Sanad sets healthy base for UAE cinema

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival's Sanad fund has been supporting regional films since 2010. This year five have made it into the programme.

In the Sands of Babylon, part of ADFF, 2013, is funded by Sanad. Courtesy ADFF
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Big studios with big budgets may be able to stump up the hundreds of millions needed to make the Batmans, Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbeans of the film world. But what about the little guys, the low-budget films, often by first-time directors, which we get to enjoy at festivals across the region? Step forward Sanad, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s very own film fund.

Just three years old, Sanad – which offers US$500,000 (Dh1.83 million) annually in grants to filmmakers from across the region – already has an impressive back catalogue of titles it has supported, many of which have enjoyed international success.

“We’re really very proud of the results of Sanad,” says Intishal Al Timimi, the director of the fund and the festival’s Arab programming, pointing to Sanad-backed films that have won awards in Abu Dhabi and film festivals across the world. “Last year, we had four films in Toronto and three in the Berlinale, the only three Arab features there.”

This year, five Sanad films are in the Abu Dhabi festival. From Egypt comes Villa 69, Ayten Amin’s light social drama dealing with issues of life, love, illness and death, and starring the regular ADFF attendee Khaled Abol Naga (Microphone). In Whispers of the City, the Iraqi filmmaker Kasim Abid journeys to Ramallah, Baghdad and Erbil to document the life and daily struggle on the cities’ streets.

My Sweet Pepper Land, also from Iraq, has gathered acclaim already, having screened in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes.

El Gort goes wast, to Tunisia, for a road movie that follows two field hands delivering hay bales and underlines the point that, for some, revolutions haven’t changed a thing.

And the film In the Sands of Babylon completes the trio of Sanad-funded Iraqi titles screening this year. A part-drama, part-documentary recounting the tale of three mass grave survivors, this film, directed and written by Mohamed Al-Daradji, is the follow-up to Son of Babylon, the first feature the festival financially supported in 2009. Son of Babylon had its world premiere in Abu Dhabi that year and received widespread acclaim, winning the young filmmaker the Variety Middle East Filmmaker of the Year award.

The Iraqi director returned in 2011 with the documentary In My Mother’s Arms, and now comes back again. Three films in the space of four years from one up-and-coming director, all supported by the festival and with world premieres in Abu Dhabi.

“Sanad, along with Enjaaz [Dubai Film Festival’s post-production fund] and the Doha Film Institute are all moving in the same direction, we’re all supporting the same kind of cinema and fresh ideas and supporting the filmmakers who need it,” says Al Timimi. “For some low budget films, the help from us – be it $40,000 or $50,000 – can sometimes be half or one third the film’s entire budget.”

Al Timimi says that 28 projects received funding in 2010, 23 in 2011, 18 in 2012 and 23 this year. With this sort of backing, it’s unlikely that future festivals will struggle to fill their Arabic film schedules.