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Local Funds Hold Key to Financing Films in Middle East

Directors at Abu Dhabi Film Festival want more money but subsidy system imposes guidelines and discipline

For young directors in the oil-rich Emirates, just as in the rest of the Arab world, finding coin to make a movie is almost as hard as getting the proverbial camel to go through the eye of a needle.

Still, funding opportunities have increased in the past decade as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha launched film fests with affiliated funding entities.

Since 2010 when the Abu Dhabi fest started its Sanad fund for films in development or post, more than 100 projects have tapped into its support. Projects backed include Kurdish helmer Hiner Saleem’s Cannes Un Certain Regard entry “My Sweet Pepper Land,” set in a wild-west post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi Kurdistan; Iraqi orphanage docu “In My Mother’s Arms,” by Atia and Mohamed Al-Daradji, that went to Toronto; and Palestinian refugee camp docu “A World Not Ours,” by Emirati helmer Mahdi Fleifel, that traveled to Berlin.

More recently, Jordanian first-time helmer Naji Abu Nowar’s “Theeb,” a Bedouin Western, scooped the director nod in Venice’s Horizons section. It has been supported by Sanad in development and post.

Theeb,” which will soon make the international fest rounds, also benefitted from some Sanad savoir faire in figuring out strategy for its launch. Heeding the advice from Sanad founder and topper Intishal Al Timimi, who also heads the fest’s Arabic programming, the “Theeb” team held out for Venice, after being accepted in Berlin’s Generation section, Locarno and San Sebastian. It ended up also going to Toronto.

“I believe ‘Theeb’ is the best Jordanian film ever made,” enthuses Al Timimi, who also thinks Sanad and other funds in the region have been instrumental in “fostering a new wave of low budget Arab films, especially documentaries.”

Interestingly, Sanad and other Arab film funds are also becoming part of a broader festival-related film-funding circuit, which includes the Venice Film Market’s Final Cut workshop, where two of this year’s winning docs in post — Lebanese helmer Maher Abi Samra’s “A Maid for Each” and Jordanian filmmaker Dalia Al Kury’s “Possessed by Djinn” — also received Sanad coin.

Another Final Cut winner, from last year, Egyptian director Ibrahim El Batout organ-trafficking thriller “Cat,” also got a Sanad grant. This buzzed-about pic will world-preem at the Abu Dhabi fest.

But despite the positive aspects of Sanad, and the funding circuit it is ingrained in, there are recurring litanies from Arab directors that these sources provide too little coin, forcing them to seek the bulk of financing in Europe.

“We never said we were a production fund,” counters Al Timimi, underscoring that Sanad is just for development and post and has always had a strict $500,000 per year total budget. It gives a maximum of $20,000 for development and $60,000 for post. The Sanad chief also says that the fund never gives less than $10,000 for development and $50,000 for post.

This is designed as part of a philosophy that forces young directors to work within market constraints from the get-go, which may ultimately be healthy. “It’s a good balance; we don’t spoil directors,” Al Timimi says.

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