American film school set up shop abroad

Beyond the classroom | Western programs reach out to region | Below-the-line focus builds on tech skills

Film education is still relatively new in the Middle East, where previous generations had to travel to the U.S. for their schooling (such as Jordan-born AFI graduate Amin Matalqa, who directed his country’s first Oscar submission, “Captain Abu Raed”).

In recent years, however, American film schools — including USC and the New York Film Academy — have recognized the need for such training and have set up academic programs in the region.

It 2008, the NYFA in Abu Dhabi became the first accredited U.S. film institute in the Middle East, invited by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage to create film and acting programs for the Abu Dhabi Film School.

NYFA Abu Dhabi is self-funded, though the Emirati cultural org does help with filming permits and locations. The academy’s Abu Dhabi and U.S. curricula are the same, including the tuition fees of $15,000 for a two-year filmmaking diploma.

NYFA post production supervisor John Kochanczyk estimates that 10% of the diverse student body are Emirati, with others coming from as far as Asia and Africa to attend.

“The school has graduated 180 students and currently has 55 students enrolled in four programs,” he says.

Adding to the NYFA’s allure is an international exchange program, where students may elect to spend a term at the NYFA’s New York and Los Angeles campuses learning alongside American film students.

Elsewhere in the UAE, the American U. in Dubai launched its Mohammed Bin Rashid School for Communication in 2007, the first media school commissioned under Dubai Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed’s patronage.

With courses available in English and Arabic, American U. offers a Western-style curriculum — one that is relatively adaptable to each student’s unique interests in filmmaking, media and journalism — culminating in a bachelor’s degree in communication and information studies.

Compared to film school students in the U.S., Arab students tend to be more conscious of portraying their region in a favorable light.

Ibrahim Hassoun, a senior at the American U. in Dubai who will be among the school’s first graduating class in 2011, says he wants to “send an accurate image and message of the people of the Middle East.”

Haifa Besiesso, a junior in the school’s Arabic track, intends to use her filmmaking skills “to influence people in a positive way and change the Western views on Arabs and Islam.”

Both students are Palestinians living in the UAE.

In Besiesso’s case, though she wears a headscarf and is religious, she hopes others will see past her beliefs and recognize her unique flair and personality.

According to Hassoun, film education is still relatively weak in the region.

He describes his fellow students and himself as “guinea pigs,” explaining, “The school is testing out the new major on us to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s frustrating, but we have to put up with if we want to excel in the field.”

In nearby Jordan, an unlikely friendship between a king and a Hollywood helmer led to the formation of another cross-cultural film school.

Two decades ago, the country’s King Abdullah and Steven Spielberg met while the director was scouting locations for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

From that connection bloomed the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, a joint effort between the government-backed Royal Film Commission of Jordan and the USC School of Cinematic Arts where Spielberg serves on the board, offering graduate studies for aspiring Middle Eastern filmmakers.

Established in 2008 and drawing candidates from the region, the Red Sea Institute graduated its first class of MFA students this past spring.

Elizabeth Daley, dean of USC’s film school in Los Angeles, sees benefits flowing both ways from the partnership.

“These programs also provide wonderful opportunities for our faculty and graduate students to learn about the region and enrich their own understanding,” Daley says.

Whereas many American schools are faced with the daunting prospect of expensive overhauls to stay up to speed with current technology, these Middle Eastern programs benefit from state-of-the-art facilities, such as digital screening rooms, cutting-edge post-production equipment and interactive media labs — a real advantage, given the hands-on nature of film training.

When working with foreign universities to develop such programs, Daley says it’s important for American schools to serve as consultants only.

“Our goal is to help a country develop a program that is appropriate for its own culture and needs,” she explains.

“That said, we believe in the importance of cross-cultural storytelling and in the power of the cinematic arts to bridge cultures.

“To achieve this goal there needs to be training for creative talent. We need to hear the voices of the Middle East through their stories and appreciate their traditions and aesthetics.”

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