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Arab Fest: Path to fun and funds

Venice Film Festival: Arab Fest Preview

Ten years ago, international filmmakers paid little attention to getting their films into an Arab festival, but now the region offers a growing promotional platform and industry crossroads for filmmakers throughout the world.

Over the past decade, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have launched hi-tech media hubs and glitzy fledgling festivals — Dubai (founded 2004), Abu Dhabi (founded 2007) and Doha Tribeca (2009) — that complement other key regional fests such as Marrakech and Cairo.

With a distinctive late fall slot in the festival agenda between Venice and Sundance, the Arab world’s top fests offer major media exposure, funding grants, networking opportunities and myriad partnership webs.

Michael Greenspan bowed his debut feature “Wrecked,” starring Adrien Brody, at Abu Dhabi in 2010 and the media buzz helped him secure a distribution deal with IFC Films. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s $55 million Arabian epic “Black Gold,” co-funded by the Doha Film Institute and Tarak Ben Ammar’s Quinta Communications, will world preem at this year’s Doha Tribeca.

“We always aimed to have the world premiere at Doha Tribeca because it’s the perfect platform for this film, since it will allow us to maximize exploration of the film’s Arab cultural setting, while giving us access to international media,” says Quinta Communications’ Ali Jaafar, a former Variety staffer.

Filmmakers attending the region’s top fests have privileged access to sales agents and key industry players at events such as the Dubai Film Connection, considered to be the Middle East’s most successful co-production market, and Abu Dhabi Film Commission’s film finance confab, the Circle.

“Several films and filmmakers have benefited from attending Dubai, whether they’ve been picked up by sales companies, achieved further distribution or screening at other festivals or found funding for their next projects,” says Dubai managing director Shivani Pandya.

Films that have been picked up by distributors and sales agents at Dubai include Egyptian Mohamed Diab’s sexual harassment drama “678,” Dominique Mollard’s African migrant doc “Adrift: People of a Lesser God,” Ahmad Abdalla’s Egyptian underground art pic “Microphone,” Hesham Issawi’s forbidden love story “Cairo Exit” and Georges Hachem’s Lebanese wedding drama “Stray Bullet.”

“We can act as a strong catalyst for a film to gain a wider audience, even if it’s been shown in another major festival before,” says Abu Dhabi’s head of press, Doris Longoni, citing Hammad Khan’s Cannes-player “Slackistan,” which she says “found its real audience here.”

For Arab filmmakers, the fests constitute a key industry crossroads and provide vital funding, particularly important given the scarcity of subsidy coin in most Arab countries.

The Dubai Film Market offers training, as well as pre- and post-production grants. Abu Dhabi operates Sanad, a $500,000 annual development fund, while the Abu Dhabi Film Commission’s film finance confab, the Circle, offers $100,000 in development coin.

In Qatar, Doha Film Institute (DFI) runs the Doha Tribeca fest, an inhouse production arm and year-round training, development and production support. A host of Arab filmmakers have benefited from this dynamic, including Nadine Labaki, whose sophomore outing “Where Do We Go Now?” bowed at Cannes in May. The film was produced by Anne-Dominique Toussaint and her shingle Les Films De Tournelles. Co-producers were Pathe, United Artistic Group and Quinta Communications.

Ibrahim El Batout received backing from the DFI for his Egyptian renewal-themed “Hawi,” which won top Arab film kudos at Doha Tribeca in 2010; the helmer went on to win Dubai Film Connection’s Arte prize for his next pic, “Ali, the Goat.”

Mohamed Al-Daradji received coin from Abu Dhabi’s Sanad film fund for two projects: “The Train Station” and “In My Mother’s Arms.”

“Arab filmmakers are getting more and more progressive,” Pandya says. “They’re touching on ground-breaking issues such as sexual harassment, interfaith relationships, single mothers, immigrants, fracturing societies, war and revolution and mental illness.”

Longoni concurs: “Broken narrative structures, off-kilter characters and unconventional image compositions are being used to pose serious questions about the status quo.”

As Arab cinema springs into greater force, this will reinforce the presence and relevance of the region’s top fests.

Former StudioCanal topper Frederic Sichler, who launched Arab sales outfit Pacha Pictures at this year’s Cannes, is confident that the best is yet to come.

“There’s no question that this exciting new generation of young Arab filmmakers will be delivering a series of cinematic jewels over the next two-three years,” he says.

For many, Arab fests will be the platform to introduce their work to the world.

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