x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The reel GCC is a varied landscape

Despite geographic proximity, the Gulf's film scene ranges from vibrant and government-supported industries to countries lacking cinemas.

The Saudi film Wadjda was directed by the county's first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour.
The Saudi film Wadjda was directed by the county's first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour.

Despite geographic proximity, the Gulf's film landscape is extremely varied, ranging from vibrant and government-supported industries to countries where there aren't even any cinemas.


Although Bahrain might be the first destination for thousands of cinema-seeking Saudi film fans, the country's library of locally produced features is disappointingly small. But there are signs that this could change very soon.

Perhaps the most respected Bahraini filmmaker is Bassam Al-Thawadi, the director of 1990's The Barrier, considered Bahrain's first feature, and the founding member of the GCC Cinema Society and the first Arab Cinema Festival in Bahrain. His 2006 film A Bahraini Tale, which screened at the Dubai International Film Festival and won critical acclaim, was set during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. Early this year, at the 5th Gulf Film Festival in Dubai, Al-Thawadi was handed a Lifetime Achievement award.

Al-Thawadi produced another notable Bahraini film, 2010s Haneen (Longing), directed by Hussain Al Hulaybi. This daring drama took an inward look at issues of sectarianism within Bahrain, centering on a story about two neighbouring Sunni and Shi'ite families, and was screened across the country.

There has been a growing number of short films coming out of Bahrain, as underlined by the healthy number participating in the last Gulf Film Festival. Awards were handed out to one of Bahrain's most active emerging filmmakers, Mohammed BuAli, for his charming Huna London (This is London) and to the student filmmaker Mohammed Ebrahim Mohammed for Sabr Almelh (Patience Salt).

Funding - both from the government and private sectors - has traditionally been the main factor holding production back in Bahrain, but developments over the next couple of years could provide a radical boost.

Earlier this year, the UK-based Twickenham Film Group announced it was to open the Bahrain Film Studios & Academy, which is hoped to be operational by the end of 2013. The facility is intended to be a base for the studio's productions and co-productions, among which is the action-adventure Bulldog Drummond - Hero for Hire, based on the fictional character Ian Fleming is believed to have used as inspiration for James Bond. While production will start in London, Twickenham plans to shoot at least half of the film in Bahrain, with Manama as the backdrop.


In March this year, the annual Muscat Film Festival screened Aseel, which was only the second feature film made in Oman. A story about the struggles faced by Bedouins that was filmed in the country's Eastern province, Aseel was written and directed by Khalid Zadjali who, to the untrained eye, could easily be considered the Sultanate's one-man film industry.

Not only is Zadjali the chairman of the festival and the Omani Film Society, but he also directed Al Boom, which in 2006 became the country's first ever feature. Set in a tight-knit fishing community and inspired by Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Al Boom was shot in Haramyl on the seafront near old Muscat and starred the veteran Oman TV actor Saleh Za'al. It has since been screened internationally.

Although two features and one director might not sound like much, there are hopes that the Muscat Film Festival is helping to inspire a generation of Omani filmmakers and push the industry on. At the last edition, the seventh instalment, the Future Filmmaker contest was launched, which invited college students to create a 10-minute short based on the topic "Naturally Oman".

Efforts such as this competition are slowly starting to bear fruit. March's Gulf Film Festival featured seven Omani shorts, of which four were in the student competition, and the year before had seven entries.


The past couple of years have seen an explosion of interest in Qatar's film industry, with much of the buzz centred on the Doha Film Institute and its now three-event old Doha Tribeca Film Festival.

Alongside the major international names and films that grace the Qatari capital each November, a large part of the focus has been boosting film local production. And there has been an impressive number of films made with the aid of Qatari funding.

Last year's festival opened with Black Gold, the epic US$55 million (Dh202m) adventure part-funded by the DFI which saw a significant amount of filming done in Qatar. While the film was directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starred largely international names such as Tahar Rahim, Antonio Banderas and Freida Pinto, efforts were made to give emerging Qatar talent the chance to work behind-the-scenes, providing vital hands-on experience with major industry names. Other forthcoming big name, DFI-funded projects include Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist and an animated version of Kahlil Gibran's 26-verse poem, The Prophet, being produced by Salma Hayek.

But beyond the headline makers, since 2010 DFI has been pouring money into much smaller films at various stages of production, films not just from Qatar but from the greater Arab region. And some of these have started to gather international notice. Among these is the Egyptian filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh's DFI-funded debut film, The Virgin, The Copts and Me, which was screened in this year's Berlinale after winning Best Documentary at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in 2011.

The DFI has also made efforts in the education side of filming, again within Qatar and the wider region. The DFI Education Team has conducted hundreds of workshops across various elements of the filmmaking industry, including courses with students in Gaza via Skype and a series with amateur filmmakers across countries affected by the Arab Spring.

Earlier this year, Doha made headlines when Kanye West chose to shoot his extended music video Cruel Summer in the city, with assistance from the DFI. The film, which premiered in Cannes, featured a DFI intern - the Qatari Sarah A - in one of the lead roles. The film is expected to head to Doha for the Tribeca festival this November.

While the homegrown Qatari industry is still in its infancy, and the actual Qatari element of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival is yet to make up a significant percentage of the film screened, the activities of the DFI in funding regional filmmaking and supporting regional filmmakers make Qatar one of the most exciting focal points for Arab movies.

Saudi Arabia

Given that cinemas have been banned in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since the 1970s, many might assume its film industry was about as non-existent as its multiplexes. While the country's strict laws have certainly made production opportunities painfully difficult, there have been some exciting developments in recent years and individuals have emerged who are willing to challenge attitudes and work against the restrictions.

In February, Haifaa Al Mansour, the country's first female director, created headlines when she took her coming-of-age drama Wadjda, the first full-length feature to be shot in the country, to the Cannes film market. Although the film - the story of an 11-year-old girl growing up in the suburbs of Riyadh - was made with official permission, Al Mansour had to keep a low profile during production because of the country's strict segregation laws, directing from inside a van away from her actors.

Another noted Saudi filmmaker is Abdullal Al Eyaf, a self-styled "cinema activist" and a regular attendee at regional film festivals. His 2006 documentary Cinema 500km followed a film fan in Riyadh as he travelled to Bahrain to step inside a cinema for the first time. The film highlighted the number of Saudis who travel abroad to watch films, with a Bahraini cinema owner suggesting 90 per cent of his customers were Saudi.

Rather curiously, Cinema 500km - which had its premiere at the Emirates Film Competition in Abu Dhabi - picked up the Golden Palm in 2008 at the Jeddah Film Festival. The festival - a bizarre event for a country without cinemas - was unfortunately closed a year later after pressure from religious conservatives. However, in January this year, optimism was again raised when the Asian Consuls General Club Film Festival came to Jeddah, renewing hopes that the country might soon allow the opening of commercial theatres. In another first, the festival screened Hidden Evil, the first Saudi horror film.

Activists such as Al Eyaf see a changing tide of opinions towards film within Saudi Arabia, with conservative TV shows now showing dramas and even politicians beginning to add their voices to the discussion. If cinemas were to open in the next few years, it seems there could be several locally made films to screen and certainly plenty of people who would want to attend.


Much has been written about the rise of the UAE film industry, and with good reason. Since the birth of the Emirates Film Competition in 2001, local filmmaking has made considerable strides, and the country now boasts a growing catalogue of locally produced films.

Ali F Mostafa's City of Life was perhaps the first full-length feature to hint at what was to come, premiering at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2009 and going on to general release. Since then, we've seen the rise of Image Nation in Abu Dhabi, which has put a significant amount of emphasis on Emirati films (Image Nation is owned by Abu Dhabi Media Compnay which publishes The National). The biggest so far has been Sea Shadow, the coming-of-age drama directed by Nawaf Al-Janahi that premiered at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year and has since been screened around the world.

Image Nation has also been pumping money into major international titles, most notably The Help, Contagion and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. While these may be some distance from being Emirati stories, the Mawaheb internship scheme has given local talent interested in getting involved in the industry the chance to work behind the scenes.

Then there's the rise of the UAE as a location for international productions. By far the most notable case was last year's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, but Dubai has also featured in Syriana and the forthcoming Chinese actioner Dwelling in the Fuchan Mountains, among others, with the production company Filmworks often providing the local support.

But, big name films aside, perhaps the best indicator of the UAE's burgeoning film industry is the rise of the Emirates Film Competition, the Gulf Film Festival and the Emirates Muhr section in the Dubai International Film Festival, as well as the growing number of Emirati filmmakers who make their name in these local events before going on to win awards internationally.

Nujoom Al Ghanem, one of the first Emirati directors who has been making films since the late 1990s, recently picked up global accolades for her feature-length films Hamama and Amal, while Khaled Al Mahmood took his 2010 short Sabeel to awards ceremonies in New York and Miami.

Thanks to the support from the regional festivals, production companies such as Image Nation and an emerging pool of talent, the future is looking extremely bright for the UAE's film scene.

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