x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Local film heroes

This year’s DIFF sees a bumper crop of Emirati films.

Film directors with entries in the Muhr Emirati awards at Madinat Jumeirah during the Dubai International Film Festival.
Film directors with entries in the Muhr Emirati awards at Madinat Jumeirah during the Dubai International Film Festival.

Some tickets for screenings at the Dubai International Film Festival had sold out days before the event even started. Given the presence of several big-name Hollywood stars and titles heavily tipped for Oscar success, this isn't something that one might consider particularly unusual.

But the interesting point was that the screenings in question weren't for the likes of The King's Speech or 127 Hours, or any of the other major commercial titles given red-carpet treatments. It was actually films from the Muhr Emirati category that saw standby queues in the Mall of the Emirates bustling with activity, and many latecomers left disappointed. Introduced for the first time in the festival, the Muhr Emirati competition has offered Emirati filmmakers the chance to win Dh35,000. But, prizes aside, it is also emblematic of just how far the country's film industry has progressed.

Of the 14 films selected, which were shortlisted from more than 30 entries, there were shorts, documentaries and features. Some were directorial debuts, some were from more established filmmakers.

Some had minute budgets, while others had enjoyed significant funding. One even included the services of an A-list actor. But, whatever the differences in the content, production and style, the message from the Muhr Emirati Awards during the festival was clear: the UAE can make films to be proud of.

"This year, they saw that there was maturity. They wanted to open the door and show the world that there are filmmakers here in the Emirates," says Saeed Aldhaheri, whose comedy short Two Guys and a Goat - The Night Before Eid had many Emiratis in hysterics during its first screening, although many of the gags were lost on western viewers.

For Aldhaheri, while less than a decade ago there was little or no support for budding filmmakers, the infrastructure is now being put in place. "Doors are opening, but if we don't move ourselves we're not going to get anywhere."

Rashid Al-Marri, whose emotional documentary Letters To Palestine saw Arab UAE-residents questioning their connection with those living in the occupied territories, said the Emirati selection was an excellent indicator of the growing quality. "DIFF won't just screen films for the sake of it. If they found that there were 14 there to be shown alongside all the others, it's a real sign that we're getting there."

The history of the UAE's film industry, for many, can be traced back to 2001, when the first Emirates Film Competition was launched by Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. Interestingly, this competition was started by Masoud Amralia Al Ali, who now serves as artistic director of DIFF. Aldhaheri describes Masoud as the "godfather" of Emirati film.

"This really started to develop things, but in the best possible way," says Antonia Carver, DIFF's Arab Programming Consultant. "It was very organic and low key, and enabled people to exchange ideas, without them being put on a world stage."

After the Emirati Film Competition, the Dubai International Film Festival was launched in 2004, followed by Gulf Film Festival, which took over from the Emirates Film Competition, and later the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. All of these festivals began offering their support to Emirati filmmakers.

"The Gulf Film Festival is like a teenage version of the Emirates Film Competition, it has the same atmosphere, where filmmakers from across the Gulf come together and debate their films," says Carver. "It also supports what's happening with DIFF in the first year of this Muhr Emirati Award. And I think now it's just the right time for this award in that you've got such a diversity of filmmaking, and it helps position Emirati cinema alongside Arab cinema, Asian cinema and African cinema."

Last year, the big story was City of Life, the first Emirati feature film and written, directed and produced by Ali Mostafa. Since being given its red-carpetted world premier at DIFF 2009, Mostafa has gone on to become almost the icon of Emirati film industry, a beacon of what can be achieved. City of Life has now been released on DVD, and the film still shows on Emirates flights.

"What Ali Mostafa did has proved that a director from the UAE can make a high-quality movie with a local story, delivered in a very professional way," says Aldhahero. "If you look at the budget, such movies in Hollywood might be three times this."

While City of Life's budget might not have been that of a Hollywood blockbuster, it was considerably more than most debuting local filmmakers can raise, with Mostafa managing to attract funds on the back of the film being the UAE's first. Aldhaheri says he gets a grant from the Emirates Foundation of up to Dh100,000 to make each film. Aldaheri, who works in the oil industry, sees filmmaking as a passion that may eat into his savings every time he splashes out on a new camera, but still remains just a hobby. But for Nayla Al Khaja, the UAE's first female film producer and director, this funding is way off the mark if the country really wants to start to seeing regular feature films produced by a dedicated film industry.

"It's not enough, unless you want to get your friends and cousins involved to shoot in your backyard," she says. "We're still doing shorts, simply because we can't afford to do feature films."

Al Khaja, whose short drama Malal features in the Muhr Emirati category, suggests that there should be an annual government grant awarded to the top three Emirati films to turn into features each year. "I'm talking European style funding, of $400,000 plus."

Al Khaja says that there are two to three Emiratis directors ready to move the what she calls "category two", namely feature fims. She herself is going to spend next year attempting to raise $2 million for her own feature, a desert-based thriller based on a true story. "I hope to make a commercial film out of it, not an art house. I want to make money from it."

While the majority of those competing in for the Muhr Emirati prize were working on limited budgets, The Philosopher, the debut feature from 24-year-old Abdulla Al Kaabi, was rumoured to have had a not-insignificant financial injection, used to bring aboard the considerable talents of French actor Jean Reno.

Reno's presence at the festival created a significant buzz around this Paris-based short, but the big news from the event was that the Frenchman had signed up to appear in Al Kaabi's second film, a feature-length romantic-comedy set in the UAE and France and due to start shooting next year.

Even without such big names and plans of lengthy local rom-coms, the tremendous excitement around the Muhr Emirati selection is an excellent sign of the talent emerging.

"It's a young industry and it's got some way to go," says Carver. "What's interesting is the pace at which it's developing."

When we might start seeing three full features produced from the UAE each year, however, could be some while. In the meantime, let's just allow the local filmmakers to enjoy their brief moments of red carpets, sold out cinemas and free hotels rooms (provided to each director during the festival).

"They even offered me a limo to take me to and from the screening," says Rashid Al-Marri. "But I said I'd just bring my own car."