x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Finding the funding for the UAE film industry to truly star

Before the credits roll on the Dubai International Film Festival, Jessica Hill examines the health of the UAE film industry.

The Emirati director and producer Nayla Al Khaja believes that changes are needed to turn the UAE film industry into a success story. Sarah Dea / The National
The Emirati director and producer Nayla Al Khaja believes that changes are needed to turn the UAE film industry into a success story. Sarah Dea / The National

The UAE has become an international hub for many industries – air travel, tourism, education and health care are all booming. But what of its film industry? Of course, we have the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, as well as the Dubai International Film Festival, which finishes tomorrow. Both have become major showcases of films from around the world.

When it comes to making films, Dubai Media City was created 12 years ago and now has 1,800 companies that have made more than 7,000 media productions. But the vast majority of those have been TV shows and commercials, not feature films.

The most famous blockbuster film so far to have been shot on UAE soil, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, featured awe-inspiring bird’s-eye perspectives of Dubai as Tom Cruise dangled from the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, showcasing the city and providing an inestimable boost for tourism. Twofour54 might be hoping that Fast & Furious 7 will do the same for Abu Dhabi when production eventually resumes after the death of its star, Paul Walker. But these are Hollywood, not home-grown, productions.

But while both the Dubai and Abu Dhabi film festivals offer generous grants to budding UAE filmmakers, the amounts are nowhere near the millions of dollars required to produce full-length feature films. Raising that kind of capital requires the talents of a producer.

Ammar Al Khrisat is the CEO and founder of Alcatraz, a Dubai-based production company that specialises in film, TV and commercials. He sees one of the main problems as being a lack of talented film producers in the country. “We are trying to find producers, but so far we still have this problem. TV commercials are still the bread-and-butter for production companies based here,” he says.

The Dubai-based director and producer Nayla Al Khaja agrees. “The one missing component is the lack of experienced producers in the UAE, to raise funds – people who understand the longevity of projects.” Al Khaja’s company, D-Seven Motion Pictures, specialises in TV commercials and corporate films, but she’s also now actively trying to get home-grown feature films made.

“I am trying to create a fund that’s realistic, that can support the local industry and potentially make a return on investment,” she says. Her company is currently putting together a horror flick based on a local urban myth and another movie about a heist, both of which will be filmed at locations in the UAE. Each movie will use a cast of UAE actors, but with one big-name poster face to create publicity.

“What we need is lots of films being shot here that people based in the UAE can watch and learn from. And we need a good film school in Dubai for them to learn their profession,” Al Khaja says.

A decade ago, when Al Khaja wanted to follow her dreams of studying to become a filmmaker, there was nowhere to study film in the UAE, so she took a scholarship from Ryerson University in Canada. Nowadays, emerging filmmakers have more choices than Al Khaja had, as the education system in the UAE has been gradually catching up to the needs of the film industry. In Abu Dhabi, NYU offers courses in filmmaking, as does the New York Film Academy, which this year has started a partnership with Zayed University to offer an MA in communications specialisation in filmmaking, which includes a six-week course in the principles of film production. TwoFour54, in conjunction with Image Nation, and Dubai Films also both run training programmes for budding filmmakers.

The rising tide of Emirati filmmakers is reflected in the fact that the Muhr Emirati section of the Dubai International Film Festival, which is dedicated to short films made by UAE talent, has doubled in size this year. One of these filmmakers is Nujoom Al Ghanem, whose documentary film Red Blue Yellow details the everyday life of the acclaimed artist Najat Makki. She says: “In our universities, we have lots of media departments and, of course, part of media is to produce shorts for TV. Having film festivals in the UAE provides the channel for these films to be screened. So, logically, you will have lots of Emiratis attending and participating in the film festival this year. My only concern is do they get the right education, the right preparation for film making – I mean for cinema, not the TV industry. We need to see people who understand film and who are able to be at that level and that standard.”

Several of the filmmakers in this year’s festival, including Al Ghanem, say that they are still trying to get funding to make the feature-length films that they have written.

Nayla Al Khaja wants the Government to do more financially to support these fledgling filmmakers. “The Dubai Government has spent billions on infrastructure, but you need culture, because that’s the soul of the city. The government should set up some sort of grant for local films. I want the government to put in the first dollar. They could give Dh100,000 and ask private companies to match it.”

But Jamal Al Sharif, the chairman of the Dubai Film and TV Commission, says the problem is that the Government only wants to help films with ROI (return on investment) potential. “I haven’t seen local films with ROI yet,” he argues.

Al Khaja also bemoans the fees that private companies pay to allow film shooting on their premises, which make the costs of producing a film in the UAE hard to bear. “You pay insane fees here. People don’t distinguish between shooting a small-budget movie and shooting a Pepsi commercial – you still pay the same. It costs Dh30,000 per day to shoot a film in a Dubai mall. That’s not acceptable. We need to streamline the system, to distinguish between commercials and movies.”

UAE filmmakers also complain that film distributors will not consider Arabic-language films.

Al Sharif agrees that film distributors in the UAE are a problem: “In the cinemas, it’s Hollywood, Hollywood, Hollywood and Bollywood ... not Arab films.”

Al Khaja adds: “It’s the English language that travels the world. Arabic-language films are much harder to distribute.”

But the success of the recent Saudi film Wadjda proves that a Gulf country can produce a cultural film in Arabic that’s worthy of international attention.

Sébastien Aubert is the managing director of Ad Astra Films, a distributing company that has been working with Twofour54 on Arabic short films since 2011. His company has been bucking the trend by helping Emirati films such as Tooth of Hope and Feeding Five Hundred to win awards and reach an international market.

“A big problem is that, in most local films, the filmmakers have to pick a foreigner to play a local girl, because Emirati females don’t want to be seen on the screen. But this doesn’t work, because the foreign actresses speaks a different dialect,” he says. “Also, using local Arabic music works well when it’s screened here, but doesn’t go down so well when it’s screened at an international level. Often, when I screen films at international film festivals, people tell me they don’t like the music, so I have my own composer redo it.”

But despite the hurdles over which industry players have to jump to get films made and onto the international scene, filmmakers are still hopeful for the future.

“The industry is still so young. Bollywood just celebrated its 100 year anniversary,” Al Khaja says. “But Dubai is a savvy, business orientated city, so we will catch up. If you look back 10 years, the conversation would have been very different – we had nothing then. Now, the milestones have changed.”

The Dubai International Film Festival ends tomorrow. For more information on schedules and showings, visit www.diff.ae

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