Can Arab cinema succeed without help from Hollywood?

We analyse whether Arab films need European or Hollywood backing in order for it to reach international success.

Despite opening last year's Dubai International Film Festival, Omar has yet to secure a UAE release. Courtesy ZBros
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When the producer Roman Paul went cap in hand to investors telling them he planned to make a movie in Saudi Arabia, they "looked at us as if we said we were going to Mordor in Lord of the Rings". But the co-founder of the low-budget German production company Razor Film persisted.

He knocked on numerous doors and eventually secured funding from at least four institutes in Germany – and with that came licence for the director Haifaa Al Mansour to bring a five-year dream to fruition and push ahead with Saudi's first feature film, Wadjda. The combined efforts of a tiny German production studio with a female Saudi filmmaker embarking on her debut feature encapsulate a much bigger issue: whether Arab filmmakers can go it alone or whether they are dependent on European and Hollywood support to secure international success.

It will be at the top of the agenda of the 11th Dubai International Film Festival, which kicked off on Wednesday and where the discussion centres not just on getting Arab films made but seen worldwide as well.

Wadjda’s runaway international success has been well-documented. Although it was overlooked at the Oscars and Golden Globes earlier this year, it enjoyed a global cinematic release and captivated audiences in America and Britain. Al Mansour’s tale of having to direct from the back of a van with a walkie-talkie because she was not allowed to mingle with her male crew has become the stuff of legend. But what is perhaps not as well known is how it took a global effort to get her story of an 11-year-old girl wanting a bicycle made for the big screen.

"Haifaa sent out emails to a lot of people," recalls Paul. "Wadjda was supposed to shoot in the UAE. We just asked her would it be possible to shoot in Saudi? We thought: 'How can we do it without ever being in that place? That is a little ridiculous.'

“She said no one had ever asked her. So we went twice and came back very enthusiastic and talked to the investors and they were less enthusiastic – and that was very sad. But we said we were going to try everything we could to shoot it there.”

It is easy, when looking at the praise and rave reviews that have showered Al Mansour since her film was released – thanks in part to support from Diff’s own post-production fund, Enjaaz – to forget her five-year struggle to get it made in the first place.

What her battle highlights is that Arab films still rely heavily on international partnerships to get made, polished and shown in cinemas. Without that support, films such as Wadjda, Omar and Paradise Now may never have been shown beyond the confines of the film-festival circuit.

“Arab cinema has been reliant on international money,” says Shivani Pandya, the managing director of Diff. “Co-production is a really important aspect for the Arab film world. It opens so many different doors. Few films are totally Arab, apart from a few Egyptian films. Most have been made with money from different parts.”

It is not just about funding. Co-production brings in crews with different skill sets and the opportunity to distribute the film overseas. Pandya’s task, and much of the work of Dubai Film Market, which operates under Diff’s umbrella, really begins after the festival when back-room deals are done. When the red carpet has been rolled up, the trophies have secured their places on mantelpieces and the A-list stars have gone home, the real work of the festival – and to some extent, its true purpose – begins.

Like a duck paddling furiously under the surface of a seemingly still lake, Pandya and her team are involved in a frenzy of activity behind the scenes to ensure the 118 feature films, shorts and documentaries enjoying attention during the eight-day festival are not forgotten in the aftermath. To that effect, Diff has launched the Dubai Distribution Programme, enlisting the support of film distributors including Empire, Gulf Film, Kuwait National Cinema Company, Front Row and Vox Cinemas to ensure audiences will be able to see Arab films year-round. They have committed to picking up a minimum of one Arab film each to distribute among their clients.

In addition, the digital facility Cinetech, previously available during the festival only to sales and acquisition agents to watch films and tell them who has picked up individual movies and in which countries, will now be available for nine months after the festival. “Distribution is really limited in this part of the world,” says Pandya. “There are beautiful Arab films that make more impact internationally, even if they are Arab films made by an Arab.

“Dubai Film Market is now making a concerted effort [to get better distribution]. We see there are audiences during the festival for Arab films and have feedback that they love it. We are keen that it goes on to the next step where we are able to get these films ­theatrical releases and get distribution on different platforms across the world and in the region. We have approached quite a few distributors we work with. They have all said they want to support this and the time is right. It is really a tipping point. It is only a matter of time before you have a whole host of films being available in theatres.”

That will be a marked difference from what has been available for audiences hungry to see alternative, independent or art house films rather than being fed a diet of Hollywood blockbusters.

An attempt by Reel Cinemas to show Arab films in The Dubai Mall failed to take off, with minimal audiences and promotion. But this year, the Emirati director Nayla Al Khaja had to organise extra dates for her popular monthly Scene Club showing foreign language films in Dubai, while screenings at the festival in recent years and at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival have been sold out. There is a hunger for stories to be told through the eyes of Arab protagonists and filmmakers and not simply through a western prism.

A panel at this year’s ADFF discussed co-production with western filmmakers. Was there a danger, audiences asked, that Arab voices and stories could become diluted or be made banal by international intervention?

Paul first became involved in making movies in the Middle East with Hany Abu Assad's ­Oscar-nominated Paradise Now in 2005. "It was a baptism by fire," he recalls. "Once you work in a certain region and the film is successful, then of course you are offered more projects from that region and you start to build up a network. It is a very interesting intercultural project behind the scenes, not only on screen.

“Did it make it less Palestinian? What is more Palestinian [than a story set in the West Bank]? We try to make films that become seen by a worldwide audience and still keep the authenticity the director and writer want to express.”

For the Canadian producer Ina Fichman, trying to make the documentary The Wanted 18 with the Palestinian director Amer Shomali involved coming up against numerous obstacles while securing funding and support from Canada's film industry.

“Canada has very strict co-­production rules,” she says. “You have to work with Canadian talent and crew. It has treaties with about 40 countries but none with an Arab country. It threw our entire production into disarray. In the end, Amer was the only non-Canadian on the film.”

While French and English-­language foreign films are encouraged in culturally diverse cities such as Toronto, she says, getting an Arabic language film made is more difficult. “We are not hearing enough of those voices,” she adds. “The second challenge is, despite having a national cinema, it is difficult to get your movies into theatres. The presence of America, especially in English Canada, is daunting for the independent filmmaker.”

That is beginning to change. Hollywood is starting to sit up and take note as billions pour in from box-office sales in countries such as China and India. Films such as Iron Man 3, The Croods and Pacific Rim did exceptionally well in China, and revenue from international ticket sales are matching and, in some cases, even eclipsing those in the US. While that is unlikely to happen in the Middle East – Pandya says box-office sales for Arab films are usually better overseas, thanks to a previously poor regional take-up by distributors and a lack of promotion – the number of cinema screens is increasing and different platforms now exist to distribute Arab films, from ­video-on-demand to in-flight entertainment as well as traditional movie venues.

Two months ago, the Middle East distributor Front Row signed a deal with iTunes to act as an aggregator for independent Arab and Bollywood distribution firms. While cinemas may be lacking in countries such as Saudi Arabia, two-thirds of the region’s population are tech savvy and the deal opens the door to millions of new consumers to download films in different ways. “Today a child does not need a television,” says Pandya. “Video-on-demand is becoming an important aspect. I believe that is the only way the younger generation is going to be consuming entertainment.”

Samr Al Marzooqi, the manager of Dubai Film Market, adds: “This year we made a decision about changing our strategy from the development and support of Arabic films, to supporting on the sales and distribution side. We found lots of amazing titles were dying after the festival circuit.”

One of those films, Ali Mostafa's City of Life (2009), never reached its full potential. While it enjoyed moderate success in the UAE, it did not recoup its US$7 million (Dh25.7m) cost and failed to secure a distribution deal. Now, with his latest release, From A to B, Mostafa is hoping to do things differently. The distribution companies Empire and the LA-based Highland Film Group are on board to secure regional and international cinema releases, thanks to a partnership with TwoFour54 and Image Nation.

Al Marzooqi says there are two obstacles to getting Arab films seen widely in the GCC: “Distributors and companies do not see the value in such films because they still believe they are bad in quality. Second, they cannot negotiate with rights holders, who ask for so much money for their films to be distributed.”

Arab films have traditionally fared badly in the region. With competition from Hollywood blockbusters and a quick turnover of films, they are often dropped within a week. Omar has yet to secure a UAE release, despite opening last year's Diff. And Wadjda, despite accumulating accolades across the globe, barely made an impact here.

“Arab films cannot succeed without [international co-­producers],” says Al Marzooqi. “In the whole Arab region, there are not enough funds or organisations to support films, hence producers look to Europe where they can get extra support. We need more of these entities here so we get more great Arabic films.”