x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

It's all about new blood

The UAE's developing film industry can learn some valuable lessons from an unlikely place.

JJ Tebrake, from Canada, undersent a make-up session to transform him into a gruesome vampire.
JJ Tebrake, from Canada, undersent a make-up session to transform him into a gruesome vampire.

MEIFF's Turkish film programme, which has been bubbling away throughout the festival and which continues tonight with Pandora's Box, was intended by Peter Scarlet to serve as a model to the UAE's filmmakers for how to get things done. In recent years Turkey has produced a clutch of home-grown, independent and idiosyncratic movies, all rooted in its broadly Islamic outlook. And so, the theory goes, it might make a good object lesson for the budding talents in the Emirates. Still, there's another informal delegation at the festival whose experience may be no less relevant, and they live about as far from Turkey as it's possible to get. Let a thousand flowers bloom, as a not-so-great man once said, but let's not ignore the lesson of the Kiwis.

A couple of days ago the Abu Dhabi Film Commission's head of production and training, Greg Unrau, invited me to consider the similarity between the UAE now and New Zealand as it was a little more than a decade ago. They were, he observed, both small and sparsely populated. They were both slightly out of the circuit of the international film industry. They possessed unique landscapes and encouraging governments. Coincidentally Mark Albiston, the director of the wonderful New Zealand short The Six Dollar Fifty Man, which just played at MEIFF and won a Special Distinction Prize at Cannes this year, recently told me: "I haven't met any other country that supports short films like New Zealand does... It's a really good grounding for the industry." But the other thing New Zealand has going for it, Albiston admitted, the thing that really sets it apart from the UAE at present: "It's very, very easy in New Zealand to get help from people who have come off The Lord of the Rings." The difference, in short, is the Peter Jackson effect.

Jackson's three-part Tolkien adaptation was one of the biggest projects in film history. It took eight years and nearly $300 million dollars (Dh1.1bn). He did it in a country that scarcely had a film industry, so he built one, and its skills have been sustaining Hollywood ever since. Indeed, a chunk of it has been showing off its prowess in the MEIFF festival tent for the past two days. Courtesy of the ADFC and Emirates Film Competition, three artists from Jackson's visual effects company Weta Workshop were demonstrating the art of monster prosthetics. Interested passers-by might have seen fresh-faced Abu Dhabians gradually transmute into vampires, dwarves, or a generic underworld creature. All the while, the effects technician Joe Dunckley did a good impersonation of a sort of infernal TV chef, mixing up potions and explaining to the audience the visible differences between arterial blood, puddled blood and "mouth blood". He also found time, between beasties, to tell me how he got swept up in Jackson's caravan.

Pre-Lord of the Rings, Dunckley had been an amateur artist and sometime construction worker. A Tolkien fan since childhood, he heard that the author's masterpiece was being shot in his home country. Just out of school and not doing much, he signed up as an acting extra. "I enrolled with an agency and said I only want work on Lord of the Rings. I thought they were going to laugh at me." A year later he was on set, fighting in the battle of Helm's Deep. He had a foot in the door. An artist friend put him touch with Richard Taylor, head of Weta. Of the interview, Dunckley says: " It was quite funny. It really reflects how busy he was at the time. He said: 'Why should I hire you?' I said: 'This is the biggest opportunity of my life and I'll do everything to make it right.' He said: 'OK, cool, you've got two weeks to prove it.'" Dunckley never looked back. His recent credits include District Nine and James Cameron's Avatar; his skills have been embraced by the wider movie world.

"My story of how I got in was the story of the growth of the New Zealand film industry," he says. Who knows? Perhaps if we find a Jackson of our own, it can be the story of the UAE's film business as well. Monday furnished another nice example of Kiwis leading the way. Shu Liang is a Chinese-Canadian project manager living in Abu Dhabi. Inspired by MEIFF's environmental programme of films and particularly by the message of the New Zealand documentary Earth Whisperers-Mother Earth (festival blurb version: "a shift in consciousness can have a healing effect on our environment"), she decided to make a point of cycling up to the festival. It appears she was told by security at the Emirates Palace that she couldn't bring her bike up to the hotel. So, she got in touch with Earth Whisperers' director Kathleen Gallagher to see if the pair of them might make a symbolic ride up to the documentary's first screening at Marina Mall together.

Gallagher was game, and on Monday evening she and her partner set out from the Intercontinental on rented bicycles, accompanying Liang to the screening. "It was just a very pleasant bike-ride," says Liang. "Frankly the bike path was pretty empty. The temperature was great and everyone had a good time." Liang just hopes the director's example will catch on. "I would really like to see Abu Dhabi adopt a more bike-friendly attitude," she says. As for Gallagher? Liang reports: "At one point Kathleen turned around and said: This is so much better than sitting in a minibus." One imagines it would be.