European Producers Join Middle East Filmmakers to Ride Arab New Wave

The proliferation of Arab projects being developed with European producers and filmmakers at this year’s Cannes market suggests that despite political turmoil, and the escalation of anti-Muslim sentiment in France after the January attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, strong ties between the cultures are being forged.

Underlining this broad artistic and financial accord is the Arab Cinema Center, the first Arab film industry umbrella group to attend Cannes, comprising some 17 film outfits and orgs from eight Arab and European countries.

“We need to do more work as Arab filmmakers,” notes Egyptian helmer Marwan Hamed, who is bullish on the Arab Cinema Center being at Cannes. “We have to do more lobbying and marketing for what we are (creating).”

The Center, which will act as a focal point for the international film industry to engage with what is being touted as a New Arab Wave, is coming to Cannes thanks to marketing and theatrical distribution company Mad Solutions, based in Cairo and Abu Dhabi.

Mad, headed by film analyst Alaa Karkouti, is experimenting with social-media-based strategies — connecting potential ticket buyers to films via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, for example — to boost box office prospects among home audiences for Arab movies.

The group has had some encouraging results, most recently with Mohamed Khan’s female-empowerment melodrama “Factory Girl,” which was a hit across the Middle East, including Egypt. The film also scored a rare theatrical release in Sweden. Mad has been behind such successful releases as Jordanian first-timer Naji Abu Nowar’s Bedouin Western “Theeb,” and “Warda,” touted as a “Blair Witch”-like Arab chiller.

The challenge in expanding the Arab film industry’s international horizons is that “it’s really rare to find a project that can interest audiences both in the Arab world and in Europe,” says Mohamed Hefzy, topper of Egyptian shingle Film Clinic, which is participating in the Cinema Center.

At Cannes, there are many Arab projects suitable for global cross-pollination.

For instance, “Degrade,” directed by Palestinian twins Arab and Tarzan Abunasser, is a comedy that focuses on a group of women stuck in a Gaza hair salon while mayhem breaks out across the street. The pic, a joint effort between Arab and French producers, unspools in Critics’ Week at Cannes.

“Degrade” made the rounds of the European co-production mart circuit, where it tapped into France’s Breizh Film Fund, among others. Produced by Rashid Abdelhamid of the Jordan-based Made in Palestine Project in tandem with Marie Legrand and Rani Massalha of Paris-based Les Films du Tambour, the picture will be offered at Cannes by French sales company Elle Driver. The movie also circulated on the Middle East festival scene, where it was adopted by the Doha Film Institute.

Another production headed to Cannes is “Clash,” an Islamic fundamentalism-themed thriller by Egyptian auteur Mohamed Diab (“Cairo 678”). France’s National Center of Cinematography and the Moving Image announced that the film will be supported by its Cinemas du Monde fund, which had not given coin to an Egyptian pic in many years.

Paris-based producer Daniel Ziskind recently boarded “Clash” as Film Clinic’s European representative. Hefzy and French producer-distributor Eric Lagesse, whose Pyramide is co-producing — and will be pre-selling the film in the Cannes market — both see the Charlie Hebdo attacks as adding urgency to movie, set inside a police wagon in Cairo packed with both pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators. Franco-German network Arte also has joined the production, which will start shooting in September.

Another Islamic fundamentalism-themed project being set up as a joint Arab-European effort is the big-budget “Assassins,” about Hassan-i-Sabbah, the charismatic 11th century leader whose cult, which assassinated its political rivals, is considered the forerunner of Al-Qaeda and Isis. Hamed (“The Yacoubian Building”) is developing the film.

“ ‘Assassins’ is a new territory I’m entering. It’s an epic, it’s historical and it’s political,” says the director, who will certainly need European coin to put his vision on the screen. And, judging by the way French and Arab filmmakers are eagerly forming alliances, it shouldn’t be long before cameras roll.

Film Clinic’s Hefzy sees the rise in co-productions as being enabled by a cross-cultural awareness.

“People in Europe are more interested in what’s happening in the Arab world,” he says. “Or maybe Arab producers are getting more guidance from all the co-production markets they go to, so they know how to approach European funds and European producers.”

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