x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The Middle East to boast a strong showing at the Oscars

When it comes to the Oscars, things have been somewhat rosier for the Arab-speaking world.

Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. Columbia Pictures / AP
Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. Columbia Pictures / AP

It's a sad state of affairs, but the fact remains that Omar Sharif is still the only Arab actor who has come close to winning an Oscar. Fifty years have now passed since the Egyptian icon received his Best Supporting Actor nomination for Lawrence of Arabia, and while the region's cinematic landscape has changed almost as dramatically as the colour of Sharif's hair, nobody else from the Arab world has received a similar nod of approval from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Over in the Best Foreign Language category, however, and things have been somewhat rosier for the Arabic-speaking world. Algeria famously won the gong in 1969 with Costas-Gavros's politically charged Z, a captivating dark comedy about the Greek military dictatorship, filmed predominantly in Algiers. Algeria has gone on to receive four nominations since then, the latest coming in 2010 for Rachid Bouchareb's Outside the Law, set during the Algerian War. (The Battle of Algiers was nominated in 1966, but for Italy because of its director Gillo Pontecorvo.)

In 2005, Hany Abu Assad's Paradise Now was the first Palestinian film to be nominated, bringing with it eye-rollingly predictable noise from over the wall. A complaint by Israeli officials forced the Academy to refer to it as a submission from "the Palestinian Authority" rather than "Palestine". On the night, the presenter Will Smith (who must have wished he'd been given Best Original Score to hand out instead) named it as coming from the "Palestinian territories".

This year, amid some of the most heightened tensions between the two countries in recent times, Israel comes up against Iran in the Foreign Language section. On paper, Asghar Farhadi's family drama A Separation has by far the upper hand against Joseph Cedar's tragicomedy Footnote, having already triumphed at the Golden Globes and received numerous other accolades (including an Oscar nomination in the Best Original Screenplay category as well), but it should still make for a dramatic climax in Los Angeles on Sunday night.

This year also sees the UAE indirectly up for a few awards, too. The Help, Tate Taylor's adaptation of the bestselling book by Kathryn Stockett about black maids working during the civil rights era in the US, might not sound like the most Emirati of tales, but among the co-producers who helped finance the film is Image Nation Abu Dhabi.

One of the past year's unexpected success stories, earning more than US$200 million (Dh735m), The Help is now nominated for four gongs, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Viola Davis and Best Supporting Actress for both Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain.

"Image Nation has a production deal with Participant Media," explains Brunson Green, one of the producers of The Help. "And Participant was the first company that I approached to possibly become involved with the production, because their company mission is to create media that promotes and encourages positive social change."

When the preproduction wheels of the film were about to start rolling, the actual book by Stockett had not yet been published, with the author famously having been unable to find a deal. Green simply had the manuscript to show potential investors. Participant Media signed up, however, and brought Image Nation, which is owned by Abu Dhabi Media, the publisher of The National, with it. "I think Participant figured that The Help would be a really good hit for Image Nation to finance."

But even with Image Nation on-board as co-producers, however, there was still no idea just how successful the film would go on to become.

"We went into this project with the assumption that there would be no international deal," says Green. "You have to hope for the best and expect the worst. But it's been a real pleasant surprise that it has been embraced by so many people all over the world."

Green, along with director Taylor and Stockett, brought The Help to the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in November last year, but the producer was also able to visit Abu Dhabi, where he met with a group of young filmmakers. "A lot of their projects are also about positive social change," he says.

"The funny thing was, that when I was flying back from Abu Dhabi, The Help was showing on the plane, with Arabic subtitles, which was cool."

Thanks to the work of Image Nation - which financed last year's Emirati drama Sea Shadow - and the film festivals and institutions in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha, which are helping support an increasing array of titles from across the region, the future of the regional film industry is looking much brighter.

There is also acting talent - such as Egypt's Amr Waked and Palestinian Ali Suliman - who have made the break into big budget Hollywood titles.

But whether anyone is able to knock Sharif off his 50-year-old lofty perch in the near future remains to be seen. Knowing Sharif, he's unlikely to give up his crown quietly.

 

You can watch the Oscars live on Fox Movies. Coverage begins at 2am on Monday with red carpet arrivals; the awards ceremony begins at 5.30am. A repeat of the event will air the same day at 5pm

 

aritman@thenational.ae