Rise of Arab talent under the spotlight at Venice Film Festival

Regional cinema is about to have its moment, say those working in the industry

Behind the Mountains, directed by Tunisian auteur Mohamed Ben Attia, premiers at the Venice Film Festival this year. Photo: Luxbox
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Film festivals are always a perfect moment to take stock. At this year’s Venice festival, moviemaking talent in the Arab region has fallen under the spotlight.

Held at the Lido’s Excelsior Hotel on Saturday, the panel The Golden Time For Arab Talents Regionally and Internationally proved an absorbing collaboration between the Arab Cinema Centre and the Venice Production Bridge. The aim was simple – to explore the inexorable rise of Arab talent in the global film business.

Hosted by Lebanese TV personality Raya Abirached, the feeling among the panellists was overwhelmingly positive. “If you look back at the past 30 years, you’ll find every region had its moment,” said Egyptian screenwriter and producer Mohamed Hefzy.

“There was Chinese cinema. The Latin Americans, 20 years ago, they had a great resurgence. The same for Koreans five or 10 years ago. I think Arab cinema really deserves its moment ... and I think it's going to happen sooner rather than later.”

Hefzy, who has produced such acclaimed films as Clash (2016) and Luxor (2020), as well as founding Mena region production house Film Clinic, added: “I think that Arab talents have always been there. There was a lot of Arab talent 30 years ago, 40 years ago. But there was no platform where these talents could tell their stories and flourish. And what’s happening now is that platforms are being set up.”

These platforms range from streaming sites hungry for content – Netflix, for example, is now producing Saudi-based work – to the increasing array of Arab film festivals in the region. Among them is the Red Sea Film Festival, which will enjoy its third edition this December.

“It’s an incredible, powerful force in the region led by a great team,” said Wayne Borg, the Australian-born managing director of media, entertainment, culture and fashion at Saudi Arabia's Neom. “It has the currency, the standing in the region but also internationally. I think that’s critical. That creates the bridge.”

Borg and Hefzy were joined on the panel by Dora Bouchoucha, the Tunisian founder of Nomadis Images, whose latest production Behind The Mountains screens at the festival. Also present was Roua Al Madani, the Saudi-born director of development of Film AlUla – the film agency established in 2020 to support international, regional and local film and TV production in the AlUla region.

Al Madani suggested that nurturing and educating Arab talent is vital. “We want them to know everything: know how to market their film, know how to write, know how to direct, know how produce, and also deal with distributors.”

Nonetheless, drawing this talent out into the world is not easy. “Honestly, it’s a very hard job,” continued Al Madani. “Some people know how to present themselves, but truly they don’t have the talent. And some are totally in the shadows, but they have amazing talent.”

Film AlUla, which has collaborated on large Hollywood productions such as Kandahar starring Gerard Butler, encourages the use of local crews and provides shadowing opportunities and apprenticeship programmes, which have proved to be ideal ways for newcomers to find their niche within the film industry.

Neom, meanwhile, has forged a relationship with Britain’s National Film and Television School, with the aim of “discovering talent and finding those rough diamonds," as Borg puts it. “There is the power to help guide them and mentor them … maybe one wants to be a focus puller, another wants to focus on set design or continuity … and [we] allow them to specialise over time.

“We’ve put more than 300 young Saudis through initial training, and then subsequently attached to productions. And they’ve all gone on to gain full time employment. It is about how you provide that structure and support, that infrastructure.”

Organisations like Neom also offer Arab filmmakers a chance to polish skills on the business side of things. “How to lobby sales agents at festivals, how to use a publicist at a festival … these are skills that we didn’t have [in the past],” Hefzy added.

While such practical advice is vital to aid development, it’s also about a change in mindset, said Bouchoucha. “Our expectations when we make films in the region are not necessarily up to the standards or in accordance with the perception expected from us.”

The idea is not necessarily to compete with Hollywood, but to tell local stories that may then find a global audience. “If you look at the Koreans, they don’t care about the West,” said Borg. “They make content for Korea. That’s the opportunity … you have a massive marketplace.

"Now that you’re seeing some of the big production companies … Netflix and Amazon, all these guys, are realising they don’t need to make content for other parts of the world. There’s a critical mass of this region to make it viable and meet the needs of that marketplace.”

Holding a mirror up to the region should be the focus, he added. “And if it resonates beyond that and it travels, fantastic. But you must always speak to your audience first and foremost.”

Cross-regional co-operation also needs to be encouraged. “What I’m also noticing is that a lot of Arab talents are being recognised among their counterparts in different countries in the Arab world,” said Hefzy. “We’re seeing more Arab-Arab collaboration creatively: actors, filmmakers, cinematographers … this is happening more and more.”

For the first time, there is a real support network infrastructure to help emerging Arab film talent. “The region’s coming into a golden period,” said Borg. “There’s so much focus on the industry by governments, with investment, I think the challenge is to ensure that investment is directed correctly, and that there’s some semblance of structure and talent, and they can go on a journey.”

If Arab cinema is to be the next wave, as Korean or Latin America before it, continued support from film commissions, festivals and streamers will be essential. But the future’s bright, said Hefzy. “We’re very lucky to be living in this time.”

Updated: September 07, 2023, 7:03 AM