If you ask Mohamed Al Mubarak, the nucleus of modern Arab cinema is in Abu Dhabi. It's where the talent is. It's where the young creatives are. It's where filmmakers flock, from across the region and further afield, to see their ideas into fruition. It's where the opportunities are. And hopefully soon, the chairman of Image Nation Abu Dhabi says, the capital will once more become the home to a film festival for the country.
Perhaps it's unsurprising, then, Al Mubarak's mission is to ensure Image Nation, and Abu Dhabi, stamps its mark on the world. That mission began about a decade ago with the formation of Image Nation. It broke new ground seven years ago when a film the company co-produced, The Help, won Octavia Spencer an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, and was nominated for Best Picture.
But Image Nation really hit its stride in recent years, with a co-produced documentary (Free Solo) winning the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in February. "There is a growing need for Arab content coming out of the region. We feel that we have played a major role in this game of dominoes – our track record speaks for itself," Al Mubarak tells The National.
"We're a young populous, and a creative populous who want to do things differently, they want to see things differently. When people see stuff like this coming out of the Arab world it will give people a lot more freedom to come up with their own ideas."
Agreeing to take on Shahad Ameen's 'Scales'
And now, the company is celebrating another milestone: its Abu Dhabi-made fantasy film is to have its world premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Festival next month. Sayidat Al Bahr (Scales) tells the story of Hayat, a young girl living in a village with a tradition of sacrificing female children to mysterious creatures in the sea. When her time to be sacrificed comes, Hayat rejects this dystopian reality and decides to forge her own path.
The film is the work of Saudi Arabian writer and director Shahad Ameen and follows her short Eye & Mermaid, which had its premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2013 and won Best Cinematography and Best Film from the Arab World at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival a year later. In 2015, Ameen's script for the longer feature was up for an IWC Filmmaker Award, which is when it first caught the eye of Ben Ross, Image Nation's chief content officer.
Taking on the project was a no-brainer, Al Mubarak says. “This is a strong story, this is a story of empowerment, this is a cultural story, an artistic story, and when you put all that together we felt a movie like this hasn’t been made in this part of the world.
It was also linked with a young Saudi director; it's her first fully fledged feature. Yes, we knew it was going to be a lot of work but it's a very different type of movie."
Cinema holds a special place in his heart
After all, through his role as head of Image Nation, Al Mubarak is charged with sending the story of the UAE, and the wider Arab region, to the world through film. But this is simply one feather in a rather full cap. As well as being a member of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, Al Mubarak also holds several chairman positions elsewhere: for the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, the Tourism Development & Investment Company, Aldar Properties, Aldar Academies, Miral Asset Management, and he is also on media company Twofour54's board.
It's a diverse and bustling portfolio to juggle. And while each role dictates parts of Al Mubarak's days, cinema has a special place in his heart. "Before joining [Image Nation] I studied cinema, it's a passion of mine," he says. "I love watching movies, I understand them and I study them, so with the help of the 'real people' like Ben and others, they make things possible.
Image Nation is close to my heart because I truly believe there are massive creative minds in this industry who just want to be set free, and they want opportunity.”
Perhaps that's why Image Nation has seen such international success from the get-go. When it took on 2011 film The Help, starring Emma Stone, Al Mubarak was embarking on one of his first big projects as executive producer. So when it won Spencer her Oscar, it was a sign they were on to something. When National Geographic co-production Free Solo won several awards this year, including the Bafta for Best Documentary and three Cinema Eye Honours Awards, a Cinema Audio Society award and an American Cinema Editors award, as well as three Critics' Choice documentary awards last year, that was something really special. The film also picked up nominations for the Producers Guild of America and Directors Guild of America awards.
"We had a good reputation in Hollywood anyway, but this was the first time when it was just us and it was something we co-produced, so it was really great for us. It really cemented us in a legacy perspective," Ross says.
A hard road to success in the UAE
While Al Mubarak is under no illusions of competing alongside the Hollywood heavyweights right now ("We don't," he asserts passionately, after we ask how he fares alongside his American counterparts), he does believe the UAE punches above its filmmaking weight. He says he believes that's why neighbouring countries are following the UAE's lead – whether it's the burgeoning film industries of Lebanon, Jordan or Saudi Arabia.
Image Nation's Emirati comedy Rashid & Rajab had a cinema release of about a month this year, he says, which is no mean feat. He says he hopes Sayidat Al Bahr will be in cinemas for a week or two. "These [Hollywood] movies will come and they will pretty much eat us up in two or three weeks. We have to be realistic, nobody can compete with Superman. We don't want to compete, we just want to play in the same field."
But it's something of a hard road to success in the UAE, Ross says, due to the lack of arthouse and indie cinema outlets. Cinema Akil in Dubai provides some reprieve, but for the smaller production houses that aren't producing blockbusters, getting support can be a challenge. "So when we have to go into those theatres and compete with them it's complicated," he says. "But hopefully we can build more of an infrastructure here where these films get bigger showcases and the audiences can find them."
That film infrastructure took a further blow in recent years with the end of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and the uncertainty surrounding the future of Diff. Film festivals aren't necessary for every regional industry, Ross says, but it certainly helps for plaudits and networking. But that's where Al Mubarak may soon step in. They're working on it, he says, and a festival "will definitely be something that in the future we will bring back a type of".
And Image Nation is only the beginning. In five to 10 years there will be "10 or 20 Image Nations", Al Mubarak believes, in a country that will become a hub for the Arab world's filmmakers.
For now, though, Image Nation is hitting top gear. The company is deep in television series production mode. And, perhaps most importantly, it is charting a course of the UAE's history.
Image Nation's new series launching in September, History of the Emirates, will tell the story of how the UAE came to be. It will feature a five-part version for a domestic audience, and a three-part international series. The local series will broadcast on all local government TV channels, including National Geographic Abu Dhabi, and the international version will broadcast worldwide on National Geographic.
"Most people across the world think the history of the UAE is 100 years ago," Al Mubarak says. "But the history of this great land goes back hundreds and thousands of years and it's going to be showcased within this documentary in one of the most powerful things that we've done. I think that will be a big eye-opener to the UAE, not only in the quality but in the education.
“When we screen tested it to an international audience, it was amazing to see how informative it was to them – they didn’t know. It was jaw-dropping.”
So what does the future hold for Arab cinema?
But film remains key to Al Mubarak. Image Nation is now readying itself to announce a new film from Zinzana (2015) director Majid Al Ansari. They're also making a horror, because Ross and Al Mubarak are "obsessed" with the genre.
But almost more important than the films are the success stories, Al Mubarak says. Al Ansari began as an intern at Image Nation, dashing around and getting people coffee. He was then a driver, and an assistant location assistant.
Which is why this is Al Mubarak's final plea: that UAE audiences never stop going to the cinema. That experience will change in the near future, he says, but for the better. We will soon see an "enhanced experience", perhaps with more virtual reality and motion, "more of a ride than a movie". Netflix has been great for the industry, he insists, but there is simply no substitute for the experience of a movie theatre.
"You need to give Arab movies coming out in this region a chance," he says. "Go and see them in the cinema. Have that experience. We need that, our film directors need that, our actors need that, they need to feel that they're being watched at the cinema and not just in a home.
"You cannot duplicate the cinema experience. You cannot duplicate having your big popcorn and soft drink on the side and when everybody laughs in the cinema. I remember going to the cinema for the first time and seeing a movie that I felt involved with. I had to stand up and clap and everyone started clapping around me. That, you cannot create at home."