Sales agency devotes itself to neglected regional fare

Arab cinema is on a roll, producing challenging, varied fare certain to have an increased profile in the wake of the present revolutions. Yet apart from festivals, international interest has been sporadic, hampered to no small degree by the lack of a sales agency willing to guide the product through festivals and the worldwide market.

That’s about to change with the Cannes launch of Pacha Pictures. What’s more, Pacha is embarking on a short-term venture with powerhouse Paris-based Films Distribution, which will provide both the start-up know-how and the clout to ensure Western markets have the confidence to partner up with Pacha.

Its shareholders largely consist of Middle Eastern filmmakers and producers frustrated that good Arab products get lost in the marketplace. Aside from stalwart Egyptian production-distribution house Al Arabia, few Arab companies have a place in the Cannes and Berlin markets — an absence underscoring the enormous gap between increasingly high-profile films, thanks in part to the new wave of Gulf production funds, and their lack of a global profile.

“After producing ‘Microphone’ with Khaled Abol Naga, and looking at other films from the region, I felt like there was no company out there willing to take a risk with Arabic films,” says producer Mohamed Hefzy, of Cairo-based Film Clinic. “Arabic cinema is where a lot of other cinemas — Iranian or to a lesser extent Chinese cinema — were earlier; they needed a European partner, someone who fights, who has a place on the international market.”

Company chair Frederic Sichler, a long-time industry player whose resume includes stints as CEO of StudioCanal and president of Arab-media powerhouse Rotana Studios, embodies the company’s goals: “Since I moved to the Middle East, I knew that something great was happening — they didn’t wait for the revolution to deliver extraordinary content.”

Pacha will have six films at Cannes, including “Microphone,” directed by Ahmad Abdalla, as well as Hesham Essawi’s “Cairo Exit,” also from Egypt. Also being repped are Bahij Hojeij’s “Here Comes the Rain” and Georges Hachem’s “Stray Bullet,” both from Lebanon. In addition, the timely doc, “Tahrir Square,” which is in post, will be among Pacha’s offerings, all representative of the strength of regional product.

“Some Arab films have been distributed worldwide, but almost exclusively those produced with European partners,” offers Sichler. “I think the world has changed, there is a flourishing generation of producers and talent, and Pacha Pictures will be the connection between the international market and the rising generation throughout the Middle East.”

For producer-actor Abol Naga, whose new company Team Cairo is another part of this move toward integrated Arab film services, the changes in the Middle East represent an ripe opportunity for the cinema sector: “There has never been a greater need for the Western world to understand our culture,” he says, “and what better way to do so than through cinema? The political situation, as fragile as it is, is very promising on a political, social and definitely artistic level. This is a golden opportunity for Arab filmmakers to take the film industry to the next level.”

As for the future, there’s talk of expanding into production, but for the moment Pacha execs know they first need to solidify their position as the go-to sales agents in the region from Iraq to Morocco.

“We want to be one of the pioneers,” says Hefzy, “to be able to connect East and West. There will be enough good films, at least six to eight per year, coming out of the Middle East. If the revolution promises to end up the way it appears to, Egyptian society will be more free, and we’ll be seeing better quality films. It’s not going to happen in one year, but the potential is huge, and cinema and media should connect internationally to the wider world.”

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