How Arab Cinema Center Elevates Local Filmmakers Globally

Mad Solutions Exec Suite - H 2017
David Degner

Mad Solutions' Alaa Karkouti and Maher Diab also predict big things for a drama about an Islamic cleric with a passion for Michael Jackson.

Since it was launched, very much as an experiment, at the Berlin Film Festival in 2015, the Arab Cinema Center has quickly become the essential bridge between the Arab film industry and the rest of the world. An umbrella organization established by Cairo-based regional distributor and producer Mad Solutions, the ACC has been descending on festival markets around the world with a growing number of banners under its wings, helping push Arab cinema and acting as a catalyst for co-productions.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter as they were gearing up for the ACC’s third Cannes, co-founders and managing partners Alaa Karkouti and Maher Diab discussed their achievements so far, why Netflix shouldn’t be considered the great white hope for filmmakers and which Arab titles the world is going to be watching over the next 12 months.

How has the Arab Cinema Center developed since Berlin 2015?

ALAA KARKOUTI It’s becoming bigger and bigger. It’s now officially registered in Berlin as a non-government organization. What we’re now doing is really what governments should be doing. The good thing is that the Arab Cinema Center is generating more awareness on all levels of Arab cinema. We’re getting more presence at the festivals we’re attending, not just for films, but more Arab names on workshops, in the markets, panel discussions and also more coverage in the international media. And it’s important how we’re connecting people. It’s helping a lot of projects to move on.

Any particular success stories?

KARKOUTI There is already one project that will begin shooting this summer — the first co-pro between Egypt and Luxembourg. There’s also a new Turkish-Jordanian film, about Syrians in Turkey. And there’s a Saudi-American co-pro. We screened a teaser at the Arab Cinema Lab. The film is moving forward now. There’s another Saudi film by the actress Ahd. She’s wrapping a project. There are many projects that have moved forward.

Why do you think something like the ACC hadn’t happened before?

MAHER DIAB It wasn’t that easy to put all these entities from different jurisdictions together in one place. I think it needed certain connections in the Arab world and with the outside [world], and honestly, it requires a lot of courage, patience and taking the risk to take this step independently without any financial support.

Has the arrival of Netflix as a global streaming video provider changed the landscape for Arab filmmakers?

KARKOUTI Only in theory, because nothing has been affected yet. So far, Netflix has bought only two films — Zinzana and Very Big Shot. But everyone in the industry is now seeing Netflix as the big hope, which is a huge mistake. Because in the end, Netflix isn’t coming to buy everything.

Which Arab films do you think will break out internationally this year?

KARKOUTI There is Sheikh Jackson [about an Islamic fundamentalist cleric with a secret passion for Michael Jackson]. And I expect the Turkish-Jordanian film [will break out], because it’s the first film about Syrian immigrants in Istanbul. And, of course, I’m expecting Beauty and the Dogs, the Tunisian film, which is in Cannes already.

Have the ACC’s objectives changed since its launch?

DIAB Our main objective was always to lobby Arab cinema and culture, but the details have evolved for sure, and things started crystallizing further.

What’s next for the ACC?

KARKOUTI We’re planning a distribution advance to encourage international distributors to take more Arab films. Now we’re working on getting the funds for this. It’s a similar direction to the World Cinema Fund Europe. We’re getting supporters and sponsors; entities that are willing. We’re now gathering the final amount we can get and hopefully can launch it this year.

Is it difficult juggling Mad Solutions and ACC?

KARKOUTI Yeah. It’s madness. But it’s really a passion for us.

This story first appeared in the May 20 Cannes daily issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.