GN Focus | UAE National Day

Opening credits

As a fledgling film industry establishes itself in the UAE, we look at its achievements, advantages and challenges

  • By Thomas Billinghurst | Features Writer
  • Published: 00:00 December 2, 2012
  • GN Focus

  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • Djinn, a horror film featuring dark and foggy sets, is still stuck in post-production. It was meant to be the first UAE feature film, but two others have already been released

Michael Young, New York Film Academy’s provost, three years ago said the UAE’s film industry is “on the cusp” of great things. Since then, world-renowned academies have rooted themselves in the UAE’s educational landscape; film festivals have proliferated and funding for local films has picked up. So, has the Emirates’ film scene achieved the great things Young forecast?

“While the UAE is still many generations away from competing with Hollywood or Bollywood, it has the capability to become a regional hub of creative activity in a relatively short time,” Michael Garin, CEO of Image Nation, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media, tells GN Focus.

The UAE has 
the capability to become a regional film hub in 
a short time.

Michael Garin CEO, Image Nation

But the agonisingly protracted release of supernatural horror film Djinn — long-promised to be the first UAE production, now scheduled to be the third following the release of City of Life in 2010 and Sea Shadow last year — typifies the teething problems the Gulf state is having keeping its film industry authentically Emirati and on-track.

By purporting to be the first Emirati-produced film, Djinn created a fervid buzz in UAE film circles. But the overbearing American influence and delays that ensued following the project’s announcement quelled the great expectations the film had sparked. Tobe Hooper, revered writer-director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was flown in to direct it, while David Tully, another American, who teaches film writing at Dubai’s SAE Institute, scripted it.

Furthermore, Djinn has reportedly been “technically complete” since October last year. But it still hasn’t been released, or given a release date, amid rumours of interference and disgruntlement. The film is “still in the post-production phase”, according to Image Nation, which funded it.

Making money

Pritesh Depala, Managing Director of Phars Film, the largest film distribution network in the Middle East, says it’s not easy to make money from UAE films. This may go someway to explaining the stuttering start the industry is facing. “Unfortunately, there’s a common misconception that film can make substantial revenue from theatrical distribution alone. This might be the case for Bollywood or Hollywood blockbusters, but it’s not the case for upstart industries.

“Even in Hollywood, film franchises are supported by other mechanisms such as video games and merchandise. There’s no such structure in place for UAE film at the moment. So, it’s very tough to make money from the industry out here.”

In its quest to become an unmitigated film hub, the UAE is implementing wide-ranging infrastructure to support every phase of the film-making process.

When it comes to funding UAE films, Image Nation is leading the way. The Abu Dhabi-based institute split three years ago, creating arms to support UAE grass-roots film and international projects — such blockbusters as Contagion and The Help among them.

The company aims to nurture a film-making culture in the UAE by creating opportunities for talented local candidates to tap into the globalised network of mainstream film. One such initiative is the Arab Film Studio, now entering its second year. The winner of the short film-making competition walks away with a Dh50,000 developmental deal to pursue their cinematographic dreams.

“Any industry is only as good as the next generation, and this investment is designed to allow young people access to world-class film-makers and facilities in an effort to foster their talent,” says Garin.

For Shivani Pandya, Managing Director of the Dubai International Film Festival (Diff), funding is the key to developing the UAE’s film industry. “There’s always space for more funding,” she says. “More organisations should come on board.

“Growth has to be organic. If one company supports everything, the day they change their mandate or objectives, that’s the day it falls apart. That’s why we need high-net-worth individuals, private investors and other institutions supporting it. And that is slowly and steadily happening.”

Funding

Alongside Image Nation, various financiers are coming on board. The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) is an independent initiative actively funding individuals and organisations in the film industry. The Dubai Entertainment and Media Organisation (Demo), the owner and organiser of Diff and the Gulf Film Festival (GFF), has set up the Enjaaz programme, which offers post-production funding for Gulf-based films. Earlier this year, Enjaaz expanded to offer a separate funding initiative for Gulf-made short films. Five chosen short film projects receive funding of up to $50,000 (Dh183,601).

“There’s a very negligible market for UAE-produced film outside the GCC. There’s a big market for Arab cinema — films coming out of Egypt and Lebanon show that. But in terms of theatrical distribution, City of Life is the only notable film to come out of the region,” says Depala. As a profitable venture, City of Life threw up a new obstacle to interested, cash-rich onlookers scouting the UAE as an avenue for exploration. Ali F. Mustafa’s movie reportedly cost more to make than it made after release, although exact figures have never been released.

Pandya says the UAE industry can take heart from the emerging popularity of Arab cinema to tap into international markets. “There’s been a huge change in the buyers market. In 2004, there were very few Arab films released, but now the appetite for Arab cinema is growing. Now, you’re seeing more diverse, Arab films being distributed in the region. And some of them are getting international distribution. Europe particularly has an affinity for the Arab world. The US is warming up, because you have a few Arab directors based there.”

Tailored film studies degrees and qualifications of high repute are offered at the SAE institute Dubai, Manhattan Film Academy Dubai and the New York Film Academy Abu Dhabi, where students can develop skills from script development to post-production editing. Furthermore, under a governmental initiative, film is now a requisite area of study for all students undertaking communications degrees.

Education is a vital step on the ladder towards a buzzing regional film industry, says Imad Deir Atany, Managing Director, New York Film Academy Abu Dhabi. “Building the industry in the UAE needs a generation educated in film.”

The good thing about studying film in the UAE, Atany says, is the lack of competition, compared to other regions: “If you have talent, you will easily stand out. Life is not only science and maths. It’s also music and art. The education in film has to start from the primary school, giving kids in their early years the opportunity to discover their talents.”

Film clubs, such as Dubai-based Scene Club and Abu Dhabi-based Aflam, have also played a key role in bringing together the UAE’s film 
enthusiasts. The monthly film clubs highlight and celebrate the best of independent Arabic films and film-makers.

There’s no doubting that the requisite infrastructure is being developed. But it will be some time yet before the UAE is reaping the rewards of the seeds being planted today.

Fact Box

The ninth edition of the Dubai International 
Film Festival is held from December 9-16. Visit 
dubaifilmfest.com for more information.

GN Focus