Oil-rich region starting to show cinematic side

ABU DHABI — While much has been made of the competition between the two emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi to establish themselves as regional and international film hubs, the rest of the Persian Gulf has stepped up its own cinematic activities.

The likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait all have hefty coin at their disposal with the booming oil and gas prices, and even smaller states such as Oman and Bahrain, not to mention other emirates in the U.A.E, are all getting in on the filmmaking act.

Sharjah, for example, a fellow emirate alongside Dubai and Abu Dhabi, just wrapped production on its first full-length feature, “Jumaa and the Sea,” which received its world preem at Abu Dhabi’s Middle East Intl. Film Fest (Oct. 14-19).

Elsewhere Oman (“The Dawn), Bahrain (“The Barrier”) and Qatar (“Threads Beneath Sands”) have all produced their first features.

Kuwait, which produced the Gulf’s first-ever feature back in 1972 with Khalid Al-Siddiq’s “The Cruel Sea,” is also attempting to add its voice to the mix with a series of thought-provoking docs, including “When The People Spoke,” about the face-off between moderates and fundamentalists over women’s rights that was banned in the country.

It is Saudi Arabia, however, which could offer the most tantalizing developments. In 2006, the conservative kingdom produced two rival features- with each one proclaiming itself the first Saudi feature film.

Abdullah Moheisin’s “Shadow of Silence” and Izzadore Mussalem’s “How Are Things?” — the later bankrolled by Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal’s media titan Rotana — both offered rare dramatic insights into life in the traditionally closed-off Saudi society. “When people forget to talk about Saudi Arabia, they’re forgetting to talk about the manufacturer,” says Moheisin, who made a number of docs prior to his debut feature. “I’ve been trying to create and develop films in Saudi Arabia for 30 years.”

Talk has been rife for months that Saudi authorities are preparing the grounds to lift the 30-year-old ban on cinemas in the kingdom. Cinemas are reportedly already being built ahead of a potential green-light. “In the beginning it will be like when they opened McDonald’s for the first time when they sold half a million hamburgers in one day,” says Moheisin. “In the end though I don’t know if cinemas will be successful in Saudi Arabia. Our society is based around watching films with the family at home. Anyway, what is the biggest film in Saudi Arabia today? It’s ‘The Kingdom’ which isn’t even officially available on DVD but everyone can get hold of a copy.”

Saudi shingles such as Rotana and ART have already become the biggest funders in the Egyptian film biz, traditionally the centre of production in the Arab world.

However, while plentiful coin is opening up doors to aspiring Saudi, and Gulf, film execs, in the region and across the Arab world, a more existential obstacle remains the dueling forces of tradition and modernity. At this year’s Emirates Film Competition, three female students picked up the top prize. What should have been a positive sign of progressive attitudes was marred by the fact that none of the three girls could pick up their prizes in person as the closing night ceremony took place at night, past their curfew.

“We have waited for a long time for the modernization of the Gulf in terms of filmmaking and I believe we are now turning a page in the history of cinema,” says renowned Arab film critic Samir Fareed. “They’re just starting to look at themselves and express themselves cinematically. It will be very difficult but to see these developments in age when culture is seen by some as heresy is very encouraging.”

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