Middle East exports young filmmakers

New generation of storytellers making global impact

LONDON — With the world’s eyes on the Middle East, people need something to watch.

A new generation of filmmakers from the region, buoyed by the recent international breakout success of Middle East pics such as Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel” and Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit,” are dealing with the tumultuous events in their own back yards and delivering diverse, often bold, cinematic visions.

Given that two-thirds of the Arab world is under the age of 30, it is fitting that so many young and dynamic filmmakers are breaking through.

This year, a clutch of Middle Eastern filmmakers have bowed their debut features, often to critical acclaim.

Jordan’s Amin Matalqa won the Sundance Audience Award earlier this year for “Captain Abu Raed,” the country’s first film to receive international recognition in decades.

Palestinian helmers such as Annemarie Jacir, whose “Salt of this Sea” preemed in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, and Najwa Najjar, who is screening a rough cut of her feature debut “Pomegranates and Myrrh” at San Sebastian, have defied the political turmoil in the country to offer fresh perspectives on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In fact there are a slew of projects in the pipelines from debut or sophomore Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers.

Tawfiq Abu Wael, whose “Thirst” won the Cannes Fipresci prize in 2004, is prepping his sophomore feature, a loose adaptation of Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s classic 1968 novel “Return to Haifa,” while Sameh Zoabi is set to start filming his debut feature by the end of the year.

Debut Israeli helmer Samuel Maoz’s war drama “Lebanon” will be ready in time for Berlin next year while gang thriller “Russoun,” co-directed by first-timers Israeli helmer Yaron Shani and Arab helmer Scandar Copti, is already generating significant buzz in Israel.

In Egypt, the long-standing powerhouse of the Arab film industry, 30-year-old Marwan Hamed shocked and delighted critics and the public alike with his taboo-busting bigscreen adaptation of “The Yacoubian Building” in 2006.

Hamed is currently lensing his sophomore feature, “Ibrahim the White,” a gritty crime drama and love story, on location in some of Cairo’s toughest neighborhoods.

The success of “Yacoubian” has helped spur on the current resurgence in Egyptian cinema.

Rami Imam’s feature debut “Hassan and Morcoss,” a satirical laffer about religious intolerance starring Egyptian legends Omar Sharif and Adel Imam, was a box office hit in Egypt this summer and also provoked debate about Christian-Muslim tensions on the country.

Similarly, up-and-coming helmers such as Mohammed Moustafa, whose “Free Time” followed a group of youthful Cairo friends struggling to deal with drink, drugs and social pressures, and Ibrahim El-Batout, whose “The Eye of the Sun,” won the best film prize at this year’s Taormina Film Festival, represent an invigorating injection of new talent in a part of the world that has, at times, been resistant to change.

“One of the things we’ve had to overcome in this region is cynicism,” says Jordan’s Prince Ali, who is chairman of the country’s Royal Film Commission and has been instrumental in nurturing the building of a film industry there. “Whenever you start doing something, there are always cynics around but I think we’ve pretty much won over everyone in that respect. People now have more freedom to do what they want and they’re taking more advantage of that.”

The Middle East has been attracting attention of late as a source of potential film coin, especially with Wall Street and hedge funds retreating from the film biz as a consequence of the economic slowdown.

The Abu Dhabi Media Co., for example, launched film production arm Imagenation Abu Dhabi on the eve of the Toronto Film Festival with a $1 billion fund to produce predominantly English-language features over the next five years. The shingle has since inked a $250 million deal with Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media with further announcements expected shortly.

Less notice, however, has been paid to the filmmaking renaissance going on in many parts of the region, including the Gulf where in some instances — notably Saudi Arabia — cinemas themselves remain banned and there has not historically been a tradition of filmmaking.

In the United Arab Emirates, the likes of Nayla Al-Khaja (“Arabana”), Hani Al-Shaibani (“Dream”) and Ali Mostafa (“Under The Sun”) are all taking their first steps to creating a grassroots film scene.

Even in Saudi Arabia, the most conservative of all Gulf states, filmmakers are breaking free from their social shackles.

The first-ever Saudi films were produced in 2006: Abdullah Al-Moheisin’s “Shadow of Silence” and the Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal-funded “How Are Things?”

Lensing is also nearing completion on “Menahi,” the second Saudi feature from Prince Waleed’s Rotana film banner. Pic, helmed by Ayman Makram, should be ready by the end of the year.

Ironically, however, while the Gulf is enjoying healthy economic growth spurred by high oil and gas prices as well as a booming real estate sectors, a key issue for Middle Eastern filmmakers is the lack of an orderly funding infrastructure.

While fests in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have introduced initiatives such as the Dubai Film Connection co-production market and the $100,000 Shasha Grant for scriptwriting, respectively, the region’s helmers are still often forced to look to Europe for production coin.

In addition to the lack of funding and the ongoing issue of censorship, a huge element missing in the development of new Middle East film talent has been the lack of proper training institutes. That may be about to change with the opening of a number of film schools across the region.

Local producers also are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to film financing. Rather than rely on financing out of the Gulf, producers from Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and even Iraq, are making efforts to set up more modest funds that can finance a slate of low-budget, art-house pics.

Lebanon’s George Shukeir, who produced Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas’ “I Want To See,” which preemed in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, is putting together a $10-million fund to work with up-and-coming Lebanese helmers.

“There is a lot of money out there, but you need to structure it,” says Shukeir. “We’re trying to find the right formula. ‘Caramel’ has opened the door for us. Now we have to build on it and develop the market. We have the money, the ideas and the talent. Now we just need the right structure.”

The impact of Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel” should not be underestimated. The $1.5 million pic, a charming romantic drama about a group of women working in a Beirut beauty salon, has grossed more than $10 million worldwide since its preem at Cannes last year. Labaki’s story has shown that Middle East filmmakers can crossover internationally and make films that aren’t restricted by the social and political upheaval in their countries.

And while Labaki has been flooded with offers from the U.S. and Europe, it is an encouraging sign that she intends to stay in the Middle East and make her sophomore project, which she is currently writing, in Lebanon.

“It’s important for me to make another Lebanese film,” says Labaki. “We went all over the world with ‘Caramel’ and showed that something Lebanese could work everywhere. Why not do the same adventure again on a bigger scale? We need to start making films that work abroad before we can talk about an industry.”

The next few years are likely to be exciting times for Middle East filmmakers, with sources of coin likely to become more plentiful, new screens being built across the region at a dizzying rate and concerted efforts to mature the still-fragmented market.

“The ship has left the port,” says Prince Ali. “We just don’t know exactly where it’s going.”