Young film directors take Middle East spotlight

Across the Arab world, an unprecedented wave of filmmakers is emerging to make their first feature films.

In recent months, the likes of Palestinian filmmakers Najwa Najjar and Annemarie Jacir, Jordan’s Amin Matalqa, the U.A.E.’s Ali F. Mostafa, Arab-American Cherien Dabis, Lebanon’s Chadi Zeneddine, Morocco’s Hicham Ayouch and Saudi Arabia’s Haifaa Mansour have all completed, or are in the process of completing, their debut efforts.

These young directors, many of whom grew up in the shadow of civil war and political strife in their native countries, are proving to be comfortable straddling East and West. That fusion is imbuing their filmmaking aesthetic with an often intriguing mix of Arabic subject matter and cultural influences from both Hollywood and Europe.

What’s more, these up-and-coming talents are gaining the attention of some of the film world’s biggest companies.

Zeneddine, for example, whose first film, “Falling From Earth,” is a poetically elliptical take on life in modern-day Beirut, has been signed up by Disney to develop “The Last of the Storytellers,” drawing on the Arab world’s rich folkloric traditions.

Similarly, Ayouch has been enlisted by 20th Century Fox to make the studio’s first Arabic-language feature film with “Samba,” about a Moroccan man who is obsessed with a Brazilian telenovela star and who teaches a samba class to a host of doting young women all eager to win his heart.

Those directors are grasping the opportunities afforded by a post-9/11 world where film producers are increasingly eager to redress the cultural imbalances between East and West and depict aspects of the Arab world largely ignored by the mainstream media. “I don’t think that cinema has the same utility or power in the Western world that it has in our own countries,” says Ayouch. “In our countries, we often don’t have the right to speak, to criticize our own leaders. For example, there’s no way I could criticize the king of Morocco. It’s the same in all Arabic countries, where you sometimes find high levels of illiteracy. That’s when cinema becomes more interesting, because everyone can understand it.”

And while these young Arabs may have different cinematic styles, they all share a boldness in tackling the perceived ills in their society, albeit through an accessible, mainstream approach.

Take Matalqa’s “Captain Abu Raed,” which won the world cinema audience award at last year’s Sundance festival.

That film, about an aging airport janitor who gets mistaken for a pilot by a group of kids in his impoverished neighborhood, deals with issues such as alcoholism and domestic violence through the prism of a warmhearted, audience-friendly tale.

Najjar adopts a comparably fresh approach with her debut pic, “Pomegranates and Myrrh,” which won an audience award for best Arab film at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. The bigger-picture politics of the Israeli occupation take a backseat to the tale of a budding, forbidden romance between a young Palestinian newlywed — whose husband is being detained by Israeli authorities — and her dance teacher.

“Can’t we have our own love stories, even during an occupation?” asks Najjar. “Making a film is a way of resistance, but it doesn’t mean it only has to be picking up a stone and throwing it. We have to offer people more than what they see in the news.”

Mansour is in development with her first feature film, “Wajda,” about the trials and tribulations of a Saudi girl. She won the Abu Dhabi Circle’s $100,000 Shasha screenwriting grant for her project.

The award to Mansour is particularly significant given that cinemas have been banned in Saudi Arabia for more than three decades, not to mention the general restrictions placed on women in the conservative kingdom, such as not being allowed to drive.

“Hopefully, this award will encourage people to take us more seriously and show that we need to develop our own stories,” Mansour says.

Mansour will also get a first-look deal with Abu Dhabi’s $1 billion production arm Imagenation as part of her prize.

Many of these filmmakers spent their childhoods moving between the Arab world and the West. With some Palestinian, Lebanese or Iraqi directors, that drifting existence was imposed on their families by the volatility of life in their native lands. Zeneddine, for example, spent his youth traveling between Gabon in Africa, where he was born, and Lebanon and France, where he currently lives.

“My film started with the internal fear and heaviness that I had felt due to the postwar trauma after I returned to Beirut,” he explains. “It was in no way the physical war that had affected me, because I had not lived it. But I could not ignore how mute and destroyed most of us are, despite the effort we put in denying and defying it all through our survival instincts. I also could not ignore that I was falling deeply in love with this undying city.”

For Dabis, who was born in Omaha, Neb., to first-generation immigrant Palestinian and Jordanian parents, her first political awakening came at age 14 during the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991. The 32-year-old director of acclaimed culture-clash drama “Amreeka” witnessed up close the vilification of Arabs in some U.S. media circles during the war. That experience, coupled with the backlash her own family faced in a rural Ohio town as her physician father lost many of his patients and her 15-year-old sister was investigated by the U.S. Secret Service for allegedly threatening to kill the president, pushed her toward a career as a filmmaker.

“I saw the way the media was stereotyping Arabs and I decided I wanted to have a hand in changing that,” Dabis says. “My Arab side is what pushed me to telling stories about underdogs while my American side grew up watching film and TV and helped give me a commercial sensibility.”

And while Dabis may have been born and bred in America, her debut project would not have come to fruition without Arab financial support. “Amreeka” was one of the projects selected for the Dubai Film Market, the Dubai Film Festival’s co-production effort launched in 2007. There she brought onboard two of the Arab world’s biggest media companies: pay TV network Showtime Arabia and Saudi Prince Waleed bin Talal’s multimedia titan Rotana. The two companies agreed to pre-buy the project’s Middle East rights for its theatrical and TV release for a substantial amount.

Not all these directors have had to travel to experience the vagaries of East meeting West. Simply growing up in Dubai during the boom years of the previous decade has given Emirati filmmaker Mostafa ample material to complete his first feature film, “City of Life.”

Mostafa’s film, which finished principal photography in mid-March, takes its name from the English translation of Dubai’s oldest nickname. The multi­lingual, multi­stranded, character-driven drama follows the intersecting lives of a privileged young Emirati, an Indian taxi driver and a Romanian flight attendant all living in the bustling emirate.

It took Mostafa more than two years to raise the financing for the project, which has a budget between $3 million and $5 million. Ultimately, Mostafa and his producer, Tim Smythe, managed to convince governmental investment arm the Dubai Intl. Financial Center to put up the majority of the project’s budget. That, of course, was before the global financial markets crashed and the world economy, including that of the previously thriving Dubai market, sunk into recession.

“If we had waited even a month later, we might not have been able to raise all the financing,” Mostafa says. “I thank my lucky stars we managed to finish the film. It’s been such an amazing experience to be the first film with local governmental support that is trying to build up the film infrastructure in the U.A.E.”

The pic will gets its world preem fittingly at this year’s Dubai Film Festival.

And while Mostafa hopes the long-term repercussions of the current crisis on Dubai’s economy won’t mean his debut film will prove to be his la
st, the signs across the Arab world are more encouraging than they have been in living memory.

Most positive of all is the sign that many of these members of the Arab new wave already have their follow-up projects in the pipelines. That’s giving many in the region hope that the creation of a sustainable new school of Arab filmmakers may finally be at hand.

“I don’t think anything is missing,” says Ayouch. “We just have to write good stories. It’s not a question of money. I once shot a film with three friends and a digital camera. We can accuse our regimes of a lot of things but not of making bad films. If you make a bad film, it’s because you’re a bad filmmaker. Let’s make a revolution in our countries and make beautiful movies.”

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