Arab cinema ready for its world close-up

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Is Arabia the next big thing on the world cinema map?

Films from the pan-Arab world might be largely absent from the Berlinale lineup this year, but growing success on the international stage suggests that distributors and festival programmers will be paying close attention to the region in the coming years.

Amin Matalqa's drama "Captain Abu Raed," billed as the first feature film out of Jordan in decades, won the World Cinema Audience Award last month at the Sundance Film Festival and is one of several Arabic-language pictures likely to secure U.S. distribution in the near future.

"I think there's lots coming out of the region, and we're looking at a lot of projects from there," said Emilie Georges of Paris-based Memento Films, which is selling Philippe Aractingi's Lebanese drama "Under the Bombs" here at the European Film Market. "I think Lebanon is the most interesting territory at the moment. The quality of technicians and production infrastructure is a bit more professional than in other territories in the region."

French producers and sales companies frequently are in the pole position as Western partners on projects hailing from North Africa and the Middle East, largely because of France's historic ties with countries in the region.

"Each territory has its own history, and France has a specific relationship with most of those countries," Georges said.

This relationship has resulted in growing commercial success, like the Lebanese romantic comedy "Caramel," produced by French indie Les Films des Tournelles. Directed by and starring Nadine Labaki, the film has sold 500,000 tickets in France, making it the top-selling Arabic-language film there.

"I don't think 'Caramel' is seen as an Arabic film," said Raphael Berdugo of Roissy Films, which is selling the title. "It's certainly Oriental, Mediterranean and warm, but it's essentially a film about women. Its strength is its universal appeal. It's a new take on Lebanon; there's no mention of bombs and conflict.

"It's sure that 'Caramel' will create a kind of event in the Arab world," Berdugo said. "It shows that a certain kind of cinema can export."

The film has sold to North America, Latin America, South Korea, Australia and most of Europe.

Loic Magneron, head of Gallic sales company Wide Management, cites subsidy programs like Euromed as a boost to production from the region. The Euromed fund is specifically earmarked for Arabic-language film and can be worth $20,000 or more for a film released in France.

"It's significant," Magneron said.

Wide also handled international sales on Aractingi's previous movie, "Bosta," one of the first films fully financed from within the region. It went on to become the biggest-grossing Arabic-language film in Lebanon.

"Now financiers are saying we can back Arab cinema, it can work and it can export," Magneron said.

H said events like the Dubai International Film Festival are helping to bring Arabic cinema out of a ghetto. "Previously, Arabic cinema just meant Egyptian," Magneron said. "Now it has earned its wings as a cinematographic region in its own right."

He reported strong interest on Mahmoud al Massad's Jordan-set documentary "Recycle," about an ex-mujahideen, especially since it picked up a best cinematography award at Sundance. The company also is starting sales in Berlin on "Falling From Earth" by Lebanese helmer Chadi Zeneddine.

"Abu Raed" was produced by Los Angeles-based David Pritchard, a former corporate financier who has used his experience in the region to persuade investors to back film and TV content.

"I felt very strongly that the money had to come from Jordan," Pritchard said. "We had to educate the Jordanian investment world that this is a business, that they can export product that they make and it sells all over the world."

He raised the $2 million budget in two weeks.

Pritchard plans to start shooting early in the summer — again in Jordan — on "Safety," a drama about a young boy in war-torn Iraq. The film will be distributed by the Little Film Co.

"I want to try to do at least one if not two films a year for the next 10 years in the wider Middle East," he said.

Pritchard said he has three rules: no politics, no religion and no terrorism.

"I don't want to make films about things that we can see on the news," he said. "There's so much tragedy and so much horror that comes out of that part of the world — and much of it because the West has mismanaged the relationships with them, we haven't understood their core values. What I would urge investment companies and political leaders (in the Arab world) is to encourage investment in your own arts, create an indigenous industry that sells your country's culture and values to the rest of the world. Demonstrate that you're part of the human race, which they are."
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