x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Film festival 'history in the making'

New York Film Academy-Abu Dhabi students set up, shoot and direct their own films in the first week of classes. Laroush Nasser, left, takes a light meter reading while Mohamed Kaddas, a first-year acting student, performs a prison scene.
New York Film Academy-Abu Dhabi students set up, shoot and direct their own films in the first week of classes. Laroush Nasser, left, takes a light meter reading while Mohamed Kaddas, a first-year acting student, performs a prison scene.

ABU DHABI // The curtain will fall on the second Middle East International Film Festival with tonight's closing ceremony, but it is just the opening credits for the UAE film industry. Nashwa al Ruwaini, the festival's director, said its success was "beyond our imaginations". "We have a film fund, a film commission, a research circle and a film institute - and that's not to mention all the other private investments that are going on. This is truly history in the making."

For the past 10 days, Abu Dhabi has hosted international film stars, directors and other cinematic professionals. But behind the scenes, the industry has been gaining momentum for some time. The New York Film Academy-Abu Dhabi opened in February promising to help create cinematic stars of the future with classes in film production, direction and editing. Imagenation, an arm of Abu Dhabi Media Company (parent company of The National), recently agreed to develop up to 18 films over the next five years with a budget of US$250 million (Dh918m).

In addition, Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) has set up the Circle, which is a year-round initiative aimed at giving young filmmakers a start. Speaking at a conference during the festival, Mohamed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, vice chairman of the festival and director general of Adach, said: "We believe that we are in urgent need for the cinema industry, should we wish to elevate our culture and societies."

It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that the film industry sprang up overnight. In 2001, Abdallah Bastaki founded the Emirates Film Competition, which gave filmmakers in the region their first opportunity to show their work. "Seven years ago we decided to find out whether there was an interest in film," said Mr Bastaki. "Within a short period we had so many short films submitted that we launched the competition.

"Over the years it got bigger and bigger and when the Dubai film festival started, we worked hand-in-hand with them. Slowly the idea for MEIFF developed and now everyone is talking about it. The Emirates Film Competition is also heavily involved in all the other developments, such as the New York Film Academy, the film commission and the Circle." The film competition has three branches: a competition for GCC nationals; one for anyone living in the Emirates whose film is about the UAE; and the Emirates Film Grant, which gives young film-makers financial help to buy equipment. More initiatives for local film-makers are planned.

Khaled Subaihi, a member of Adasa, a programme that helps Emirati film-makers improve their production and writing skills, said Emiratis had much to contribute to the global film industry. "Emirati culture has always been rich in terms of storytelling but in the past this has been by mouth, through the tradition of poetry. What we have lacked until very recently is the technical capacity to transform our stories into film," he said.

"Now, with programmes like Adasa, we are being taught everything, from the basics of story structure to camera work, and we are at the turning point. I hope that within a few years we will reach international standards." To bridge the gap between local talent and international expertise, Ms Ruwaini said the key was not to focus on one specific group. "For this film festival there have always been three circles of interest, local, regional and international. But we never focused on one. We just wanted to facilitate good cinema.

"By doing so we hope that we bring people from all over the industry, and not only attract international attention, but benefit everyone here too." aseaman@thenational.ae