Cameras rolling at Abu Dhabi film school


Budding students of cinema can now enroll for study in an unlikely new destination for film — the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

The New York Film Academy in Abu Dhabi, which opened its doors a month ago, is the latest addition in a multilayered push by the oil capital to reinvent itself as a regional hub for culture and film.

The film school, which maintains branches in Europe and the U.S. — including Universal Studios in Los Angeles, New York and Harvard University — has been seeking to expand into the Middle East for some time, according to John Sammon, former director of education at the NYFA at Universal Studios and head of the new school here.

"We've always looked at laying down roots in the Middle East, and when the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage approached us, it just seemed like the most logical thing to do," Sammon said. "There's a lot going on in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, in terms of investments in film and cinema — Warner Bros., Abu Dhabi Media Co. and Harvey Weinstein have all invested here. We're their project."

With the success of the Dubai International Film Festival, Abu Dhabi's leaders are keen to keep up with its attention-grabbing neighbor. The desert city has added the high-profile school to a list of film credentials that includes its own fest, the Middle East International Film Festival, which launched in September.

"We're tied in with MEIFF because that's ADACH's newest film project," Sammon said. "We're also a supporting partner of the Dubai International Film Festival, we are supporting a number of grass-roots events. It's important that we be as entrenched as possible in the film industry and film education as possible."

As the first school of its kind in the region, applying a largely Westernized curriculum to Emirati students has proven a challenge on some levels, Sammon said.

"There are some big cultural differences between your average student here and Universal Studios," he said. "It's a challenge ... but I don't think of it as a negative challenge. They've got the equivalent knowledge of many of the same films that American students have seen. They're not behind, its not like films have been illegal here, so that kind of passion for storytelling, understanding of cinematic arts, is what's important."

But is the conservative capital, where criticism of the government remains a no-no, really ready to foster a global film industry?

"I do think it's ready," Sammon said. "I can certainly criticize American culture and politics because that is what I know, but I can't speak out of turn. Regardless of individual perceptions about what freedom is or should be, film has always been about communication — so when people communicate, it helps educate about our respective cultures and differences."