Arab world’s new wave of directors

Young helmers gain Hollywood attention

Across the Arab world, an unprecedented new wave of filmmakers is emerging. And as they’re making their first features, these up-and-coming talents are gaining the attention of Hollywood.

In recent months, the likes of Palestinian filmmakers Najwa Najjar and Annemarie Jacir, Jordan’s Amin Matalqa, the U.A.E.’s Ali F. Mostafa, Arab-American Cherien Dabis, Lebanon’s Chadi Zeneddine and Morocco’s Hicham Ayouch have all completed, or are in the process of completing, their debut efforts.

These young directors, many of whom grew up in the shadow of civil war and political strife in their native countries, are proving to be comfortable straddling East and West. That fusion is imbuing their filmmaking aesthetic, an often-intriguing mix of Arabic subject matter merged with influences from both Hollywood and Europe.

Zeneddine, whose first film, “Falling From Earth,” is a poetically elliptical take on life in modern-day Beirut, has been signed by Disney to develop “The Last of the Storytellers,” drawing on the Arab world’s rich folkloric traditions.

Similarly, Ayouch has been enlisted by 20th Century Fox to make the studio’s first Arabic-language feature film in “Samba,” about a Moroccan man, obsessed with a Brazilian telenovela star, who teaches a samba class to a host of doting young women all eager to win his heart.

These directors are grasping the opportunities afforded by a post-9/11 world where film producers are increasingly eager to redress the cultural imbalances between East and West and show a side of the Arab world largely ignored by the mainstream media.

And while these young Arabs may have different cinematic styles, they all share a boldness in tackling the perceived ills in their society, albeit through an accessible, mainstream approach.

Take Matalqa’s “Captain Abu Raed.”

That film, about an aging airport janitor who gets mistaken for a pilot by a group of kids in his impoverished neighborhood, deals with issues such as alcoholism and domestic violence through the prism of a warm-hearted, audience-friendly tale.

Jacir’s “Salt of this Sea” attempts to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the form of a romantic thriller as a young Palestinian-American woman visits her ancestral home for the first time. After discovering that her grandfather’s bank savings, which he left behind at the time of the partition of Palestine, have been dissolved, she decides to rob the bank with her young lover.

Najjar adopts a comparably fresh approach with her debut “Pomegranates and Myrrh,” with the bigger-picture politics of the Israeli occupation taking a back seat to the tale of a budding, forbidden romance between a young Palestinian newlywed, whose husband is being detained by Israeli authorities, and her dance teacher.

“Can’t we have our own love stories, even during an occupation?” asks Najjar. ” We have to offer people more than what they see in the news.”

Many of these filmmakers spent their childhoods moving between the Arab world and the West.

For Dabis, who was born in Omaha, Neb., to first generation immigrant Palestinian and Jordanian parents, her debut project would not have come to fruition without Arab financial support.

Dabis’ culture-clash drama “Amreeka” — which is in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes — was one of the projects selected for the Dubai Film Market, the Dubai Film Festival’s co-production market launched in 2007.

There she brought onboard two of the Arab world’s biggest media companies in pay TV network Showtime Arabia and Saudi Prince Waleed bin Talal’s multimedia titan Rotana. The two companies agreed to pre-buy for a substantial amount the project’s Middle East rights for theatrical and TV.

The support of the mushrooming satellite Arab TV market, as well as industry support from emerging film festivals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, has been crucial in helping many of these projects get financing. Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel,” for example, was partly funded by ART’s film division, Sunnyland Films. The impact of Labaki’s charming romantic comedy about a group of women working in a Beirut beauty salon should not be underestimated. The film, which cost $1.5 million, went on to gross more than $10 million worldwide, showing that Arab filmmakers can cross over internationally.

The shortcomings in the distribution of Arab films, particularly in the Arab world itself, have long been a bugbear for filmmakers from the region. There are some signs, however, that things are improving. At this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Rotana and leading Arab distributor Gulf Film signed a landmark three-year output deal, while Egyptian production companies the Good News Group and United Artistic Group signed their own output deals with Dubai-based distributor Front Row Entertainment and ART. The moves could revolutionize the way Arabs films are marketed and distributed in the Arab world and enable the emergence of a uniform, regulated pan-Arab distribution network for the first time.

“I don’t think anything is missing,” says Ayouch. “We just have to write good stories. It’s not a question of money. I once shot a film with three friends and a digital camera. Let’s make a revolution in our countries and make beautiful movies.”