Feature An Abu Dhabi-based fellowship programme is fostering the development of moviemaking in the Middle East.
Filmmaking's inner circle
The future of Emirati filmmaking began this summer in a car park in Los Angeles. Granted, it was the car park of Panavision, the motion picture equipment company based in Woodland Hills, California. In 1972, Panavision helped revolutionise modern cinematography with the release of its lightweight Panaflex 35mm movie camera; in August, Khadeja al Buloshi filmed in that format for the first time. "I shot an intro scene of people walking together through the parking lot and made it look like a scene from Armageddon," she said. "I loved using 35mm. We usually use digital so it was amazing to see all the colours in processing. It was a totally different experience."
Buloshi, 23, is one of eight young Emirati filmmakers, or fellows, who are taking part in Adasa, a programme created by The Circle, an Abu Dhabi-based film initiative devoted to the production, financing and encouragement of emerging filmmaking talent in the Middle East. The year-long scheme involves three intensive film labs devoted to the development of story ideas, crafting and revising film scripts. The first lab was a two-week trip to Los Angeles involving a series of screenwriting workshops with writers from the industry and visits to film studios including Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, Sony and HBO.
"There are very few professional screenwriters in the UAE, so it was a chance to really develop a script and work with professional teachers and mentors," Buloshi said. By next summer, the eight Adasa fellows are each expected to have finished a screenplay for a full-length feature film. After that, it may be considered for funding to bring it into production. A final-year media studies student at Dubai Women's College, Buloshi is working on a script about an Emirati girl who is expected to take part in an arranged marriage to her cousin.
"During the preparations she discovers that he's in love with another girl and wants to marry her. But she's been born with the idea that she's going to marry this guy and has the dilemma of whether to go ahead with the wedding or break all the traditional rules," she said. Despite the daring nature of her film, Buloshi said she was determined to succeed and had the full support of her parents. "This started with a three-line story idea," she said. "I didn't really think I'd be able to write a long feature, but now I know that I can do it. I want to become a well-known film producer in the future."
Another film fellow, Alia al Shamsi, also 23 and a media studies undergraduate from Dubai, is working on a drama about a female Emirati journalist who wants to go to Iraq to cover the 2003 invasion and its aftermath. She wants to go but she is stopped because she is limited to the traditional label of the Emirati girl," she said. "She's told that she can't do this and that it's not a good place for a woman to be. There's also a love story involved."
Shamsi, who wants to be a director, said her main aim in making the film was to improve the perception of the UAE around the world. "There are a lot of short films produced here but most are just about the desert or about people riding camels, so when people come here they are stunned that we have buildings and cars. Some people have said to me, 'Wow - you wear jeans!' I enjoy being the one creating the image, and I want to come up with relevant stories that are valuable to today's society."
Yet for Shamsi, too, it was the visit to the United States that really opened her eyes to the scale of the task ahead in Abu Dhabi. "When I went to LA I saw that we are missing a lot. There are a lot of gaps and it's affecting the film industry in the UAE. When I saw the whole filmmaking process, I realised that there is nothing here. But it is in progress. At the beginning I thought it would be hard, but with the teachers and mentors it was a piece of cake. It was incredible what was achieved in two weeks."
Adrienne Briggs, the director of The Circle, which was established last year by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, said her main aim was to generate filmmaking activity in the UAE and grow local talent, but that the quality of applicants for the programme was high. "There is a lack of activity in the Emirates, but I don't think there's any other initiative in the region that's doing what we're doing. The Emiratis have a tradition of being great storytellers and they just need the assistance and the means to help them put that down in a screenplay format. Film is important because it provides another aspect to share Abu Dhabi's heritage and culture with a much wider audience, and that's what all of these stories are doing."
The Circle (@email:www.thecircle.ae) is one of several new ventures designed to boost film production. Last month the Abu Dhabi Media Company, which owns The National, formed a film financing subsidiary called imagenation abu dhabi that will spend more than Dh3.67 billion developing, financing and producing up to 40 feature films over the next five years. Its first joint venture is with the Los Angeles-based Participant Media, which will create a $250 million (Dh917.5m) fund to finance 15 to 18 films. Abu Dhabi is hosting the second Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) from Friday until Oct 19 and The Circle will hold its second annual conference at the Shangri-La hotel from today until Oct 11. Harvey Weinstein spoke at last year's conference, and Paul Haggis, the Academy Award-winning director of Crash, gave a talk about directing and held a screenwriting master class with young filmmakers. This year's keynote speaker will be Jim Gianopulos, the chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox. Today, tomorrow and Wednesday, respectively, the American producer and director Joseph McGinty Nichol, also known as McG; the director Spike Lee; and the actor, producer and director Antonio Banderas will hold open discussions for aspiring young filmmakers. The conference is open to the public and participation is free, but registration is required.
The Circle Conference will also showcase the Shasha Grant, a Dh36,700 international screenwriting contest; the Interactive Media Circle, a series of interactive exhibits at Marina Mall this Thursday and Friday; and the Cloween Connection, a project designed to connect Middle Eastern filmmakers from around the region. "We're building an interactive website where they can post their work and find information about films and mentors," Briggs said. "During the conference we will choose 10 Arab directors and bring them to Abu Dhabi, find them producers and start an internship programme. We want to create a place for Middle East filmmakers from across the region to be able to connect and find mentorships."
At The Circle's Abu Dhabi offices, Adasa fellows have access to a film production laboratory and a script and DVD library. They attend the offices twice a month and will complete two further film labs in Abu Dhabi. The programme will bring a selection of screenwriters from America to Abu Dhabi in December. Briggs said taking the fellows to the US had been a success. "Everyone in LA, from studio executives to the screenwriters, was impressed with the originality of the story ideas. The stories give a great insight into the culture, but at the same time they resonate with the whole world."
The Circle also runs workshops to explain film financing structures and advise potential investors on how to mitigate their risk. Fadel al Muhairi, 28, from Abu Dhabi, has a degree in filmmaking from the American University of Sharjah and gave up his job as a graphic designer for an oil company magazine to make films full time. Also an Adasa fellow, Muhairi said he began making films at the age of 13 after his father won a hand-held video camera in a football tournament. He has now made five short films.
"I started making indie backyard films in 2002 while I was at university," he said. Several of his films, including one about traffic accidents made in 2003 have won awards at the Emirates Film Competition, which is in its eighth year and is part of the MEIFF. For The Circle, Muhairi is working on the script of a historical epic called Hormuz, about the Portuguese invasion of the Gulf in the 16th century.
"We have finished the research and have been scouting for locations," he said. "I chose this as a topic because I love history. This isn't the kind of history that most people know about but it gives you a better understanding of what's going on in the region right now. When the Portuguese came they were looking to control economic trade, and that's what's going on right now with the Iraq war." According to Muhairi, the "language of cinema" is best suited to the task of giving people a better understanding of their history. "We'll introduce some characters that lived in history that history books mention but who we've never seen in a visual medium," he said. "There are so many interesting stories to tell and I think there's a responsibility for us to share these things." The biggest challenge for Muhairi has been disciplining himself to commit his ideas to paper. "In my mind I can see the whole movie but I've got to get it on paper first," he said. "I have only written the first 10 pages, but the programme has taught us to develop it step-by-step. I'm not sure when it will be finished because once you have the structure finalised you can go as fast as you want, but it's the rewrites that slow you down. There's a lot of work before we finish the final draft."
Yet even for such an experienced filmmaker, The Circle has been a major step forward. "I'm living my dream. I've had these ideas and made films before but I've never thought that one day I'd be sharing my stories. It was like a personal interest for me. In LA we got experience with real professionals which is something we couldn't get from university or theory books. What's missing here is the hands-on experience, because when you are learning you have so many simple, silly questions which no book can answer but with an experienced person you can get the answer immediately. It is all these small things that make up filmmaking. Now we've seen the whole process so the magic of filmmaking is no longer a mystery to us."
Briggs said The Circle would support its filmmakers fully until the end of the course. "It's impossible to say that all of the scripts will be ready, but as soon as the labs end we'll decide if this is something that we have to find development funds for, and we'll help facilitate production," she said. "Once they come under our wings we will continue to help them throughout the whole process. I think some of these guys will probably be making some of the first films that are shot here in Abu Dhabi."