x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Film pioneer paved way for others

Yasser al Gergawi, manager of performing arts at Dubai Culture, helped build the Emirates Film Competition.

Yasser al Gergawi, from the Performing arts department, Dubai Culture. Bastikia.
Yasser al Gergawi, from the Performing arts department, Dubai Culture. Bastikia.

DUBAI // When Yasser al Gergawi was a child he wanted to be a famous film director.

Growing up in the Emirates in the 1980s, however, there was no domestic film and TV industry, so he decided to pursue a career that could clear the way for others.

"When I started to follow my dream I faced so many challenges and eventually the barriers stopped me," said Mr al Gergawi, the manager of performing arts at the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority (Dubai Culture). "I decided to do everything I could to take away these obstacles for the people who are where I was 10 years ago."

He was a teenager when he began film directing. His qualification in Applied Media Studies at Dubai Men's College led him to a job on Dubai TV's business channel, where a chance meeting paved the way for one of the budding film industry's most significant developments.

"I remember a situation in 2001 when I went to the Arab Screen Independent Film Festival in Doha and I met Masoud Amralla [the director of Dubai International Film Festival] and we decided we should start a small film club in the UAE," said the 33-year-old Emirati.

They worked hard, making numerous trips to colleges, libraries and schools to organise screenings and to promote local talent.

"The basic framework of a film industry wasn't there," he said. "We had to establish that before we could pursue anything else."

The men helped to found the Emirates Film Competition, which is now recognised as a key part of the international film festivals held each year in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The film competition was still a focus for Mr al Gergawi in 2004 when he took up the role of music, theatre and cinema co-ordinator at Dubai Cultural Council, but once there he extended his work to encompass the other disciplines.

"I have always loved theatre as well as film," he said. "Theatre is life, everything in life is reflected in what we see on stage, and cinema is just a different version of this.

"We learn about each other, we learn about ourselves and we learn about our commonalities and our differences."

At the cultural council, which later merged into Dubai Culture, Mr al Gergawi led the launch of the Dubai Festival for Youth Theatre (DFYT), where teams compete for prizes by performing self-penned and self-produced pieces of theatre in Arabic.

"It started off as just a theatre workshop with 25 participants and a play," said Mr al Gergawi. "But it was so successful we decided to expand the workshop and include five plays. To encourage them further we made it a competition and the festival was born."

Now in its sixth year, the annual event is open to any nationality aged between 15 and 35 years old and features 10 plays. The theatre at the Cultural and Scientific Association in Dubai's Al Mamzar area is regularly packed each October, when it is held.

Salem Bel Youha, the director of projects and events and heritage at Dubai Culture, has known Mr al Gergawi since childhood. He said his friend has always been dedicated to the arts.

"All through our college days he used to spend his own money to do films," said Mr Bel Youha. "Yasser was one of the pioneers, he invested his own money into creating the film industry here.

"His work in theatre is a completion of that. He has created a system for funding for productions and put workable measures in place, he has made a real change."

Mr al Gergawi said he is most proud of the work he has done in theatre. He takes his wife Fatima and their two children Ali, five, and Alya, four, to every play during the youth theatre festival and takes personal as well as professional enjoyment from it.

"Nowadays when people talk about culture here, they talk about the DFYT and it makes me proud," he said. "The idea was to make it an institution to nurture talent and provide support."

He is also hopeful about the appearance of international institutions such as London's Globe Theatre Company and the Puccini Opera Festival, both part of the Abu Dhabi Festival's recent line-ups. "A decade ago I could never have imagined we'd have expanded so much culturally," he said. "The multicultural performances help to increase our knowledge, awareness and appreciation of culture globally."

He added that it was vital for the UAE to bolster home-grown talent.

"Dubai and the UAE have been very successful at creating a multicultural society, but artists at home still don't interact with each other enough," he added. "At Dubai Culture we want to encourage this.

"We have to open up channels of communication so we can grow."

aseaman@thenational.ae