Hana Kazim, first Emirati to graduate from renowned AFI Conservatory, shares her experiences

The American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles, ranked by The Hollywood Reporter as the number one film school in the world and home to an impressive list of alumni including David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky and Terrence Malick, accepts only 140 students each year.

Last month, Hana Kazim became the first Emirati to graduate from the prestigious American Film Institute (AFI) Conservatory in Los Angeles with a master’s degree in film producing.

The AFI Conservatory, ranked by The Hollywood Reporter as the number one film school in the world and is home to an impressive list of alumni including David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky and Terrence Malick, accepts only 140 students each year.

Kazim's graduation ceremony at the famous TCL Chinese Theatre on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was attended by eminent guests, including Francis Ford Coppola, the Chinatown and Mission: Impossible screenwriter Robert Towne, and Neil Canton, a professor at the AFI Conservatory and a producer of the Back to the Future trilogy.

Kazim’s achievement is all the more impressive considering that when she initially enrolled at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) as a marketing major, she’d never really even considered a career in film.

"I'd made a high-school movie with a friend, but really just saw it as a hobby," she says. "I minored in film at AUS and had a professor there who'd studied at AFI. It was when I watched The Godfather in one of his classes that I realised that I wanted to pursue it seriously, and he helped me out with learning more about film and how to get into AFI."

Kazim's first step was to make more short films, most notably The Final Division, which screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2012 and was picked up by BBC Arabic, and On the Edge, which screened at the Short Film Corner at Cannes. Another short, The Bandits, a silent film made with the intention of entertaining dis­abled audiences, won the Audience Award at the specialist Young Eager Steps Film Competition.

These films made it in to Kazim’s growing portfolio that would eventually win her a place at AFI, where, despite having previously directed her own films, she opted to specialise in producing.

“Six disciplines are taught at AFI,” she explains. “Screenwriting, producing, production design, directing, cinematography and editing, and I focused on producing. Groups of students with different specialisms collaborated on one movie three times in the first year and on one big one in the second year, so I’ve worked with four directors now, three screenwriters, three editors – it’s been a real learning experience about collaboration.

“The final film is also expected to be of feature quality, although it’s still a short, so we have to learn to work with colour correctors, audio specialists and so on, too. It’s a really broad learning experience.”

Another key appeal is that some of the AFI’s illustrious former students return to the school to screen their films and talk to the current crop of aspiring filmmakers. Jane Fonda and the Hollywood producer Tom Pollock were among the high points for Kazim’s year, and she adds that it isn’t just Hollywood royalty who pass through to share their wisdom.

"Through AFI, I was able to learn from Q&A sessions with notable Arab filmmakers such as Haifaa Al Mansour and Hany Abu-Assad, both of whom I really look up to. Also, I helped the producer Karim Amer with outreach for the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square briefly in 2013, just before its nomination. During that time, I was able to attend a private screening at the actress Maria Bello's house. The party had many Academy members in attendance, as well as producers such as Lawrence Bender – the producer of several Quentin Tarantino films."

The irony? Kazim probably now has more Hollywood contacts than she does in the UAE industry, but she’s determined to split her work between the United States – where she is already working on a television show portfolio with a fellow AFI graduate – and the UAE.

“I can’t wait to come back here and get to work,” she says. “Having gone straight to AFI from college, I haven’t tried much of what’s on offer to filmmakers here, but there are amazing opportunities, amazing stories to tell and so much available to us. It will be great to come back and use that.

“Going to LA definitely gave me perspective and helped me appreciate everything here. The greatest thing AFI taught me is how to tell a story, and there are so many great things that could be made into movies here. I can’t wait to come back and get started.”