x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Behind the scenes, a familiar face

As director of the Middle East Film Festival, Nashwa al Ruwaini talks to Rym Ghazal about pushing boundaries and her hopes for the event.

On her television programme, Nashwa al Ruwaini makes a point of putting issues facing the Arab world under the spotlight.
On her television programme, Nashwa al Ruwaini makes a point of putting issues facing the Arab world under the spotlight.

Abu Dhabi // The chairs may be comfortable on Nashwa al Ruwaini's prime time talk show, but the issues very often are not. As a well-known face in the Arab media, she is on a mission to push barriers - and has broken quite a few already. "We can't stick to safe topics all the time," she says. "Boundaries have to be pushed, questions have to be asked and answers have to be found." Sometimes described as the Oprah Winfrey of the Middle East, Nashwa, an Egyptian, has become a powerful voice since her debut on Qatari radio 20 years ago.

Chief executive of her own production company, Pyramedia, she was named one of the Arab world's 20 most powerful businesswomen by Forbes Arabia magazine in 2005. At the moment, she is bringing that experience to her role as director of the Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF). She hopes the expanded 10-day event will engage and excite the people of Abu Dhabi. "As an Arab woman in the spotlight, I've had to struggle to be respected and taken seriously," she says. "It is my aim to introduce an idea and have it talked about socially, and have people raise more questions and get some resolutions to the issues."

To this end she greets the viewers of her weekly programme with a warm smile before easing them into such controversial areas as the role of women, religion and social taboos - topics often thought to jar with Emirati sensibilities. "Rape, child abuse, witchcraft - which is frowned upon in Arab and Muslim society - Aids in the Arab world, incest," she says, listing some of the more inflammatory issues raised on her show.

"There are many taboo topics, but someone has to discuss them and bring people's stories to the forefront so people can recognise that this is happening in the Arab world. "It is all about how you approach a topic. We don't try to sensationalise, otherwise we wouldn't have anyone who would be willing to speak about these issues on screen. "Every person has a story to tell and it is sometimes sad, and sometimes fun - but it's always inspiring."

What she wants, she says, is to spark debates between friends, husbands and wives, parents and children. One of the most positive achievements to grow out of the show is the Nashwa Foundation, a charity she established to help disadvantaged women and children. As a mother herself, who admits that she has had a hard time juggling family life with her demanding and very public career, she says women's issues have always struck a chord with her.

"It's hard to do sometimes but I try and find a balance for my son. I enjoy spending time with him and seeing him grow, it is the greatest joy in my life to see him walk, talk and now read. "Everything I do is for my son. He is the reason I strive to be better and do more so I can show him what can be accomplished in this world with hard work and dedication." The hardest issues she has tackled in her career involve children. "When children are concerned, it becomes very tough. Child abuse, rape of young girls, homeless children, orphans, all these are very hard to handle when you hear some of these children's stories."

Having been in the spotlight for 10 years, Nashwa launched her production company in 1998, after stints in London and Cairo for the Middle East Broadcasting Corp. Pyramedia now produces some of the Middle East's highest-rated TV programmes, including the Million's Poet and Prince of Poets competitions on Abu Dhabi TV, with audiences that have reached 70 million. As well as producing programmes, Pyramedia, which has offices in London, Cairo, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and New York, is branching out into casting, and helped secure the role of Saladin in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven for Ghassan Massoud, the Syrian actor.

Despite her many accomplishments, Nashwa says there is still much to be done. "I don't see myself as having reached the top. I still feel like there is a long way to go and I hope the journey never ends." Certainly, for the next two weeks she will have her hands full as she immerses herself in the film festival. "I hope that it gives filmmakers and film industry executives the chance to mingle and, hopefully, set up some great partnerships for the coming years and just that everyone has fun and enjoy themselves."

The event, which runs from Friday until Oct 19, is different from last year, she says. It has been increased from five days to 10 days and the prize money for the prestigious Black Pearl awards has been increased to more than US$1 million (Dh3.7m), one of the biggest film prize funds ever. "The increase in days by itself instantly means that we have a larger and more diverse slate of films that will hopefully get people excited."

The festival has also added an environmental film section and a retrospective, highlighting 60 years of film since the division of Palestine. "Abu Dhabi is establishing itself as a cultural centre for filmmaking in the region and is quickly becoming the main destination for film-makers," she says. "There's the New York Film Academy, the Abu Dhabi Film Fund and now, Imagenation; all of these have been established to encourage the making of films, and MEIFF is another step in focusing attention on the city and its efforts to establish a secure film industry."

Now, all she wants is for the people of Abu Dhabi to nestle down in their cinema seats and enjoy the films - just don't get too comfortable. rghazal@thenational.ae