A festive time for Mideast film biz

Arab filmmakers rethink their post-9/11 world

Whatever the tragic repercussions of Sept. 11, in the Mideast it did spark at least one positive development: a wave of cinematic energy and creativity has engulfed the region. From Amman to Abu Dhabi, Cairo to Casablanca, filmmakers have been newly inspired to take on themes and push boundaries that heretofore were either overtly off-limits or subtly discouraged.

And perhaps just as important, local government agencies are encouraging local film festivals, film funds and complexes in the region to first foster and then showcase the results of this new, more open-to-the-world cinematic explosion.

Take the hubbub going on in Abu Dhabi.

Little more than a hastily assembled oil city a decade ago, the capital of the United Arab Emirates is refashioning itself as a regional hub for culture and the arts. That makeover includes the new Middle East International Film Festival, which unspools Oct. 14-19.

"The festival is really a culmination of all the efforts going on to support cinema as an art form," fest director Jon Fitzgerald says. "There has historically not been a lot of art house or international film presented here. The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage has increased efforts to support film here and in the Mideast; they have unveiled a film commission, a film fund, various educational initiatives and now the festival."

Abu Dhabi's equally eager neighbor Dubai, an hour's drive away, also has been busy. Not content with shoring up its oil-free future with other business development, Dubai is trying to place itself firmly on the map as a credible center for film in the region.

The Dubai International Film Festival, now in its fourth year, is cementing its reputation as a key event on the international fest calendar. Artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali has watched the fledgling industry take off, and many credit him as having molded it. An expert on Arab film, he helped create two of the UAE's film competitions.

"I worked in Abu Dhabi for the Emirates Film Competition, which was dedicated to films from the Emirates and the Gulf Cooperation Council," Al Ali says. "Six years ago there were almost no films being made. Now, annually we have something like 120 films — shorts done by students and amateurs as well as by established filmmakers."

The first film festival in the GCC, the EFC is now complemented by the MEIFF in Abu Dhabi and DIFF in Dubai (Dec. 9-16).

"These festivals have absolutely been instrumental in bringing out talent," filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja says. "One encourages the other. It's like cooking something on a low heat — eventually you're going to be ready to eat. And that is what is happening now."

Al Khaja is at the forefront of the first generation of filmmakers in the UAE benefiting from a burgeoning infrastructure. The UAE's first female director and producer, Al Khaja and her company, D-Seven Motion Pictures, signed an $18 million deal in June with Italy's Istar to produce three feature films. The first of these, "Rumi," is slated to start filming in January.

"As more films are made locally, the industry will grow. When I started out and was a student, I was told: 'You know, nobody has ever applied for a scholarship to study film. You can do it, but when you come back, you won't get a job.' I said: 'That's fine, I don't want a job. I want to come back and be a pioneer.' "

Supporting local talent is just one tenet of Dubai Studio City, the massive production and broadcasting project that is aiming to help kick-start Dubai's broadcast industry.

Dubai Studio City is building a cluster of companies to service the film and TV production sectors, everything from postproduction facilities to dubbing and makeup offices. The idea is to cement a long-standing relationship with Bollywood, while attracting new projects from the region and Europe.

Nearby, in Jordan, the Royal Film Commission is taking a different tack by promoting the existing assets of the tiny kingdom.

The war in neighboring Iraq has had one unexpected side effect: A slew of Iraq-related documentaries, TV films and movies have recently been shot here, including Nick Broomfield's "Battle for Haditha," Brian De Palma's "Redacted" and Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker." The Royal Film Commission, supported by Jordan's media-friendly royals, forms the core of the country's film services industry.

"Jordan offers plenty of advantages that are attractive to international film directors, aside from the unparalleled, breathtaking landscapes," RFC's production services manager George David says. "Technical and artistic talent can be sourced locally, and we have diverse historic and religious locations set in a safe, secure and stable political environment."

The RFC also is planning a studio complex, to be flanked in September 2008 by the region's first film school, the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts.

"The industry has been dormant for years, but since January this year seven features have been filmed here, compared to one feature in 2006 and none in 2005," David says. "The next year or two will be key in how Jordanian cinema will be shaped and characterized."

Helping to shape Jordan's industry are several emerging players.

Munir Nassar, CEO of International Traders, provides production and location services to major shoots, including "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "Redacted." Fadi Sarraf, CEO of Sandbag Prods., provided production services to Amin Matalqa's "Captain Abu Raed" and "Hurt Locker."

Sandra Kawar, barely known outside her home country, is one of the kingdom's brightest lights; the writer-director is in preproduction on Jordan's first $100 million movie.

" 'The City of Lost Spirits' is the epic story of Petra, the 'rose-red' city," Kawar says. "Several Hollywood names are being lined up to star, a joint effort between my production company, the Blaze Agency, and U.K.-based Unizzare Prods."

And while Egypt traditionally has been the most active cinema hub in the region, Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco are now playing a bigger role, turning out more commercial and more thoughtful fare.

"I don't know what the reason is — maybe the last war saw the filmmakers fed up and wanting to say something," Al Ali suggests.

Not that everything or every country in the region has made it consistently easy for filmmakers.

"Lebanon appears to be an open society, but behind the facade, there is still fear," director Nadine Labaki says. "I didn't intend to make a political film, but in Lebanon, everything has become a political act."

Currently doing the festival rounds is "Caramel," Labaki's portrayal of five women in a salon, which played in the Camera d'Or at Cannes in May.

Last year, Philippe Aractingi's "Bosta," about a dance troupe that takes a school bus on a tour of the region, was a hit.

"Because of the lack of infrastructure and funding, each film is an adventure," says Michel Kammoun, director of the Lebanese hit "Falafel." "We are a very young industry, but a promising one."

Filmmakers cite Sept. 11 as a key reason for the sudden spurt in filmmaking.

"Definitely, 9/11 has been a factor," says Haifa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first female director. Currently writing her first film script since the documentaary "Women Without Shadows," she is one of a handful of filmmakers in the closed kingdom. "Unlike other Mideast countries, here there are no cinemas at all, no film industry. In Saudi, there are very few filmmakers, and all of us are self-taught."