x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Reel Arabia

Ali Jaafar takes a panoramic look at the budding film industry in the Gulf.

Not the season for shorts: Waleed al Shehhi, an Emirati film director, believes it will take time before audiences start watching short films.
Not the season for shorts: Waleed al Shehhi, an Emirati film director, believes it will take time before audiences start watching short films.

This April Dubai played host to the inaugural Gulf Film Festival. The following month Saudi Arabia, where cinemas have been banned for over three decades, held its own festival for the first time in the coastal city of Dammam. While many of the 200 or so submissions to both festivals were low-budget short films by first-time filmmakers in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere across the Gulf, a spate of big money deals in recent months between US studios and Arab investors has seen the region emerge as a potential player in the global film market. With the US economy facing a recession and Wall Street wary of big investments in Hollywood, American and European executives have turned to the Gulf in search of new sources of film financing.

The soaring price of oil - and the concomitant boom in construction and investment - has focused the eyes of the world here. But a local film industry is going up as fast as the skyscrapers, and beyond the festivals one can see the emergence, for the first time, of something resembling a sustainable local film business. The journey ahead may still be long for aspiring Gulf filmmakers before they rival established schools of cinema in other parts of the Arab world, let alone further afield, but the foundations are being built. What's more, the increase in foreign investment by some of Hollywood's largest companies, albeit mostly dealing with real estate, could have a knock-on effect for local filmmakers hoping to gain valuable know-how and access to contacts.

Major studios like Paramount, Universal, DreamWorks Animation and MGM have all signed multimillion, sometimes billion dollar deals with UAE-based real estate companies. Warner Bros, a subsidiary of Time Warner, the world's largest media conglomerate, agreed to a multibillion dollar partnership with Aldar Properties and the Abu Dhabi Media Company (which publishes The National) that includes plans for a $500 million (Dh1,840 million) film fund, another $500m (Dh1,840m) to develop video games and additional funding for local Arabic-language film production. While the lion's share of the fund will go into producing English-language fare - such as the recently announced Robert Rodriguez-directed Shorts - and building cinemas in Abu Dhabi, there will also be some money available for Arabic-language films, including those from the Gulf.

With foreign investment in Dubai and Abu Dhabi at an all-time high, Emirati filmmakers have been the beneficiaries of an extraordinarily rapid build-up in the infrastructure needed to support a local film industry. The arrival of international festivals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, not to mention the dedicated Gulf Film Festival, has meant that seldom in the history of cinema has so much attention been paid to so few films.

It was only three years ago, lest we forget, that the first-ever feature by an Emirati filmmaker, Hani al Shaibani's Dream, was produced. The film, which followed a group of frustrated actors, writers and directors who take to the desert to make a film about themselves only to get lost in its vast empty spaces - a metaphor for Emirates' search for identity - may have been more noteworthy for its very existence than any outstanding cultural value. But since then, Emirati filmmakers have been given resources that few other emerging film industries could have dreamt of.

"In the last five or six years, the number of films made each year in the UAE has risen continuously," says Masoud Amralla al Ali, artistic director of both the Dubai International Film Festival and the Gulf Film Festival. "The foundation is still not yet established, but the will and the local talents are plenty. This last year there were over 160 shorts produced, and in the last three years, we witnessed three feature films, with others in various stages of production as we speak."

The likes of Nayla al Khaja, Hani al Shaibani, Ali Mostafa, Waleed al Shehhi, Manal Bin Amro and Khalid al Mahmood are taking their first big screen steps on the way to creating a grassroots film scene in the UAE. Nayla al Khaja's short film Arabana, for example, is a deliberately elliptical portrayal of child abuse which caused a stir when it premiered at the Dubai film festival in December 2006. The UAE's first female director is now working on what might be an even more controversial subject, albeit one laced with humour: her new project, Hajis, is about the trials and tribulations Emirati girls face while trying to go on a first date without getting caught. "I want to film it, get it finished and put it on YouTube," says Khaja. "I spoke to so many people here and we all had our own stories about this. I just knew it had to be turned into a movie."

With the exception of Shaibani - who completed his second feature, Jumaa and the Sea, last year - local filmmakers have generally produced ultra-low-budget shorts on digital video. But adhering to the old maxim that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, they are in their own way laying the foundations for the future. Many of these up-and-coming directors have creative ambitions that belie their often modest resources. They cite a diverse array of influences - from familiar icons like Fellini and Scorsese to Ozu and Tarkovsky - and the shoestring budgets haven't stopped some provocative work.

Sometimes the filmmaking impulse can develop from something even more existential. "For me filmmaking was a natural step as I used to love writing poetry," says Mahmood. "As it turned out it's more than just a form of expression. It's more like a window to a different world and people. Realising I was one of the few people out there working in this field in the Emirates, it became a passionate duty to enrich this cultural aspect."

As Mahmood suggests, for all the hype about local film production, artists like him still remain in the minority in the hyper-kinetic atmosphere of boomtown Dubai. Despite the attention sure to accompany the development of a world-class film industry, for now property development remains king. It is interesting to compare the film scene in the Emirates to some of its older brothers. In places like Lebanon and Palestine - despite decades of political strife and violent conflict - some of the most diverse and successful cinematic voices in the Arab world have flourished. The UAE, by contrast, still has a long way to go before it can boast of anything similar.

"Investors are still distracted by real estate," says Gianluca Chacra of the Dubai-based distributor Front Row. "The money is definitely there. In fact it's overflowing. It's almost like Germany in the mid-1990s, but Germany had a film culture, while here it's something totally new. It's going to take time to develop that understanding and know-how of the way the film industry works. Europe is an old continent. This place is only 30 years old."

While Hollywood executives have focused their attention on the ambitious plans of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the real driver behind the expanding film business in the Gulf may be Saudi Arabia. While Saudi petrodollars have historically funded Arab media, from newspapers to the boom in pan-Arab satellite TV in the 1990s, the role that the Gulf giant has played in the film industry has tended to be overlooked. That may be because cinemas have been banned in the conservative kingdom for three decades.

Nevertheless, aspiring Saudi film moguls have been boosting their film activity in recent months. In January, Prince Waleed bin Talal appointed the former Studio Canal boss Frederic Sichler as president of the film division of Rotana, one of the Arab world's largest broadcasters and producers and distributors of film and music. That appointment was evidence of the desire of the Prince, one of the world's richest men, to turn his film company into an international operation.

Sichler has been credited with playing a key part in turning around the fortunes of Studio Canal, a major French studio, in his four-year tenure there. "My mission and ambitions are clear: to make Rotana Films the most successful movie production company in the Middle East, and a key player internationally," said Sichler at the time of his appointment. "It is a fascinating challenge. The potential is huge; the will and the resources are there."

Production is already underway on Menahi, the second Saudi feature from Rotana. The $2m (Dh7.3m) project, directed by Ayman Makram, is the first big-screen appearance of the popular Saudi actor Fayez al Maliki's TV persona Menahi, a naive, humble Saudi farmer who often finds himself involved in comic escapades beyond his control. In Menahi the title character travels from his tribal homeland in the conservative Kingdom to Dubai after he becomes involved in a get-rich-quick scheme. Once there, he finds himself unwittingly embraced, à la Peter Sellers in Being There, as a financial guru.

The Saudi media mogul Sheikh Waleed al Ibrahim has also launched a film production unit under the umbrella of his TV network MBC Group, whose flagship channel MBC 1 was the first privately-owned satellite channel in the Arab world when it launched in 1991 and remains its most watched. MBC Films has announced plans to make up to six features per year, and has already begun production of The Circle, a drama about a man who discovers he is suffering from an illness and embarks on a series of adventures before it is too late. Abdullah Boushahri, a Kuwaiti, is producing the film with an Emirati, Nawaf al Janahi, directing. MBC also plan to make feature-length films based on a number of their most popular television shows, including Tash ma Tash and Bab Al Hara.

The new division is also working with the French sales and production company Wild Bunch on the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman's epic feature The Time That Remains, which will chart the history of the modern Palestinian experience through the story of one family. Sheikh Waleed has also invested in the Film Department, a new company run by the former Miramax and Warner Bros production executive Mark Gill and Neil Sacker, where he is now a board member, as well as signing a deal with Dubai Studio City to build production facilities there.

The visionary mogul is also building six production studios in Jeddah, which will be located in the still-being-built King Abdullah II Industrial City, with a view to encouraging film production in the country. "Saudis are encouraging film-makers to come and do movies in Saudi Arabia, which will encourage the industrial city," says Sheikh Waleed. "The whole idea for us is to learn so we can be part of the film industry and it can be part of our business. I think we will see a revolution, we will see a great change. We will work hard to get there. We have very great plans for industry in the region."

It is ironic that the most conservative of all Gulf societies may offer the most tantalising developments in the region with regards to filmmaking. In 2006, the Kingdom produced two rival features - with each one proclaiming itself the first Saudi feature film. Abdullah Moheisin's Shadow of Silence and Izzadore Mussalem's Keif Al Hal both offered rare dramatic insights into life in the traditionally closed-off Saudi society. "When people forget to talk about Saudi Arabia, they're forgetting to talk about the manufacturer," says Moheisin in reference to Saudi Arabia's role as the biggest player in the region, whether in terms of population, income or influence. "I've been trying to create and develop films in Saudi Arabia for 30 years."

Talk has been rife for months that Saudi authorities are preparing the grounds to lift the 30-year-old ban on cinemas in the Kingdom. The recent festival in May received official state backing, a further sign that attempts are being made to open up the country towards the idea of a film industry. Cinemas are also reportedly already being planned ahead of a potential green-light. While official authorisation for these have yet to be granted publicly, it is an open secret in the Kingdom that new malls are being built with open spaces left in them for the installation of cinemas if and when they get the go-ahead. That final decision may still take anywhere up to five years, but the fact that they're being openly discussed at all is a sign of progress.

"In the beginning it will be like when they opened McDonald's for the first time in Riyadh and they sold half a million hamburgers in one day," says Moheisin. "In the end though, I don't know if cinemas will be successful in Saudi Arabia. Our society is based around watching films with the family at home." The increase in Saudi participation is also having knock-on effect on the Arab film industry elsewhere, most notably in Egypt, the traditional powerhouse in Arab film production.

The Saudi-owned pay TV network ART has been particularly active in co-financing and co-producing Egyptian films, along with Rotana. ART recently signed a three-project financing deal with the independent Egyptian company Misr International Films, which produces all of Youssef Chahine's films. The deal covers Chahine's Chaos, Yousry Nasrallah's The Aquarium and the forthcoming Dukhan bil ranar, from the Lebanese director Samir Habchi. ART is also set to go into production on The Kid, from the famed Syrian TV director Hatem Ali.

ART also co-financed last year's break-out Arab film Caramel, by the Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, which has now grossed more than $10m (Dh37m) worldwide. "We participate in many local commercial films to cater for the mainstream Arab audiences as well as getting into international co-productions or regional productions of international appeal, where we see an opportunity to explore other markets and bridge cultures," says Hadeel Kamel, a senior executive at ART. "What's happening is real, substantial and will grow very rapidly. The largest challenge remains to be creating a market big enough and soon enough to accommodate the potential creative output at the right time, in order to achieve worthwhile returns."

While Saudi financing for Egyptian films has historically come with strings attached with regards to content - invariably favouring derivative family comedies rather than more provocative adult fare - even this has started to change. "ART didn't intervene in what we did at all in the script or the ideas," said Gabriel Khoury, who produced The Aquarium. "I think this was the policy from their part, to have a variety in their programming. They knew that with us they would be exposed to film festivals around the world and this is something that they needed, this international dimension that they didn't have. If channels like Rotana and ART stopped producing films in Egypt, the whole production system would crumble here. I think the Egyptian film industry would totally stop."

Saudi Arabia isn't the only Gulf state investing in the film business, however. Sharjah made its first foray into film by co-financing Hani al Shaibani's second film, Jumaa and the Sea; Oman, Bahrain and Qatar have recently all produced their first features as well. Kuwait, which produced the Gulf's first-ever feature back in 1972 - Khalid al Siddiq's The Cruel Sea - is also attempting to add its voice to the mix with a series of thought-provoking documentaries, including When The People Spoke, a film about the face-off between moderates and fundamentalists over women's rights. The film was banned in Kuwait, but won the best documentary prize at the Gulf Film Festival.

The gas-rich state of Qatar is showing off its own cinematic ambitions by financing Rumi - The Fire of Love, an English-language biopic of Rumi, the 13th century poet and a founder of Sufism. The project boasts spiritual guru Deepak Chopra as a script consultant and a $25m (Dh91m) budget, the bulk of which is to be provided by the Qatar Foundation, headed by Sheikha Mouza, wife of the emir of Qatar.

One country not mentioned so far is Iraq. Understandably, filmmaking has suffered along with other cultural activities in the troubled country for the past two decades. Under the UN-sponsored sanctions of the 1990s, Iraqis were banned from importing celluloid, grinding the industry to a complete halt. Since the 2003 US-led toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi filmmakers have been unable to make much impact given the precarious security situation and lack of investment. That hasn't stopped the likes of Oday Rasheed, who made Iraq's first post-Saddam film with Underexposure, and Mohammad al Daradji, whose debut feature Ahlaam won the top prize at the Gulf Film Festival.

Ahlaam, the Arabic word for dreams, is a hauntingly powerful account of a young woman who escapes an asylum for the mentally unstable during the 2003 bombing of Baghdad and roams the war-torn streets of the capital city in her stained wedding dress. Daradji was so determined to film on location in the streets of his native Baghdad that he was forced to wield a camera in one hand and an AK-47 machine gun in the other. During filming, he was kidnapped twice and shot at both by insurgents and US troops. Nevertheless, he finished his film, leaving behind a remarkable testament to the resilience of the Iraqi people. "As Iraqi filmmakers, we must stay in our own country and make our films, even with all the dangers," says Daradji. "We must show the Iraqi point of view. You don't know how important it is for us to tell our stories."

With the situation in Iraq improving gradually, so are the opportunities for the country's filmmakers set to increase. Both Rasheed and Daradji are securing financing for their second feature projects. While civil war marks the biggest existential threat to Iraq's emerging generation of new filmmakers, elsewhere in the Gulf the challenges remain more mundane. One of the biggest obstacles facing Emirati directors, for instance, is educating their compatriots to watch more local films, particularly shorts. With viewing habits so dominated by TV, punctuated by the odd movie, finding a cultural space at home can be taxing.

"It is a challenge to enforce the habit of watching short films into the mentality of people who live in the region who are not used to them," says the Emirati filmmaker Waleed al Shehhi. "But filmmaking has been my dream and controlled my thoughts since I was a little kid. There is a relationship between my soul and the light which makes up the image." And so, it remains too early to tell whether the Gulf will genuinely challenge the most established schools of cinema in the world, either culturally or commercially. With infrastructure - from cinemas to film schools and production facilities - being built at a jaw-dropping rate across the region, there is a good chance this fascinating experiment may succeed.

And while bottom-line commercial profitability may be the ultimate deal-breaker for some aspiring Gulf film producers, some of the more ambitious moguls are driven by a greater purpose. "The problem with Hollywood is that all they think when you mention the Middle East it's all about terrorists and cowboys from the US coming here and killing 500 people and going back, like in the movie The Kingdom," says Sheikh Waleed. "I wish they could think out of the box and consider these places for good stories that can really make a difference and can look great on our movie screen."

Ali Jaafar is the Middle East correspondent for Variety.