Our film festivals thrive - but our filmmakers struggle
The chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, James Gianopoulos, eloquently summed up the reality of the film industry in his keynote speech at The Circle conference in Abu Dhabi last week. He described making films as an "economic opportunity and a cultural imperative". There is no doubt that the creation of film festivals has been a successful economic manoeuvre in the UAE. Through Dubai's thriving International Film Festival and Abu Dhabi's budding MEIFF, the country has embarked on a brilliant public relations strategy that has brought both cities to the forefront of the world's entertainment press. Now the UAE is attracting big names like Spike Lee, Antonio Banderas and Gianopoulos himself, while adding a new cultural dimension to a country that was viewed until recently as solely an economic hub.
But the creation of film festivals is presenting a tough challenge to the UAE's cultural identity and to local filmmakers in general. All major film festivals (Cannes, Toronto, Venice?) were born when an indigenous film industry required a platform for its output. In the UAE, festivals have preceded the industry - rather similar to throwing a "sweet 16" party for a 12-year-old. Both UAE festivals have been conscientious about promoting local cinema by creating Emirati sections in their programmes, but that, if anything, has highlighted the gap in production values between international selections and the passionate yet under-funded attempts of young Emiratis and UAE-based filmmakers who are making cinema out of pocket.
Unlike painting, composing, or writing, cinema has rarely made notable achievements that were not tied to substantial national funding. Filmmaking is an expensive enterprise that requires the involvement of a multitude of skill sets. Time and money is required for research, scriptwriting, script-doctoring, location scouting, casting, lighting, filming, editing, etc. When all of these are attempted from a personal bank account, the outcome is usually a testimony to willpower, but rarely creates a production of high enough value to compete with the films of Europe and North America at our festivals.
It is true that filmmakers can seek money abroad, but the basics of financial partnerships apply to films, too: unless a filmmaker comes to the table with equity in hand, co-producers are unlikely to invest in the project. Egypt's once glorious film industry, characterised by local stories that touched hearts around the world, was only made possible by national subsidies. Spike Lee rightfully asked at The Circle: "Why should Hollywood produce your films and your stories?"
There are only a few international funds open to Arabs with no local subsidies required, but those are minimal and fraught with restrictions. None of them is likely to support a period film about, say, an Emirati family early in the last century who try to survive in the desert after the father perishes on a pearl diving trip. Not enough international appeal for major revenues; but definitely a pearl in this country's history.
Like Canada and the UK, the UAE can only become a true film contributor by creating a national film fund and international co-production agreements. Unlike mere cash, which has often been extended to local filmmakers by benefactors, a film fund also includes the supervision of film professionals who can advise on what is viable and what is not. The team behind a film fund is also entrusted with outlining the cultural vision of a country, the kind of rhetoric it needs to voice to the rest of world, making the film industry a major contributor to a nation's discourse.
Co-production treaties enable various countries to contribute to a project, thereby promising a higher budget and wider distribution. These have been the initiatives behind the glory of much of world cinema. I moved back to the UAE in 2005 when my documentary Being Osama came to the Dubai International Film Festival and I was motivated to stay by its success. The film was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Canadian Telefilm Fund, who both agreed that a film on the tribulations of six men called Osama might alter public opinion and make life for Arab-Canadians easier.
Since 2005, I have become friends with driven Emiratis who want to make films. Each year we meet at festivals, with the same old scripts under our arms, hoping that some of the country's wealth will be directed towards indigenous filmmaking. But that never seems to happen. We were all pleased hearing Jim Gianopoulos speak in Abu Dhabi, but nothing was more impressive than his expression a few silent seconds after he asked the audience how many local feature films are released here annually. My fellow filmmaker Ali Mustafa sought the floating microphone and solemnly whispered: "Zero."
Mahmoud Kaabour is an award-winning filmmaker and lecturer. He is also the managing director of the Dubai-based Veritas Films