Even when he was in fourth grade, Tariq Al Kazim was always lugging around a video camera. It’s his earliest memories of falling in love with making movies.
The 19-year-old Emirati, who is a senior at Dubai National School, just got his acceptance into a Canadian film school. And he is preparing to submit one of his films to the Gulf Film Festival for the first time. "Everyone watches movies, definitely more than they read novels," Al Kazim says. "It’s a good way to send out a message."
Students across the Middle East are turning to film and video with dreams of making the next blockbuster or Emmy-winning documentary. Partly because of the events of the Arab Spring in the past year and the dramatic images that have been central to the revolutions. But also because many want to tell their stories, and feel there is an audience that is willing to watch and listen.
Spurring ambitious filmmakers on are the new resources available to them. In the past few years, the Gulf has become host to major international film events, including the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. The New York Film Academy has set up in Abu Dhabi, and Abu Dhabi-based Image Nation is building the country’s film industry, while financing and producing international films, such as Contagion. Dubai also received worldwide attention as a setting for the Tom Cruise action film, Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol.
Young Emirati filmmakers have had the chance to present at these film festivals, and some have produced documentaries that explore culture and community issues in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while others have filmed shorts that explore topics such as obesity, and the declining use of the Arabic language.
Al Kazim says the opportunity to create a better understanding of Emirati culture is a big reason why he wants to be in film. "[For example,] I want people to understand that you can’t just look at one Emirati and say they’re all the same… there’s no such thing as a perfect country, people aren’t all perfect either, but you can’t say they are all bad."
Student Films Shine
Salma Serry was among the first batch of graduates with a film minor from the American University in Sharjah (AUS). She submitted three entries to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year. Her documentary, 6 on 18, about her experience of returning to Egypt after the fall of the Mubarak regime, won first prize in the student short documentary segment.
She notes that staying away from her country during the revolution, especially as she’s also a journalist, was one of the hardest things and the documentary just fell into place when she went there. Serry, who entered a film festival for the first time, also bagged an award for her short narrative, Dinner #7665.
Dubai Men’s College media student Mohammad Ghanim Al Marri saw his dream come true when his short documentary, Al Seefah (The Beach), was selected for a showing at last year’s Cannes International Film Festival in France.
Later, Sharjah Higher Colleges of Technology media student Fatima Musharbek, won the award for the Best Documentary Film (International Competition section) at the X-Open Film Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia for Rabbit Hole, a 22-minute documentary film.
These students are among a new crop whose movies have been well received at film festivals. At the Gulf Film Festival, held last April, 12 of the documentaries that were screened were student-produced, including seven films from the UAE and five from Iraq.
"The Arab world has a rich goldmine of creative talent, as yet untapped," said Masoud Amralla Al Ali, director of the Gulf Film Festival, in a statement. "Their approach to film is radically different as they explore the society through their youthful eyes and outlook. The documentaries selected for the student competition at the Gulf Film Festival bring out fresh dimensions — both in filmmaking techniques and in their content."
There’s an array of choices for young students, keen on breaking into the UAE film industry with places like the New York Film Academy offering yearlong programs in filmmaking. Other places like Katarat, a Dubai-based production company, focus on involving young Emirati students in the industry by offering a range of filmmaking courses and competitions.
Nearly 25% of the students who enroll for a film minor at AUS are Emiratis, the school says, and the courses are popular with students from all majors, whether they are in engineering, business studies or mass communications.
Magy Saeed, director of talent development at Katarat, explains that students who participate in their annual ‘My Film, My story’ contest get 20 hours of training in filmmaking. What never fails to surprise her is the progress the students make with even such little training. And those who do really well can opt to take on more specific courses in screenwriting, production and editing.
Promoting Local Talent
The film industry in the UAE is a nascent one, but it has the resources of the oil-wealthy state behind it. In addition to Image Nation, another media initiative out of the capital is its Twofour54 entity, which is investing heavily into developing the infrastructure for film and video production. Earlier last year, it announced the launch of the region’s first 3D-production lab and also the Arab Film Studio, aimed at promoting local talent.
Jack Swanstrom, assistant professor at the American University of Sharjah’s College of Architecture and Design, says earlier there was a lot of attention placed on the fact that movies were being made, no matter what kind of film it was. With the emergence regional film festivals, he says, people expect a "higher quality product, even from student filmmakers."
Young filmmakers in the UAE are widening their audiences, he adds. "We’re beginning to break outside of the envelope. We have films in Doha, Jordan and even Egypt…and people are beginning to take notice."
Swanstrom adds that despite the taboo social subjects the Emirati filmmakers tackle, they’ve managed to retain support because of their sensitivity to the subjects. "It’s easy to throw a grenade in the middle of the room and be insulting, but [the students] are looking at [these topics] from a careful and considered perspective," he says.
The UAE’s independent cinema scene is replete with filmmakers tackling topics that need to be talked about, but Rashid Al Marri, a Fulbright scholar studying for a master’s in media studies in New York City, says more focus needs to be put onto the Emirates’ commercial cinema industry.
Al Marri, who is a filmmaker himself and has worked with the Abu Dhabi Film Festival as a content producer, says UAE filmmakers should also be looking towards creating movies on an international level rather than solely targeting a local audience. After his master’s degree, he hopes to come back here and work towards creating an industry for commercial films. The most successful Emirati film to date has been 2009’s City Of Life.
"It will probably be some time before large-scale, big budget movies are being made on a regular basis," Swanstrom says, simply because there’s an economic downturn and film commissions are somewhat scaling back as a result.
Currently what’s developing in the UAE he says is a guerilla film scene, with a lot of young and upcoming filmmakers going out there and making their own movies rather than waiting for financing or for a studio to produce their films. It’s largely possible, he adds, since video technology available is so advanced now that they really can do it all on their own.
Khalid Al Abdulla, a 22-year-old applied communications graduate from Dubai Men’s College, is one such guerilla filmmaker. After graduation, he didn’t let the lack of jobs available in the field stop him from going after what he wanted. He opted to freelance instead and take up all sorts of projects that involve directing, editing and production.
While it’s not the easiest of career choices, he says he’s found a way to make it work, using his bedroom as his studio and having his own equipment to carry out the projects.
Al Abdulla, who has taken up courses with the New York Film Academy and undergone a training workshop with Image Nation, says the industry is still developing and filmmakers here are still learning, pointing out that this is exactly why it’s key that filmmakers educate themselves on what cinema really is.
While there may be many who enjoy being behind the camera, few understand the techniques they need to use to produce a high-quality product, he says, adding that it’s only when young filmmakers get the right kind of training will they be able to produce bigger and better films.