x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

How to sell sand in the desert

As director of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, David Shepheard's role lies in building on the country's fledgling but vibrant industry, boosting the number and quality of films shot on location here, while promoting productions showcasing the culture of the region.

Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National

David Shepheard likes the desert so much he has a large print depicting sand dunes on his office wall. From the window, all you can see are the diggers moving tonnes of yellow dust. Even his business card features an image of the dramatic landscape of Liwa.

It is just as well because as the director of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC), Mr Shepheard's job is to both sell the desert as a location to shoot movies - and help transform part of it into something altogether less barren. If this task were to be dramatised in film, it would be an epic, rather than a short. For while the ADFC is an offshoot of the wealthy Abu Dhabi Government, it faces several long-term challenges in building up the emirate's fledgling film industry, not all of them financial.

They include the high cost of living in the UAE, a lack of available talent and minimal film-making infrastructure. But while the UAE's film industry is very young, it's alive. Two Hollywood features, The Kingdom and Syriana, were partly shot here. And it was confirmed this week that a section of Mission: Impossible IV will be filmed in Dubai - possibly, says Mr Shepheard, with some assistance from Abu Dhabi.

"[Mission: Impossible IV] is a big movie to have in Dubai, so we're pleased that it's going to come. Having a big studio picture, with all the elements that come with it, gives the reputation that the UAE can do these big movies," he says. ADFC had "been in discussions" with Filmworks, a Dubai-based film company working with the producers of the Hollywood movie, Mr Shepheard says. He clearly sees Abu Dhabi and Dubai working on a complementary rather than competitive basis.

"Dubai has a lot more developed industry compared to Abu Dhabi, so we've been networking and making contacts between crews and supply services from Dubai to see how we can service more production in Abu Dhabi. Lots of the international projects will shoot in both places," he says. Yet Mr Shepheard's primary focus is Abu Dhabi. And having been a film commissioner for more than 10 years in his native UK, he can draw on a wealth of experience in helping the industry grow.

He grew up in the edgy, and now somewhat gentrified, Brixton area of south London. "It started off multicultural and it stayed that way with me," he says. "Brixton is a nice place. I get called a tourist by my friends when I go back, which really annoys me." But while his roots are in bustling Brixton, he likes spending his free time away from it all. "I like being out in the mountains, there with the kids with no one around you," he says.

The appeal of being a film commissioner involves both the unpredictable variety and the strict practicalities of the movie business, he says. "It's kind of a mixture of logistics - being able to put things together for a movie and make it work. And there's a different project that comes across your desk every day," he says. "You get to read some amazing scripts, and some not-so-amazing scripts." Before the launch of the ADFC in January last year, Mr Shepheard worked at South West Screen, a regional partner of the UK Film Council. He previously held positions at Eastern Screen, the film commission for the East of England, and the Bristol Film Office, a city-based film commission he headed for more than four years.

But the UK, although hardly a Hollywood or Bollywood, has a fairly established film industry. Abu Dhabi does not - which means Mr Shepheard's role differs significantly from his previous posts. "Traditional film commissions are about collecting and networking all the production infrastructure there is in your locality, and then presenting it outwards, either to the country you're in or internationally to bring more production," says Mr Shepheard.

"We're still in the development phase - of crews, of talented people, of supply services. I can't go to an international producer and say 'come to Abu Dhabi and we'll do everything for you', because there were certain gaps in what we could supply." Another fundamental difference in Mr Shepheard's role as film commissioner for Abu Dhabi is that there are no formalised government incentives to help attract film-makers.

The development of a financial scheme is "still in the research stage", Mr Shepheard says, adding that this singularly is the most important factor in the growth of the industry. The initial development of Abu Dhabi's film industry, and ADFC's role in it, should not be downplayed. And in some ways, Mr Shepheard is playing the role of the classic film commissioner: ADFC has already hosted productions, facilitated location shoots, and has issued, as of mid-September, 85 permits to film in Abu Dhabi this year.

ADFC also organises The Circle Conference, a business-orientated meeting held during Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which runs from October 14-23. The Shasha Grant, ADFC's US$100,000 (Dh367,300) feature film development grant, will be awarded during the conference and an "education day" will promote the movie industry to students. All of these initiatives are designed to boost the number of films made in Abu Dhabi. And yet, ADFC is still highly selective about the type of film it encourages to be made here.

At the ADFC offices in Abu Dhabi's media zone twofour54, there is a modest pile of scripts stacked behind the film commissioner's desk. Mr Shepheard says this year alone, scripts for 10 films by big international studios have passed the ADFC's initial assessments to be shot here. But more than 10 scripts have been rejected. And this points to another complexity of Mr Shepheard's role: his job is not just to encourage films to be made in Abu Dhabi but to encourage the right type.

"Our agenda is to develop a wider film industry, and not be known for just having one type of movie shot here," he says. Part of his mandate is the "promotion of Arab culture through film".This partly explains why movies such as The Kingdom and Syriana were permitted to be shot in the UAE, but others such as Body of Lies and Sex and the City 2 were not. "There's no agenda as far as I know about banishing certain types of films," he says. "Anything is welcome to be pitched to see if it could be filmed here. But why not try to find stories [from the Middle East] that could travel internationally, rather that just keep on trying to do war movies, or terrorism-based movies?

"We pre-filter [a script] before it goes through an official government channel to get an approval or not. It's our job to work with a producer and say 'look, this is going to be a problem'. There are certain cultural sensitivities to the country, and we have to respect it." Abu Dhabi's film commissioner says that having 10 international films on the table "is not enough". But he expresses hope over the subject matter: by Hollywood standards, some of the scripts he is receiving present the Middle East in a more nuanced fashion.

"They're not trying to shoehorn a North American-set movie in an Arabic country," he says. "They've developed story lines that have an Arabic, Middle Eastern flavour. And that's great, because they're opening their minds to how a story can be set out here." Like the view from Mr Shepheard's office window, Abu Dhabi's film industry is changing. As more and more film studios get built in the capital, something colourful is emerging from the sand.