Emirates' filmmakers still need to find their focus

Emirati filmmakers are creating an industry from nothing, but need to figure out what they want to say and how to make it cinematically worthy.

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ABU DHABI // Emirati filmmakers are creating an industry from nothing, but need to figure out what they want to say and how to make it cinematically worthy, says a judge at the Middle East International Film Festival. Kate Seelye, a judge for the festival's Emirates Films Competition, said: "There were no film schools until last year, no film classes taught at universities and no film clubs. These students are not being exposed to theory of filmmaking and film history.

"So given they're working with a blank slate, they're producing work that technically is very competent and also showing storytelling potential." Ms Seelye, an American journalist and documentary filmmaker with a passion for Arab cinema who previously worked in Hollywood but now lives in Beirut, has judged 27 films for the competition. While several of the entries in the category came from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, most were from the UAE.

"I'm excited about the UAE funding and making films because, in the past, Arab talent has had to turn to western funding, and that's been such a big problem for Arab film-makers," she said. However, young Emiratis have yet to discover what their message is or what social issues to tackle, she said. "Interesting film tends to be subversive, anti-establishment and talks about issues that people are afraid to talk about. Will Emirati filmmakers be ready to go there? There are many social issues that are so interesting here but often they're not discussed because they're too controversial.

"They'll begin to dig within themselves and within society, then they'll start to produce very interesting film." Ms Seelye used Iranian cinema as an example of filmmakers in the region tackling taboo topics. Emirati cinema will achieve the same level of recognition when its filmmakers explore complex issues from their every day lives, she said. "The UAE is in a period of transition, as they go through this phase of rapid growth and development. I get the sense that a lot of Emiratis are asking themselves: 'Who are we today? Can our culture sustain influx of other cultures given that we're a minority? Can we hold on to who we are or will it be swept away by development and westernisation?'

"It would be interesting for Emiratis to talk about these anxieties and fears, like, 'We might lose our language, and parts of our heritage like poetry.' I'd like to see questions of identity, gender, rapidly changing roles for men and women, relationship to the West." More technical challenges, such as learning how to narrate a story in screenwriting format, can be overcome with training, she said.

"With the right type of nurturing through training and funding, and a little bit of time, Emirati cinema can put the UAE on the world map in a much more prestigious way than the skyscrapers and development." relass@thenational.ae