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Cannes, Venice … and now Dubai

The race is on to build an Arab film industry with a distinctive voice – plus a touch of Hollywood know-how. By Julian Sancton

Sunday December 9, 2007
The Observer

The cinema at the Grand Abu Dhabi Mall, in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, offers a choice of eight films. Six of them are Hollywood blockbusters such as Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. The city’s large Indian expatriate community may be tempted to see a Bollywood musical called Aaja Nachle. The only Arab-language film showing is Khiyana Mashrooa, a crime thriller out of Cairo. None of these films can be said to reflect the sensibilities of the UAE. That’s because the UAE has no indigenous film culture to speak of. That is about to change.In 2004, Hani Al-Shaibani’s Dream was the first major feature film to come out of the Emirates. The story, in which frustrated writers, actors and directors head outside the city to make a film about themselves before losing themselves within it, serves as a metaphor for the difficulties facing the country. The endeavour, however, is advancing at a remarkable speed. Started in 2004, and launching its fourth event today, the Dubai International Film Festival has already become one of the most prestigious film festivals in the Arab world. Just 75 miles down the coast, Abu Dhabi inaugurated its own fest in October, the Middle East International Film Festival.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are vying to become cinema hubs of the Middle East. Both, in recent years, have attracted big US productions: Syriana (2005), shot on location in Dubai, and this year’s The Kingdom, starring Jamie Foxx, in which Abu Dhabi stood in for Riyadh. Both are now luring American media giants to help jump start their own industries.

Every week appears to bring new announcements of eye-popping investments coming from the oil-rich Emirates. But few have been as comprehensive as an alliance made in September between Abu Dhabi and Warner Brothers to co-produce both Hollywood and local films. Dubai has followed suit. Tecom Investments, controlled by the emirate’s ruler Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, is signing deals for co-productions with Paramount Pictures, a theme park with Universal Studios, and local versions of MTV and Comedy Central. And while Abu Dhabi maps out its own ‘media zone’ – complete with post-production facilities and sound stages sponsored in part by Warner, and a film school partnered with New York Film Academy – Dubai has already begun construction on Dubai Studio City, including, yes, a film school.

These developments have been welcomed by budding film-makers. Nayla Al Khaja, 29, is at the forefront of Emirati film pioneers, having overcome a lack of funding – as well as traditional gender roles – to finance her own projects. ‘Infrastructure is not ready,’ she says. ‘There’s an awareness… That’s what’s really happening.’ Al Khaja went to film school abroad, in Toronto, on a UAE government grant. ‘But they also warned me: “When you come back you won’t find a job.” Yet she is one of the only film-makers in the Emirates to make a successful living, which she has done by producing promotional videos for Dubai’s corporate world and redirecting the profits into her own films.

Over the past decade, Dubai, with its dwindling oil reserves, has been spending lavishly to rebrand itself as an international pleasure destination, attracting attention with such projects as the $3.5bn Palm Islands. Although Abu Dhabi has diversified into tourism as well, its oil reserves have given it a cushion to grow in a controlled manner. The city has attracted the first outpost of Paris’s Louvre museum, as well as another branch of the Guggenheim. Abu Dhabi has announced the creation of an English-language newspaper, and there are plans to build a new foreign campus of New York University, with a focus on film and the arts, by 2010.

‘All we’re doing is putting elements into the capital city that other capital cities take for granted,’ says Ron Barrott, chief executive of Aldar, the publicly owned developer involved on almost every front of Abu Dhabi’s dizzying growth, including the deal with Warner. At the heart of the arrangement is the creation of two $500m funds, financed jointly by Warner and the newly formed Abu Dhabi Media Company, to produce movies and video games. Warner will also aid in the construction of film studios and multiplex cinemas as well as a themed hotel and amusement park.

Veteran producer Hunt Lowry will head the new film company. ‘It’s a very exciting place,’ he says of the emirate. ‘It’s the fastest growing country in the world. It’s neat.’ Lowry originally approached Abu Dhabi to raise money for a new film fund after his last venture, Gaylord Films, wound down, but soon saw the region’s potential. Backed by Abu Dhabi cash, Lowry’s company will produce ‘mutually agreed upon, broad-based’ English-language Hollywood fare. The first film to be developed through the company, a teen comedy called You Wish about a genie trying to fit in at a high school, is set to start production soon. The only proviso is that the movies must be able to play in Abu Dhabi, which has stipulations against scenes of overt nudity or drug use. ‘That makes it very easy for me,’ says Lowry. ‘Those are not themes that are attractive to me either.’

The Persian Gulf has long been host to pan-Arab media. But until recently, its cinematic voice was virtually non-existent. In the past few years, however, as oil and gas prices have soared, several countries on the Arabian peninsula have begun to invest heavily in film, with Oman, Qatar and Bahrain each producing their first feature-length movies, and Kuwait financing a series of controversial documentaries. Last year, Saudi Arabia came out with its first two feature films – Abdullah Moheisin’s Shadow of Silence and Izzadore Mussalem’s How Are Things? – despite a 30-year-old ban on cinemas in the Islamic kingdom. (Some are now reportedly under construction.) ‘It’s early days yet,’ says Ali Jafaar, of the Hollywood trade paper Variety, ‘and [Gulf directors] are nowhere near challenging the established film-makers in Egypt, Lebanon or Palestine in terms of cultural impact and international exposure, but it does point towards a potentially exciting future.’

Apart from a few notable exceptions, such as the Algerian war epic Days of Glory (2006) or this year’s Caramel, a heart-warming chick flick out of Jordan, Arab movies rarely travel outside the Middle East. But they are finding wider audiences today through a growing circuit of festivals, from the well-established competitions in Cairo and Marrakech to events in Haifa, Beirut, Antalya, Damascus and even war-ravaged Baghdad.

In its four-year history, the Dubai International Film Festival has been accused of focusing more on celebrity photo ops than celebrating local artists. This year, the DIFF has scheduled a much higher number of Arab and world films.

The challenge facing the UAE’s fledgling film industry is to attract foreign resources while emphasising the promotion of indigenous voices. Abu Dhabi’s Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) has been surprisingly successful in meeting that challenge, lining up a slate of Oscar contenders – including Paul Haggis’s Iraq war drama In the Valley of Elah – and gathering an impressive group of film-makers, agents and studio executives to discuss the investment opportunities of Abu Dhabi in a Film Financing Circle hosted by Harvey Weinstein, while Haggis was invited to teach a master class in screenwriting. On the other hand, the festival paid special attention to local film-makers, offering a wide range of grants and cash prizes, and showcasing the work of Arab women directors.

It is something of a paradox that the UAE is relying on Hollywood know-how to establish its own cinematic voice, given the way in which the Middle East is depicted in American movies. US studios will have released no fewer than eight major films about the conflicts in the region between last summer and next. The Kingdom is currently the most popular film in Saudi Arabia, despite only being available on pirated DVDs.

‘We [all] know how Arabs are portrayed through the media,’ says Ali Mostafa, a 26-year-old Dubai-based director. ‘These are huge misconceptions. There are a minority of people who are doing these [terrorist] acts. At least we have a chance by this medium to tell our story, our side.’ Mostafa is trying to raise an unprecedented $10m-$15m for his first feature, a story of cross-culturalism in Dubai.

Nevertheless, film-making in the UAE remains a daunting enterprise, one undertaken almost exclusively by young talent. Mustafa Abbas, 22, is also in pre-production with a feature-length crime thriller he wrote called Gun. Abbas has found Emirati investors unwilling to devote money to an industry they know very little about. ‘It will definitely change,’ he says. ‘We just need one or two movies to properly release so people can see that OK, this can work.’ For Nayla al Khaja, a central obstacle is the lack of good screenwriting. ‘Forget about the [Hollywood] writers’ strike,’ she says, ‘we don’t have writers.’ And freedom of expression is another issue. ‘For me that’s the struggle,’ says Al Khaja. ‘When I’m writing, I’m always thinking of red lights. I can just see them saying, “No, this is not allowed.”‘ (Three female winners at last year’s Emirates Film Competition were unable to pick up their prizes because the ceremony took place after a curfew imposed on them by their own families.)

Political issues manifest themselves in other ways. Dubai was set to host Ridley Scott’s latest project, Body of Lies. But after the UAE’s National Media Council got skittish over the al-Qaeda subject matter, production moved to Morocco. At this year’s MEIFF, meanwhile, The Band’s Visit, an acclaimed Israeli film, was dropped from the festival’s line-up – allegedly under pressure from an actor’s union in Egypt, which continues to boycott the country’s films.

Warner’s Richard Fox says: ‘If you’re talking about the C word, censorship, we have to deal with that whether we’re in China [or] any country there’s a level of censorship. In that region, you could say almost that the UAE is the most progressive.’ Though the Warner Brothers/Abu Dhabi deal has yet to produce a local, Arab-language film, Fox is optimistic. ‘I think we have a shot – some of these films, they’ll definitely go to Cannes.’

‘We’re trying to catch up,’ says Ali Mostafa of the speed with which this page seems to be turning in the Gulf’s history. ‘We have an amazing culture, and a lot of issues that we could really share with the rest of the world.’

 

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