn’t just an ‘OK’ local project, but a feature of international standards,” he says. “If people like Left Bank, and Sony trust us to make shows that screen all over North America and Europe, then I think we can also be trusted to make our own show that is of an ­international standard, not just produced for the sake of it, to tick boxes.” With so much talk of the film’s international appeal, I wonder if the pair think scripting most of the film in Arabic could present a hurdle to international success. Freiha thinks not: “Because of the likes of Netflix, there’s so much hybrid content and cross-cultural stories out there, and I think there are two main reasons for that.

“Firstly, a lot of people, like me, grew up in a cross-cultural environment. My mother’s American, and both English and Arabic were very much a part of my experience growing up,” she says. “Secondly, with globalisation, I think hybrid films offer a new way of really connecting with audiences globally. I think foreign films aren’t even seen as foreign now, they’re just seen as films that are told in a different language that people may connect to differently. I guess you could call that a ­hurdle, but I choose not to. I see it as offering the best of both the Western and Middle Eastern cultures.”

Her husband agrees, and notes that the film’s “foreignness” could even be advantageous on the festival circuit. “Like any supposed negative, it can also be a huge positive,” he says. “If I’m making a not-huge-budget, say about US $10 million (Dh36.7m), film about family life and I do it in a different language, it’s actually going to get more exposure on the international film circuit, and that’s not the case when there’s so many English language films. If we can tell a really poignant story that really gets into a society, that’s going to achieve a much higher level of global awareness.”

Oxley admits that festival exposure does not necessarily equate to box-office success, but adds that box office is not the vital piece of the film finance puzzle it once was. “There’s a definite appetite for foreign-language films, particularly on the new platforms. The audience is there if it’s done well,” he says. “As Knockout, we already have distributors randomly contacting us looking for Arabic content, so something like this film would be perfect – it’s a low-risk investment. They don’t need to pay for it to be made. If you look at Netflix, they’ve done loads for indies and even shorts, so I really think there’s a market there.”

The fact that both have mentioned Netflix seems to say a lot about where the industry is headed right now, however both insist they are not making a film aimed specifically at the streaming giant, or any other streaming service, though they’d be happy to see it end up there. “The goal is to start off on the festival circuit,” says Freiha. “Distribution can happen on back of that, and something we’re very much looking for globally, whatever form it may take. But the first hurdle is getting festival recognition.”

The new movie will be the latest in a long line of Hollywood, Bollywood and local movies to have shot in the UAE recently, but Oxley insists such flagship projects are the icing on the cake, not the bread and butter of building the local industry: “Personally, I’d rather see big serialised dramas coming in than big Hollywood movies,” he says. “Hollywood can afford to fly everyone out. They’re great to get, and they’re good for local pride and tourism, but I’m not sure how much they do for the local industry. Big series come out for weeks, they might come back for a second series and more, and they need a lot of local crew. They might have the same budget as a film, but for hours of content, so they have to spend it wisely. On Strike Back in Malaysia we’re about 60 per cent locally crewed. That’s what builds an industry.”

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