Youssou N'Dour takes stage at MEIFF

Friday also includes competition honors, financing talks

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- A moving documentary on Youssou N'Dour screened Friday at the Middle East International Film Festival and was followed by an open-air concert featuring the famous Islamic performer.

Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's "Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love" follows N'Dour as he creates and releases his album "Egypt," a musical exploration of Islam. N'Dour, who experienced resistance in his home country of Senegal, won a Grammy for the album.

Earlier in the day, emerging Arabic filmmakers were honored at a closing ceremony for the eighth annual Emirates Film Competition. The first and oldest event of its kind in the United Arab Emirates, the competition was set up in 2001 by current Dubai International Film Festival artistic director Masoud Amralla. It became part of MEIFF this year.

The competition focuses on encouraging the emerging Emirati filmmaking community as well as casting its net to encompass filmmakers across the GCC region. A film grant of 350,000 dirham ($95,309) was awarded to Ahmed Arshi for his full-length feature "Undeserved Fate."

Saeed Al Dhaheri, an Emirati screenwriter who had taken part this week in the Circle, MEIFF's film financing initiative, said it is still difficult for local filmmakers to receive the support they need, particularly in terms of lack of training and infrastructure.

"With the film stars, they've brought the attention, but where is the material? It's right to celebrate films, but where are the films that we are going to make? We should push ourselves to do them, the means will come, but we need to do some work," said Al Dhaheri, who hoped the Circle might invest in his project. "The Circle have access to talented people who have movie experience, people like this can help us get (the films) down on paper and made."

With both MEIFF and the Emirates Film Competition awarding generous prizes to emerging talent, an infrastructure to support a viable creative economy is now on the cards for Abu Dhabi.

The recent announcement of a media content creation zone, twofour54, has been seen as a big boost for an emerging media industry, but the main hub will not be ready until at least 2013. Confirmed partners include CNN, Random House, Comedy Arabia, Rotana and Abu Dhabi Media Co.

The BBC has said it will provide training at a temporary first development, opening in early 2009. While a BBC spokesperson would not confirm directly whether Abu Dhabi had funded the training program, she did say that a U.K. television license fee will not be used.

"There will be a training center, and we will send trainers," said Julie Dark, head of BBC Communications for twofour54. "The plan is to source talent locally -- how, is yet to be decided and we're looking at several models; we'll be providing people."

Both twofour54 heads and MEIFF organizers are working toward creating a viable creative economy in the UAE capital. The capital has recently announced a plan to make films with National Geographic. Now, the twin interests of emerging local talent and international filmmakers coming in to the capital must be carefully balanced.

"War Child" producer-director Karim Chrobog said that, at the moment, the money is not being spent in the capital, but taken back to Hollywood.

"I'm (of two) minds on U.S. filmmakers coming here for financing," he said. "I did the same thing -- I came here because I wanted to raise financing for a film, and I think there is a step in the right direction to try and build an industry here. The key is to understand what talent is here, maybe (that means) setting up a fund or that is MENA-related. The message I've heard from local filmmakers here is there needs to be a more cohesive strategy here."