Trio of sprocket operas boosts regional filmmakers

With the cancellation of two pivotal events in the Arab film festival calendar in November — the Cairo Film Festival and Syria’s Damascus Film Festival — due to political turmoil that has grown out of the Arab Spring, younger fests in the region have stepped into the spotlight.

A pair of festivals, Abu Dhabi in the UAE and Qatar’s Doha Tribeca, are both gaining status in the pan-Arab region, and providing a platform for Arab filmmakers. A third, more established fest, Dubai, is set to unspool its eighth edition in December.

Much of the global attention first given to these fests circulated around the robust prize money offered by organizers in the oil-rich nations in which they are held. Abu Dhabi offers $1 million to winners, while Dubai and Doha award some $600,000 and $335,000 in cash prizes, respectively.

Dubai has been building programs for filmmakers for years, and this year, eight of the features and documentaries slotted for the Arab competition have received finishing coin from Enjaaz, Dubai’s post-production arm; the fest’s Film Market offers several initiatives for filmmakers — from pre-production to post, including the Dubai Film Connection, a co-prod market.

But their goals are similar, particularly Abu Dhabi and Doha: to promote a vibrant film culture in their regions while pushing to become world players in the film business.

The 10-day Abu Dhabi fest, which wrapped its fifth edition Oct. 22, boasted arguably its strongest lineup to date.

Headed by fest veteran Peter Scarlet, who previously ran the San Francisco festival and Tribeca, this year’s selection hosted eight world premieres (after prints of “Absolutely Tame as a Horse” were banned from leaving Iran). Preems included Michael Brandt’s “The Double,” Sam Neave’s “Almost in Love” and “Sea Shadow,” the first Emirati production from Image Nation, Abu Dhabi’s $1 billion production arm.

The lineup featured a raft of high-profile Arabic fare including Amr Salama’s “Asma’a,” Faouzi Bensaidi’s “Death for Sale” and Safinez Bousbia’s “El Gusto,” the latter of which was a grant recipient from Sanad, the fest’s film fund, which injects $500,000 annually to development and post-production of Arab pics from new and emerging filmmakers.

Scarlet says he was thrilled with the caliber of projects the fund had invested in, and stressed that it was reflective of the increased amount of Arab voices wanting to be heard.

“There are more films out there now that reflect the vitality of Arab cinema, and that’s a great thing,” Scarlet says. “On balance, this year’s festival achieved what I would have hoped,” he adds. “The difficult thing is that the money (for the festival) doesn’t come through in a predictable fashion; our budget was definitely trimmed this year.”

The Doha Tribeca festival, which wrapped the third edition of its five-day event Oct. 29, is arguably a glitzier affair than Abu Dhabi, and the young Qatar fest, held in a desert nation with a population of less than 2 million, makes no qualms about flexing its financial muscle.

Headed by Al Jazeera producer and presenter Amanda Palmer, the fest kick-started the Doha Film Institute in May 2010, with year-round activities dedicated to building a sustainable Arab film industry.

Behind the glitz and the long line of BMWs that queue to transport festgoers from glamorous hotels to the fest’s hub, the Katara Cultural Village, there is a mandate to invest in local and international pics through DFI, the fest’s umbrella org, which provided backing for many of the nine world preems, including Merzak Allouache’s “Normal,” Lina Alabed’s docu “Yearning” and Jean-Claude Codsi’s “A Man of Honor.”

This year’s fest opened with Jean-Jacques Annaud’s $55 million desert epic “Black Gold.” DFI injected a mid-seven figure equity investment in the pic.

Driving Doha’s growth is the fact that the city is the location of the headquarters of news channel Al Jazeera, which is owned by Qatar. Doha is also set to host soccer’s 2022 World Cup.

U.S. and international companies continue to have their eye on the region. Miramax launched its new Middle East Facebook app at Doha, and CEO Mike Lang expressed his optimism over the area’s potential for growth “not only for digital distribution, but as a place for emerging filmmakers.”

International sales outfit Fortissimo Films has pledged its commitment to the region as well by inking a multiyear, multipicture partnership with Image Nation to sell international rights for the shingle’s first slate of local and Arabic language pics. These include “Sea Shadow” and Tobe Hooper’s Arabian supernatural thriller “Djinn.”

“We have a commitment to the region because there’s a lot of talented people here,” says Fortissimo topper Michael J. Werner. “There are a lot of structured resources here, and both Abu Dhabi and Doha are trying to stimulate structural changes.”

Still, both fests had some teething problems.

At Doha Tribeca, the awards ceremony was switched to an earlier time at the last minute. Some filmmakers grumbled they felt like they were being marginalized in favor of a glitzy closing party and concert.

Abu Dhabi had site-related issues, relocating the main hub of the fest to the Fairmont Hotel, further afield than the sprawling Emirates Palace, which housed the fest in previous years. Most bizzers were put up in the Fairmont, which was a 30-minute cab ride from screenings downtown, but the hub for industry gatherings, parties and conferences.

“It was a bit of a slog into town,” admits Scarlet. “But next year we want to re-create a tighter core.”

There’s also a certain lack of communication between those at higher levels in Abu Dhabi. Image Nation has seen its fair share of reshuffles in the past year, and many observers say there isn’t enough discussion between bizzers at that shingle, the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (which promotes film for the region), the Media Zone Authority (the regulatory body responsible for setting and implementing regulations, policies and strategies) and the festival heads.

Says Scarlet: “We’re all more in touch now, but there’s still more work to do.”

XYZ topper Aram Tertzakian, whose pic “The Raid” screened in Doha, says such growing pains are to be expected in a region flush with fresh talent striving to be heard. “These festivals ultimately house a lot of new voices from the Arab world,” Tertzakian says. “When you talk about discovery at film festivals, these are the places to come to discover these new Middle Eastern filmmakers, who are saying something interesting not just about the political turmoil but also cultural realities here.”

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