iPhone photo from the afterparty at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2012
© Besik Turazashvili
iPhone photo from the afterparty at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2012
Last updated: April 30, 2013

UAE film industry: To be or not to be

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“There is no UAE film industry.” That was the title of an opinion piece published in 2010 by the CEO of Filmworks Film Production, Tim Smythe. Although UAE’s film scene seems to have come a long way, it is still valid today.

“Having a large production once a year or every other year does not constitute a film industry,” Smythe tells Your Middle East, referring to blockbuster productions like Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol.

The award-wining Emirati director Khalid Al Mahmoud (’Sabeel’) can’t agree more. For him, the UAE still falls short in terms of quality and quantity of movies produced on annual basis.

“We may call what’s happening in the UAE as a film movement. Films are being made, but it didn’t reach the stage of an industry yet,” he says. “A film industry is judged by the number of films (feature and shots) produced on annual basis.”

Although the UAE’s film festivals in Abu Dhabi and Dubai have grabbed the attention of international media – sometimes at the expense of other established Arab film festivals like Cairo and Marrakesh – the UAE’s relationship with cinema is pretty new.

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Back in 2001, when Emirati director Masoud Amralla Al Ali – now the artistic director of Dubai Film Festival – decided to launch an Emirati film competition, the total number of Emirati films that were filmed or produced from the 60s until 2001 didn’t exceed 60 films. From 2001 on, however, the number of Emirati films kept increasing, hitting 100 films a year, according to Al Ali.

Although many of those are short films, one can argue that things have indeed changed for the UAE filmmakers in the last ten years. First of all, the UAE cultural scene has undergone a major shift towards filmmaking.

As a traditional conservative society, studying filmmaking was hardly an option for many young Emiratis. Take one example, Nayla Al Khaja, the UAE’s first ever female filmmaker, had to get married to a male friend so her family would allow her to go abroad to study filmmaking. Emirati filmmakers don’t have to go that far anymore. Thanks to government and media support, they are now celebrated as cultural ambassadors of their country.

“I would say the majority support what I do,” Al Khaja told Arabian Business in 2012. “It’s only a few people that are upset, but then you can’t make everyone happy. And that’s not my goal anyway, so that’s fine.”

Although many still have to go abroad to study filmmaking, new cinema schools are popping up in the UAE. Most notably is New York Film Academy Abu Dhabi (NYFA), which opened its doors in 2007. According to Imad DeirAtany, the academy’s managing director, 25-30% of the enrolled Arab students at the academy are Emirati.

While DeirAtany argues that the UAE’s ‘film scene,’ as he calls it, is moving forward, he notes that creating a film industry needs a film culture and extensive distribution channels, both are still missing in UAE.

The other challenge is related to job opportunities. With a limited film market, many graduates end up working in TV, media and production companies. Specialisation is another issue. While there are several successful Emirati directors, Emirati producers, photographers, technicians, scriptwriters, or make-up artists are few to none.

For Smythe, whose Dubai-based company has produced and facilitated several international productions including “Syriana” (which was shot in Dubai), “The Kingdom”, “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”, “Switch” in addition to “Djinn” and “City of Life”, what the country needs is strong incentives.

“Films are mostly shot in countries where there are incentive schemes in place,” says Smythe. “In Dubai we now have a Film (and TV) Commission which main task, apart from many others, is to attract productions to Dubai. Abu Dhabi has also announced a 30% rebate for productions shooting in Abu Dhabi.”

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Al Mahmoud is not satisfied with these incentives though, for him, there’s more to be done. “The places that provide support or funding (for filmmakers) are limited, (there’s) one or two places, either in festivals or private entities.”

He cites the example of Germany, in which the government provides 60 million Euros to fund films in addition to the fact that it has tens of private and public funding and film support programmes.

“In the UAE, we lack a governmental film fund responsible for providing grants for local filmmakers.”

Currently, there are two major film funds in the UAE that offer grants for Arab filmmakers. Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s SANAD grant awards $500,000 annually to feature length and documentary films that are in the development and final production stages.

There’s also Dubai Film Festival’s Enjaaz post production fund, which offers financial awards of up to $100,000. Although these funds do help, filmmakers still have to look for funds from outside the region, mainly Europe.

So, what else is needed to create a film industry? Al Mahmoud has pretty good thoughts. For him, the UAE government should have an oriented goal towards sustaining a UAE film industry. To do so, “they can start by setting and maintaining a minimum number of films produced per year for short and feature films, and maybe increasing this number with time,” he suggests.

“The government needs to simplify film production procedures and finally provide ways to support local made films to hit box offices and to be given a fair chance to screen next to international films,” Al Mahmoud adds.

While creating a film industry seems achievable, that couldn’t be said about attracting international film productions. Despite the available support to international film producers, the UAE still needs to open up. Although several films were shot in the country (majority are Arab and Indian films), many others were banned for various reasons including a ‘conflict of cultural values’, ‘offensive language’ or ‘indecency’.

In 2010, the Gulf state banned the film crew of “Sex and the City 2” from filming in the city citing ‘the show's salacious content’ as a reason. In 2012, the UAE also banned “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, and 2011, it banned “Black Swan” and “Love and Other Drugs”, for ‘excessive sexual content.’

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Although the UAE is considered pretty liberal when compared to other neighbouring Gulf countries – movie theatres are banned in Saudi Arabia – the country might need to think through such decisions if it is to be a film location and production destination. The same applies to Emirati filmmakers, who are argued to challenge the status quo. At the end the country and its filmmakers have to choose between reticence and openness, they cannot have both.

Badar Salem
Badar Salem is a Palestinian freelance journalist.
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