Arab business model is independent minded

Region's filmmakers fight for success without studio system

Complete Dubai fest coverage

DUBAI -- From "Pulp Fiction" to "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" to "Four Weddings and a Funeral" -- some of the most memorable films of all time have bore the tag "indie." But for all their diversity, they share a common trait: tight budgets and a lack of major studio support.

For Arab filmmakers, who lack the benefit of a studio system and receive only nominal state support, the indie experience is simply everyday reality.

Most filmmakers here have traditionally looked to the moneyed markets of Europe and the U.S. for financing. In recent years, with the growing importance of the Dubai International Film Festival, filmmakers in the region are discovering a groundswell of support for their art.

One of the fledgling initiatives designed to support indie films is the Scene Club, the UAE's first official film club, an initiative of DIFF and D-Seven Motion Pictures. Founded in 2007, the club's goal is to provide a forum for amateur and professional filmmakers to come together and celebrate independent films.

The monthly screenings of indie films that the Scene Club organizes are a great opportunity for the filmmaking fraternity and audiences to connect, appreciate and support independent productions. At the screenings, one can detect the faint glimmer of a community that is being formed.

Helmed by Nayla Al Khaja, founder and CEO of D-Seven Motion Pictures and a well-known Emirati filmmaker, the Scene Club recently hosted an Italian red carpet night showcasing Emirati and Italian indie films. Nayla's acclaimed short film "Arabana" was screened at the event.

As often as possible, the Scene Club screens its films with the director present -- an exciting opportunity to get up, close and personal with filmmakers. There is animated debate, lively discussion and first-hand look at the challenging world of making films in a country that has little infrastructure to support the art.

The Scene Club is under the patronage of the Dubai International Film Festival and sponsors include Al Qasba and Dubai Culture & Arts Authority.

"We are united by something that is close to our heart," Nayla said. "We also do three workshops a year on acting, screenwriting, producing and directing. My students are on their way to making their first motion picture now."

At the last evening, audiences learned of Nayla's new film, "Once," scheduled to begin shooting in March. "It's a story of a girl in Dubai who has a problem with her relationships. It will be my last short," Nayla said.

It's no secret that regional cinema has suffered from both the dearth of financial support as well as censorship through much of the Arab world. Syrian filmmaker Nabil el Maleh, a recipient of the DIFF Salutes award last year, has never been able to screen any of his works within his home country.

Film distribution is another challenge. Apart from the festival circuit, there are hardly any venues available to regional indie films. Emirati filmmaker Majid Abdulrazak made "Eqaab," a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo," with Dhs 5 million of his own money. Eqaab could only be screened in a handful of theaters before being pulled out.

Abdulrazak said that cinema owners would rather show big-budget offerings from Bollywood and Hollywood. Abdulrazak's second film, "Arabian Sands," based on Wilfred Thesiger's autobiography, was made in English to appeal to a wider audience and find niche exhibition venues.

Finance is often dependent on the subject matter as well. Nayla was able to get Unicef as a sponsor for her short "Arabana" because it dealt with the topic of child sexual abuse. "It's a global and timeless topic, and the film is relevant all over the world to every audience. For my sponsors, that's a lot of mileage," Nayla said.

Indie filmmakers in the UAE are in the process of establishing a cinema that will strictly showcase independent film. Currently, apart from the Scene Club, indie films are screened at Dubai's Third Line Gallery.

Another obstacle is the lack of talent: professional casting agencies, cinematographers, writers, producers and so on. "Any person who can make a five-minute film in this country deserves an Oscar, because he's made it on the back of nothing," Nayla said.

"I would like to correct another misconception. DIFF does not give money to Emirati filmmakers," he said. "It is a platform to showcase our work. Festivals do invite buyers so you can sell your film to them. DIFF has created tremendous awareness and we have access to some really fine films."

Nayla agrees that the market for indie films is growing. She also praises the DIFF Film Market, where indie filmmakers get the opportunity to pitch their projects to financiers. A number of films are selected and financed through this forum. Ali Mostafa, another Emirati film maker, has raised funds to the tune of Dhs 10 million -- an incredible amount for someone who has never made a motion picture (35mm) before.

"Finding the money to make your film is the most challenging part anywhere in the world. But in the UAE, it is probably harder, since we do not have a culture or history of making films," Mostafa said. "The industry is still young but eventually we will catch on. Another challenge would be censorship. It is hard to write a film bearing in mind that we must censor ourselves to suit the standards of the UAE."

Ali believes that the UAE needs to establish a film fund. "Not a fund that is granted to any film-maker, but to one who is well prepared and in some respect will be able to take on the project, either through experience or a great business plan."

He has paved the way for other filmmakers to raise money. "I have no doubt that this film will snowball into something great," Naylas aid.

Ali agrees: "Ultimately, things will change with time in terms of filmmaking. Minds will open and so will the doors to future funding, inshallah."

Shalaka Paradkar is a writer for The Gulf News.

Faces of UAE indie film

Ali Mostafa
His mother is from the U.K. and father from the UAE, and Mostafa grew up in Dubai. Film has always been an integral part of his life. Since his childhood, Ali has experimented with short films and mock TV ads. He pursued his dream in 2003 and enrolled at the London Film School, where he obtained an MA. Over the past four years, Ali has worked on short films and TV commercials.

Film: "Under the Sun" (2005, 23 minutes) Filmed in Dubai, the film follows a 13-year-old Muslim boy through his first day of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan. We gain insight into his understandings, misjudgments and difficulties, and glance at how he copes with his upbringing in an Islamic environment.

Nayla Al Khaja
One of the UAE's best-known female film directors and producers, Al Khaja's break-out debut was the 2004 self-funded documentary "Unveiling Dubai." She also is the founder and CEO of Dubai Media City-based D-Seven Motion Pictures. She believes strongly in the power of film and its ability to change people's lives and to alter their perceptions. She also views film as the best medium to attempt to change the way people in West view the Middle East.

Film: "Arabana" (2006, 6 minutes)
"Arabana" is the controversial story of a little girl neglected by her parents. As the young girl, played by Feriyal Entezari, wanders off into the wilderness, she mistakes the attention of a stranger as love. The film, which was premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival, deals with the consequences of not being attentive to your children.

Waleed Al Shehhi
A member of the Creative Activity Group of the UAE Writers and Literature Union, Ras Al Khaimah, Al Shehhi is also a member of the Reflective Artistic Group. He has directed a number of short films, including "Ahmed Suliman" (2006), "Signs of the Dead" (2005), "Aushba's Well" (2004). He works at the Higher Colleges of Technology, Ras Al Khaimah Colleges.

Film: "The Water Guard" (2007, 11 minutes)
"The Water Guard" looks at birth in a time of drought and won the Special Jury Prize at the 6th Edition of the Emirates Film Competition in 2007.