Arab film financing scrutinized at panel

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- What started out as a general discussion about filmmaking in the Arab world quickly escalated into a passionate dialogue between panelists and attendees about the need for Arab countries to begin supporting their own film sectors.

A lively discussion ensued when attendees spontaneously began lobbing questions at panelists.

Panelist Marianne Khoury, a producer with Egypt's MISR Film, got the ball rolling during Thursday's Models of Production panel when she lamented the current state of film financing in her country.

"Egypt is the oldest film industry in the world," she said. "But it's very hard to find financing through co-productions. Films just don't get made, and that's why there are some frustrated people there."

Another panelist, producer Hania Mroue, a festival director based in Lebanon, echoed that sentiment, adding that viable sources of financing are virtually nonexistent in her country. "Lebanon is a very small market," she said. "We only make two or three films a year, and it is near impossible to generate income from their release."

Compounding matters, she said, was the fact that local producers are all vying for the same sources of financing.

"Raising financing for Arab movies is going down," declared Jean Brehat of France's 3B Production. "Nobody in an Arab market can make a movie unless they're supported by their home country. But Arab countries do not support their own films."

This immediately struck a nerve with many attendees, leading to a frank discussion about the need to develop a pan-Arab financing infrastructure.

When asked why the obvious wealth that exists in the Emirates is not invested in local productions, panelist John Sloss of Cinetic Media stated what to many in attendance seemed obvious: "There's no return on investment," he said. "It's not about the existence of capital. It's about consumption. Films have to make sense financially. Yes, there is money here, but the projects have to be financially viable."

A narrow attitude toward subject matter was another issue frustrating both panelists and attendees, with many voicing concern that financiers from outside the Middle East only appear interested in backing films that reinforce regional stereotypes.

"I cannot make a film (with characters) who wear baggy pants or listen to hip hop music," said attendee Mahyad Tousi, co-founder of Venice, Calif.-based Boomgen Studios.

"We cannot keep producing the same kind of stereotypical Arab films," a clearly frustrated Mroue said. "For instance, in Lebanon we feel as though we have to make films about (war) and conflict. But there are other subjects. We have to create an Arab infrastructure, and it has to be created with Arab money."
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