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'A nation without culture is just a big supermarket'

Tarek Ben Ammar, the most prominent Arab media tycoon, congratulates Abu Dhabi on the launch of Sky News Arabia channel

  • By Rahma Rachdi, Special to Weekend Review
  • Published: 20:00 August 23, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit:
  • Tarek Bin Ammar (second from right) on the sets of Black Gold, the film he co-produced. He is flanked by director Jean-Jacques Annaud (right) and one of its lead actors, Antonio Banderas.

Tarek Bin Ammar, the French-Tunisian tycoon is a counsellor to Silvio Berlusconi and Prince Walid Bin Talal, is a friend of Rupert Murdoch and was Michael Jackson’s agent. He is proud to be Arab — especially post Arab Spring and its impact in the world — and available to assist the Gulf region in making films and TV serials.

In November 2010, Ammar, certainly one of the most envied and respected Arab businessmen today, challenged the audience at the Abu Dhabi Film Commission conference: “You have millions and billions, use it! You have the power to change this region for the better.” Ammar admitted that it was in fact a provocation: “With their money the Emiratis have done a lot in many fields already but that is not enough. They can do a lot for culture — in films and in TV serials. I was not referring to what they are doing in buildings, health and education. I’m eager to help them in my field.” The underlying message is intended for the youth, who should be aware of their culture to take pride in their Arab roots and to succeed.

 

The Emiratis have done a lot in many fields already but that is not enough. They can do a lot for culture — in films and TV serials.

He quotes Shaikh Zayed — “The real spirit behind the progress is the human spirit” — before going on to say, “Material objects are vital for people and their well-being is vital for a nation, but the spiritual and intellectual and the creation of dreams and the vision of society they and their children want to live in is as important. And the only way to reach that dream is through culture. A nation without culture is just a big supermarket.”

Ammar wonders what the Arabs are doing to tell their youth who they are: “Who are you? Why should you be proud to be an Arab? It is just a way of exhorting them not to be too obsessed with Hollywood, or foreigners, but that is valid for all countries. The grass always seems greener on the other side. You only succeed as a young Arab if you succeed outside your country. Do not fall asleep on the subject and do not forget who you are and what God gave you and what Shaikh Zayed has taught you. What I’ve learnt as a young Tunisian is that we should not forget the basics, that we, as the elite, should give back to this world what has been given to us, the freedom and the means of what we are doing.”

Ammar, the visionary, launched Nessma TV — the first TV channel in the Maghreb — in Tunisia with Khalid Karoui. Less than 5 years later, Nessma TV became the leading channel in Algeria and Tunisia and No 2 in Morocco. The channel was also the first to break TV blockade on the riots in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia’s revolution. Ammar thinks the launch of the Sky News Arabia channel was a smart decision, having visited the studios and met the management, who have impressed him.

He says Abu Dhabi has taken a risk by launching Sky News Arabia — seen as just another Arabic channel, it won’t be financially profitable. But here is a challenge that makes sense, a challenge that leads to a great mission. “I’m sure they have heard from everybody that there is already Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Why create a new news channel when you‘re probably going to lose money? Despite all this, they decided it to launch it anyway. I have respect for them because they are doing exactly what I said at the Abu Dhabi Film Commission conference: God gave you money not just to raise buildings, but also to take risks of losing money, maybe by launching a news channel that will give an opinion that matters, a free opinion. And since Al Jazeera has a Qatari political orientation and Al Arabiya reflects the Saudi political orientation, it is only be fair that Abu Dhabi, which is the richest of the Emirates, should have its own news channel. I was impressed by their courage. They might lose money in the future as it was the case with Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera but they have a mission. This is a mission.”

The coincidence is that the project was in the pipeline when Ammar was in Abu Dhabi two years ago — the deal was under negotiation in London.

When asked about the evolution of film industry in the Gulf countries in general and the UAE in particular, Ammar says, “The United Arab Emirates is geographically closer to the incredible markets of India, China and Russia than Europe and America. That’s why the UAE should certainly be a place where all filmmakers find home. It has an advantage over other Arab countries by being the biggest market for features exhibition.” Except maybe for Egypt and Lebanon, he points out, there are no film houses in the Gulf countries. He says that the Arab filmmakers must make films that would be sold overseas [to the Arab Maghreb audience, with Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, where there are film houses). He also adds that the cinema industry should tap into the 200 screens available in the UAE.

Ammar says Arab filmmakers should get ready to speak to their people through cinema and give them a message, but not only that, they have to make money with their films. The UAE has to make a strategic choice in the kind of films it makes as, he warns, the locals and expatriates would want to see Hollywood films, more than anything else.

From Ammar’s point of view, the best combination would be an Arab story with characters played by American and Arab actors. This was the case with the last film he produced along with the Doha Film Institute: “Black Gold”, directed by famous French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, starring Antonio Banderas, Mark Strong, Freida Pinto and Taher Rahim. He demonstrated that a Hollywood film with an Arabic story can work. He admitted that it was a risky bet and that he did not expect the Arab audience to receive it so warmly and positively. When “Black Gold” first premiered at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, it received thunderous applause. It was certainly a success, not only because the story was cleverly told but also because it was entertaining. Entertainment is the key factor of success in Hollywood production, Ammar says, which Arab filmmakers should bear in mind.

Ammar says he is optimistic about the efforts made in the Gulf countries: “This is why I said to the people I met there that I’m available to assist them in making films, with my studios in Tunisia and my experience. A very interesting offer was made in Cannes by Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the form of a tax credit of 30 per cent to encourage people to come and make films in UAE.”

For Ammar, the most important advice to the youth would be that there are no boundaries in cinema. “I urge my friends of Abu Dhabi to make sure that when these foreigners come, don’t just give them drivers and tax credits; ask them to take a youngster at every department, even at the lowest level, so that they can learn about the camera, the costumes, every part of film — that’s something no school can teach you. And over the years, they will be like the people I have now: technicians, assistant directors who worked with Spielberg, Lucas, Polanski ... they became directors! That’s my message for the UAE.”

Ammar has set an example for young Arabs who have the dream of being successful in TV or cinema. “The youngsters should have a realistic dream,” he says. The Abu Dhabi government’s involvement in the amazing project of Masdar City, which is a unique concept worldwide, has impressed Ammar. It is a confirmation that Abu Dhabi is on the right track in spreading the Arab culture. He finally expresses his feelings on the perspectives in the coming years in a globalised world, after the Arab Spring in the North African countries, starting with Tunisia, his country of origin: “We know that the old continent is going to close the visas and we know that some of these Arab children will never see Rome, Paris, London or Berlin! And they are going to be our leaders. Education is not enough for filling that gap; it has to be filled by emotions and dreams — cinema and TV can make you travel without actually travelling! Once we know our culture and our country and others’ culture and religion, the dialogue becomes easy.”

Ammar is already imagining an “Allywood” for Arab cinema along the lines of Hollywood (US), Bollywood (India), and Nollywood (Nigeria).

 

Rahma Rachdi is a French journalist who specialises in economy and finance. She also covers cultural (fashion and cinema) and political events, and other issues linked to the MENA region.

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