x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Making the cut

Feature Young filmmakers are now coming to Abu Dhabi to learn the craft. We visit the city's branch of the New York Film Academy.

Students of the Abu Dhabi branch of the New York Film Academy set up lights to shoot their film <i>The Cookie</i>.
Students of the Abu Dhabi branch of the New York Film Academy set up lights to shoot their film <i>The Cookie</i>.

We are on the set of the short film The Cookie. A big studio light beams overhead while five guys crouch around a 16mm Arriflex movie camera. This is the only equipment they have, save for a giant flat screen television showing the movie Spartacus in front of them, a prop that happened to be in the room where they are shooting. "Bring the cookie towards the camera," says one of the five guys standing by the small 16mm Arriflex. "All we need is to make it brighter," someone shouts out. "Okay, you'll be fine in front," says another. "No, the back is better," pipes in a final contrarian.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about the way the main prop - the biscuit of the title - should be filmed. To defuse the situation, all of this creative input is quickly ended by John Nodilo, the director of the New York Film Academy's new Abu Dhabi campus. "You guys need to let the director be the director," says Nodilo. " You guys need to let him do his thing." Then, amazingly, the squabbling subsides and the filming of The Cookie resumes - practically at the foot of Nodilo's desk.

Inside Nodilo's spacious first-floor office there are giant studio lights, large cameras and tripods clustered around the desk as teachers and administrators flit about alongside the cast and crew of the film. Nodilo has been here since last winter, when the New York Film Academy (NYFA) opened this branch of their film and acting school at the behest of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. Both organisations are similarly proud of the fact that this is the first accredited film school in the Middle East.

Since February the school has offered intensive year-long, four-week and eight-week workshops in filmmaking to both regional and international film students. The crew of The Cookie is made up of new students. Today is the first time these students are touching cameras. These are some of the burgeoning actors, cinematographers and directors that the Culture and Heritage Authority - and the NYFA - hopes will shape the region's television and film industry. This course is not for hobbyists. It lasts for two fully packed terms and costs a bank-draining $25,000 (Dh92,000) in total. The students produce 12 films throughout the year, which they will use to help them get work once they leave the convivial atmosphere of NYFA-Abu Dhabi and head out to the world of work. But entering the real world is still far in the future for the budding film students working in the NYFA's tranquil, Arabian-style walled compound.

There are over 30 students working on films right now at the school's campus, which is only a short walk from the bustle of Airport Road. Since few students were brave enough to shoot in the midday heat outside, there is precious little room to film the shorts; the crew of The Cookie ended up shooting in Nodilo's office because most of the other floor space in the compound was taken. Nodilo himself is a graduate of the NYFA's film programme. Before this, he worked as the director of the Los Angeles branch's master of fine arts in filmmaking programme. "I took the one-year filmmaking class five years ago, and looking at these guys really takes me back," he says. "It was just like this!"

Well, maybe not exactly. The Cookie, is a one minute long film directed by the 27-year-old Canadian Salem Habbous. So far it's a little hairy, but that is to be expected since classes started Sunday and Habbous' first opus is shooting today - Thursday. Habbous gives the synopsis of the story, which came to him in a flash of creativity while he was struggling to come up with an idea for his short. "It's basically about two guys who are sitting down on the couch watching some TV and having some cookies. They are both about to finish their cookies and look over at the table in front of them and notice that there is only one cookie remaining," explains Habbous. His class assignment was to film an exchange between two people, and he has directed his two actors to sit in front of the camera and give each other fierce looks before racing each other to retrieve the one remaining biscuit. "Obviously the suspense is slowly starting to build because it's... who is going to get that last cookie? Someone's gonna get it. Will we ever find out who?"

The NYFA is still writing its own script. The school started in 1992 in New York City at Robert DeNiro's Tribecca Film Center, where the Tribecca Film Festival is held every year. NYFA expanded quickly throughout the world in places like London, Tokyo and Rome. However, the school's New York, Los Angeles, Madrid and Abu Dhabi outposts are the only ones with year-long and two year programmes; the rest hold only four and eight-week workshops.

The NYFA schools teach acting, screenwriting, filmmaking and producing - and they do it quickly. Their brochure goes so far as to describe their school with an Orson Welles quote, "If you give me three days, I can show you the ABCs of film." Still, the school doesn't claim to turn out experienced filmmakers after only a month - the workshops are meant to give students a taste of celluloid life. The popularity of the NYFA endures because, as expensive as the courses are (one term costs more than one term at some private universities in the US), they try to put students on the fast-track to the business. According to the school, four-year university programmes are time inefficient, especially for adult students who are looking for a career change. "We are founded on a belief that a top quality education in filmmaking should be accessible to anyone with the drive and ambition to make films," says the NYFA website.

"These are hands-on intense courses that actually focus on the physical production," says Nodilo, who stresses that courses are not heavy on academic theory. Instead, they are conducted in conservatory style, which is a combination of practical, application of relevant theories and critiques of the work. "You're learning these theories and every week or two you have a project to make, so you're learning by actually doing what you need to do."

The Abu Dhabi location is supposed to be a full-service school like the New York, LA and recently opened Madrid locations, but it hasn't hit full throttle yet. "What we're doing is rolling out our courses," says Nodilo. "Next we'll be adding screenwriting, so next February we'll be running every single programme we run in New York and LA with the same teachers. We'll be the same campus, just in Abu Dhabi."

But why Abu Dhabi? "There's just so much growth here," says Nodilo. "We're really big on getting into markets where people might not have access to this style of film making." There are six Emiratis enrolled in the school right now and Nodilo hopes that there will be more to come. In addition to Gulf residents, NYFA - Abu Dhabi is drawing students who might not otherwise travel to the American, Far Eastern or European campuses and there is a substantial contingent from the Subcontinent.

Another filmmaking student, Alex Mendez, 20, came from Bangladesh to learn the craft after spending a few years in Bollywood. Mendez says he warily eyed the NYFA's Los Angeles location, but finally decided to come on board when he heard that they were opening NYFA in Abu Dhabi. "I was very relieved there was something near my home," he says. "Now, you know, I can get back to my home any time I want to." Mendez says he envisions himself back in Bollywood after he completes his studies. He hopes that in five to 10 years he will be a young film mogul in Mumbai, a sentiment echoed by other students who would rather make movies in India than try to eke out a living in Hollywood.

Though Mendez is in the filmmaking programme, he is acting the part of one of the two competing boys in The Cookie today. He races towards the plated biscuit along with Niyaz "Nick" Karazhigitov, an acting student from Kazakhstan, every time director Habbous snaps his fingers. They do about seven rehearsals and then try filming it. Mendez and Karazhigitov disagree with each other about how to act out their crucial look before the two-yard biscuit dash. "You should look like this," says Karazhigitov, bulging his eyes out in a slapstick and highly unsubtle fashion. It's no surprise he wants to act in comedies and action films after graduation. "No ? just chill, like this," responds Mendez, who slides his eyes to the side like a sly cat.

Afterwards, Karazhigitov and Mendez are excited for feedback. "What do you think about our scene?" says Mendez. "Is it realistic?" asks Karazhigitov. A difficult judgement to make - they may have both made convincing runs for the cookie, but racing someone to a biscuit isn't exactly a mundane occurence. Still, they both performed to Habbous' liking, which is pretty good for their first attempt. Karazhigitov is clearly thrilled to be acting, as small as the part may be. He chose NYFA's Abu Dhabi campus because of the ease of obtaining a visa. "It's difficult to enter somewhere else like LA or New York, it would take a long time, but here, it's easy," he says of the visa regulations. Karazhigitov, who is 17, looks more like a displaced surfer boy in cut off jean shorts, a pink T-shirt and flip-flops than the acting conservatory student that he is now. "And in Abu Dhabi, you get more attention because there are fewer students."

He plans to move to Los Angeles after the programme ends and seems to have no doubt that he will succeed in his chosen profession, never mind the fact that his English is not yet perfect. "You act in all languages - everywhere you act," says Karazhigitov, who speaks both Russian and Kazakh fluently. "If you get these elements worked out, you can do everything. You can even be, I don't know, you can even be from Antarctica and it doesn't matter." It's unlikely that NYFA will be opening an Antarctic film academy any time soon, though certainly it fits NYFA's expansion policy of starting schools in regions without access to film training.

When asked about his preference for acting over filmmaking, since the acting programme in NYFA - Abu Dhabi has roughly one-third the students that the filmmaking programme does, he says that he has wanted to be an actor since the age of five. Karazhigitov sees himself in 10 years as "A player in show business, as an actor being in this atmosphere." When asked why, he admits that's it not just about the craft. "First of all, it's fun, and then there's the red carpet of course, money and fame."