Beyond the classroom | Western programs reach out to region | Below-the-line focus builds on tech skills

With nearly 60% of the 340 million people in the Arab region under the age of 25, it should come as no surprise that aspirations to work in the film industry are at an all-time high in the Middle East. To meet that demand and boost the filmmaking community, organizations unaffiliated with academic film schools are ramping up their education and training efforts.

In Qatar, umbrella organization the Doha Film Institute launched this year in an effort to bring all of Qatar’s film initiatives under one banner, including the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. According to executive director Amanda Palmer, educating local filmmakers throughout the year is one of its key remits.

“We recognized there are lots of film schools, often difficult to get into and expensive,” she says. “If we want to grow talent here, we have to make it accessible. Institutionalized education can put people off, and what we want to do is provide people with an entry.”

DFI offers a slew of workshops, including a filmmakers’ lab in association with the Tribeca fest that sees eight aspiring filmmakers from Qatar participate in four filmmaking workshops over a seven-month period. Their finished shorts are screened at the Doha Tribeca fest, which unspools Oct. 26-30.

“Ajami” co-director Scandar Copti serves as education director at DFI, which covers everything from acting and animation to film labs and video art. “We need to adjust ourselves to the needs of people in this region,” he says. “We’re covering all aspects of filmmaking and making sure we have something that will grow every year.”

Abu Dhabi’s $1 billion film production arm, Imagenation, is tapping into U.A.E. talent. Dedicated to developing, financing and producing international and Arabic features, the org announced a six-strong slate of Emirati pics earlier this year and plans to source local crew and provide hands-on training for each of its projects. First up is coming-of-age story “Sea Shadow,” helmed by Nawaf Al-Janahi. According to COO Stefan Brunner, at least a quarter of the crew will be sourced Emirati talent, some of whom will come from their training programs.

“We take this very seriously,” Brunner says. “We have a lot of filmmaking talent in this region who have never had the chance to show their talent. We’re bringing them on and providing them with hands-on training.”

Brunner adds that while department heads will be international, each will be paired with one or two Emiratis who want to learn the craft. “The plan is to get them up to speed with the first couple of productions so that they can eventually take over and head up a project.”

To help expand and educate the local crew, Imagenation has launched its Mawaheb internship program in conjunction with the Abu Dhabi Film Commission and international partners Participant Media, National Geographic Films and Hyde Park Entertainment. Selected participants get hands-on experience in everything from development, production, distribution, sales and marketing.

The organization is also scouting for thesps through its emiratifilmstar.com site, which has had 400 applications in the past few months.

“We are not organizing a film school,” Brunner says. “We are a company that has a goal to make movies. There are a lot of things you can learn hands-on, and that’s why we offer this training.”

David Shepheard, director of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, adds: “The practicality is that students are working on live projects. We want these future employers to equip them with real-world training.”

Like Doha Tribeca, the Dubai Intl. Film Festival aims to be more than just another sprocket opera. Fest director Shivani Pandya says the group’s true objective is to develop talent in the region for the industry. To that end, DIFF has launched a series of initiatives, including its Dubai Film Connection co-production forum, which unites new filmmakers with producers and agents. Since the event’s 2007 launch, 10 films have been completed, among them Emirati pic “City of Life,” from helmer Ali Mostafa, and Iraqi project “Son of Babylon” by Mohamed Al Daradji that unspooled in Sundance.

The fest, which offers various workshops during its Dec. 12-19 window, works in conjunction with the Torino Film Lab and EAVE for its Interchange program, which trains filmmakers on various key skills, from script development to pitching projects.

“If you go through an academic program, they’re always geared to academics,” says Pandya. “We offer practical, real-life experience as well as creating a network and introductions to people that probably would not have had the opportunity otherwise.”

But Pandya insists DIFF’s goal is to “enhance experience and skills,” rather than explaining the basics to complete neophytes. “Our industry is quite new and developing rapidly. We need to equip people with the right skills right now,” she says.

Over in Jordan, the government-backed Royal Film Commission offers a variety of no-fee crash courses and workshops set up to develop a competitive film business.

RFC also launched the RAWI script development program in conjunction with the Sundance Institute. Since its inception in 2005, the lab has assisted 37 projects, including Najwa Najjar’s “Pomegranates and Myrrh” and Cherien Dabis’ “Amreeka.”