The talk of the Gulf

The Gulf Voices programme at this year's DIFF showcased some of the region's most promising young directors. They talked about regional cinema

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A number of Gulf film directors who showcased their work at the Dubai International Film Festival this week say they believe the UAE is playing a leading role in transforming the region's film industry. But they also claim it will be some time before Gulf cinema is able to compete, financially or artistically, on the world stage. The Gulf Voices programme at this year's festival has given 10 of the region's filmmakers a chance to screen their work in front of an audience of industry members and cinema lovers. The films range from Mriamy, about a belly dancer who falls in love with a fisherman in 1960s Bahrain, to Naked Human, an animated movie about human development in a globalised world.

Some of the directors claim that without festivals such as DIFF or the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, it would be almost impossible to reach audiences. They also believe that the growing number of film-financing bodies in the UAE, such as the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, are unrivalled in the region. "I would love to become a full-time filmmaker, but there is no such thing in Kuwait. There is such a thing here in Dubai, so I'm thinking of moving here," said Meqdad al Kout, whose short film Banana is part of Gulf Voices. "There are a lot of institutions here that can provide you with financing for movies."

The 25-year-old, who works as a translator for the Kuwaiti government, is a serious fan of cinema. His list of filmmaking heroes includes everyone from Ingmar Bergman to the Coen brothers. Although he began making short films while at school, he was inspired to take filmmaking more seriously after learning that the Emirates Film Competition, launched by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage in 2002, was looking to showcase some of the region's blossoming talent.

"A friend suggested that I should start making films for festivals. I wasn't exposed to that kind of thing at all, so it was a totally new idea," he says. Banana is his fourth short film and the second to play at DIFF. Clocking in at around 20 minutes, it was made for just Dh4,500. The black comedy is about a Kuwaiti man who seeks a temporary marriage. It relies heavily on surrealist devices, with bananas never far from sight.

Despite being optimistic that the UAE is helping to create a new Gulf film industry, al Kout also believes the current crop of movies from the region leaves serious room for improvement. "I think there's a long way to go and we need to work a lot harder," he says. "It's because we don't have much of an industry at all. We are only starting to now." He also claims that many Gulf moviegoers don't want to pay to see films about the realities of life in the region.

"Lots of people from the Gulf are only interested in Hollywood movies and it's difficult for them to grasp the idea of independent cinema; it's just not glamorous enough." All the films on this year's Gulf Voices line-up were also screened at the second annual Gulf Film Festival in April, which focuses exclusively on cinema from the region. According to Masoud Amralla al Ali, the festival director of GFF and the artistic director of DIFF, it is an ideal time for aspiring filmmakers in the region to begin work.

"There are many factors that are in our favour right now. The interest in Gulf and Arab cinema around the world is definitely growing," he says. "Also today, with only a little money, you can have good-quality cameras and editing tools and do it at home. If you start now, in the future you could become one of the premier directors who helped build cinema here." Many agree that a major obstacle blocking the progress of Gulf cinema is the current restriction on public screenings in Saudi Arabia. A film festival that was scheduled to take place in Jeddah in July was cancelled just hours before it was due to begin. A relaxing of the country's laws could be a blessing for the region's embryonic film industry.

"The biggest market is closed for cinema, but through DVDs you still have a big market in Saudi Arabia," says al Ali. "Dubai and Abu Dhabi are doing a huge amount to support local filmmakers, starting with the film festivals dedicating a section for them and giving them support. "The Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi is a great supporter of filmmaking. Most of the recent short films coming out of the Emirates are being funded by it. Then there is the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, which is trying to attract Emirati filmmakers and other Gulf filmmakers. It's all happening in the UAE first and the film festivals are definitely helping."

The Abu Dhabi Film Commission was launched by Adach in January this year to help develop film and TV industries in the region. David Shepheard, the director of ADFC, explains: "We are here to find new talent, encourage them and train them. Throughout the year, we run a number of initiatives and run workshops for whoever would like to join. We take short films by the region's filmmakers and play them at international festivals like Cannes and Sundance."

This year, the ninth edition of the Emirates Film Competition, organised by ADFC, took place at the Middle East International Film Festival. Kellen Quinn, MEIFF's executive co-ordinator, described the festival's role in helping establish filmmaking in the region as wide ranging. "The festival's foremost support for Gulf filmmakers is to create a film culture, a forum for discussion about films and a place to see films from other parts of the world. That's not film education in a technical sense, where you're learning to put a light up or work a camera, but more in the broad sense, which can help talent to emerge. You can't have filmmakers unless they are exposed to film culture."

Rawia Abdullah, 24, from Al Ain, won first place in the Student Short category at GFF in April with her film Amal's Cloud. It tells the story of a young girl whose parents have divorced. To symbolise the separation, the film shows a painted yellow line dividing the courtyard of the family home. In the moving short, the young Amal wishes for a cloud to appear and wash away the divide. "Winning the award was a good step for me and things have become much better for filmmakers in the Gulf, but there is still lots of problems," she says.

"I cannot find actors. They won't co-operate with us because we don't have lots of money. There aren't enough good writers and it can be hard to get financial backing, too," says Abdullah, who received a grant from the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation. The short had a budget of almost Dh25,000 and was shot in one day on a Sony high-definition camera. "Digital cameras have made it easier for Gulf filmmakers. HD gives us the best picture. This is our liberation," she says.

The only full-length feature film in the Gulf Voices programme was written and directed by the Abu Dhabi-born Nawaf al Janahi. His film, The Circle, was partly financed by the Dubai-based media organisation MBC. A reflection on death and destiny, it tells the story of a late-night meeting between a thief and a writer, who enter a discussion about the morality of their lives. With a budget of about Dh1 million, the film premiered in April and there are plans for it be shown on television and even in cinemas throughout the region.

"My film and Ali Mostafa's film [City of Life] are both taking steps towards the same thing; building a film industry here in the UAE," he says. "I believe that in four or five years, if more production companies come along and start thinking commercially, we will have a good base for a film industry for the entire region." Many of the short films in the Gulf Voices line-up focus on pressing modern-day issues that are affecting those living in the Gulf. They include divorce, globalisation, temporary marriage and unexpected pregnancy. Although respectful to the morals of the region, films such as Naked Human, Half Heart and Banana seem intent on confronting taboos head-on.

"Showing the films in Dubai was a really interesting experience. Lots of people told me they thought the films were daring and ambitious, but some people inevitably get offended," says Meqdad al Kout, the director of Banana. "I like to portray funny things and play around taboos." But not all of the Gulf Voices filmmakers agree with this approach. Al Janahi believes that if the industry is to become commercially successful, films must focus on universal themes that can reach any nationality.

"The UAE culture is so diverse and we have around 200 nationalities here, so if you become too narrow and specific, you lose different categories of the audience and this translates to tickets and money," he says. "This is the approach I take with all my films; cinema is the universal language and I want people from Brazil, Japan, or wherever to understand my films."