A new golden age for Arab cinema

The big screen has a historic home in the Middle East

Denis Villeneuve in Abu Dhabi's Liwa desert filming 'Dune'. Abu Dhabi Film Commission

Adapting the Dune novels to film is no easy task, even for the very best of directors. Attempts by big names, including Ridley Scott and David Lynch, either came to nothing, or flopped at the box office. But the most recent attempt, overseen by Denis Villeneuve, has pulled it off. The film has grossed $400 million and won six awards at Monday's Oscars.

Even this successful version, however, did not escape turbulence at the last minute. Some of its hard-won limelight was taken away by American actor Will Smith hitting comedian Chris Rock live on stage, after the latter told a joke at the expense of the actor's wife. Afterwards, Rock joked that it was “the greatest night in the history of television".

It will indeed go down in history, and it is unsurprising that Smith, who is regularly pictured in the Emirates, became the main story for UAE audiences and beyond. However, they should not forget the more profound, long-term story of what Dune's success means for the country; much of it was filmed in Abu Dhabi's desert, making it yet another blockbuster to which the country has played host.

A renowned film industry is a particularly effective cultural ambassador, projecting more than stories, but talent in acting, writing, fashion, design and music, too. Driving the region's cinema in the 21st century, the UAE, along with its regional colleagues, is adding to the deep history of cinema in the Middle East, be it big-ticket works or independent features.

It has firm foundations from which to do this, laid in large part by Egypt. In 1908, the country already possessed seven cinemas, and by 1917 it had its first studio, based in Alexandria. By 1926, Lebanese and Egyptian filmmakers were teaming up to make the first films produced by Arabs, primarily for Arab audiences. The 1940s through to the 1960s is widely viewed as a golden age for the Egyptian industry, and it was during this time that film laid the groundwork for a wider cultural renaissance in the region, embodied by figures such as Umm Kulthum, arguably the most famous modern Arab musician, who was also closely linked to cinema, often starring in films as a singer and actor.

Since then, the tradition has spread to other Middle Eastern countries, with major international filming locations now found from Morocco to Jordan. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has begun doing its bit. In 2018, the government lifted a three-decade ban on cinemas, unveiling plans to build 50 to 100 by 2030. Developing a cinema sector in the country is viewed as an important part of its diversification strategy. PWC estimates that, domestically, it could be worth $1.5 billion in eight years' time.

Not all has been straightforward. The National has written about increasing impediments placed in the way of some filmmakers, who, in parts of the region, have to tread an increasingly fine line when it comes to creative expression. But the overall story is much more one of progress. And while this year's Oscars might have been a particular win for the UAE, the wider picture is of an industry that is quickly developing on many fronts.

Published: March 29, 2022, 4:57 AM
The National  Editorial

The National Editorial

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