The UAE movie industry is thriving — but do we have what it takes to compete with film’s bigwigs?
It’s safe to say that the UAE film industry is still in its infancy.
The screening of the first Emirati full-length film, Aber Sabeel, was in a Dubai cinema in 1988. But it would be two years before another would make it to a local theatre, and nine more for one to be screened across the country.
But since then, things have noticeably picked up and this year is shaping up to be the most prolific yet, with ten Emirati titles set to hit the big screen, including the animated film, Catsaway, by Fadel Saeed Al Muhairi.
But is this development enough to sustain the momentum? Are the current programmes adequate enough to bring the industry up to global standards? Does Abu Dhabi have what it takes to be the Hollywood of the Arab world?
There are two things to factor in when talking about the dynamics of the country’s movie industry: its appeal to host filmmakers from abroad, and its ability to produce quality films of its own.
Recently, we’ve seen an influx of foreign studios coming to the country to shoot scenes for Hollywood films like Furious 7, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and War Machine, as well as Bollywood flicks such as Dishoom, Bang Bang, Baby and Race 3.
“The Abu Dhabi Film Commission, (entertainment company) Image Nation, (media free zone) twofour54 and the Media Zone [Authority] are doing a great job at getting these high profile productions to Abu Dhabi,” commends Sascha Ritter, film and video production instructor at Zayed University’s College of Communication and Media Sciences, and director of the annual Zayed University Middle East Film Festival.
“Much of this is because of the 30 percent cash-back rebate on production spending that they’re offering to international producers.”
Introduced in 2012, the rebate – announced during the Cannes Film Festival in France that year – is billed as the ‘region’s first film incentive scheme’, in which foreign studios shooting in Abu Dhabi are rewarded through refunds on production expenditure.
Add to that the emirate’s unique scenery and landscapes, excellent security and worldwide reputation, and the offer is simply too good to pass for outside filmmakers.
“Abu Dhabi, and the UAE in general, boasts locations that suit various scene requirements. And it’s a safe place with a stable political and economic climate,” Sascha highlights.
“All these make the city an appealing prospect for producers scouting for a place with attractive cost rewards.”
Attracting foreign productions is just one part of the equation. The main goal, after all, is to nurture a vibrant filmmaking culture here to hopefully keep up with established industries around the world.
For Emirati director Tariq Al Kazim, the biggest challenge is shifting the mindset of producers to be more receptive to ideas that are considered ‘out of the box’ by local standards.
“The growth is much faster than before, but we’re still not moving in the right direction,” says Tariq, whose latest thriller, Until Midnight, will open in UAE theatres on 21st June.
“We’re still focusing on this idea that a movie must be cultural in context. I understand that we have our own limitations here, but producers have to realise that filmmakers need to experiment; being a filmmaker means having the freedom to pursue your own vision.”
That’s not to say that there’s a lack of imagination or creativity in some of the homegrown movies that have made it to the big screen.
Works like the coming-of-age film Sea Shadow by Mohammed Hassan Ahmed, Nawaf Al Janahi’s crime-drama The Circle, the sci-fi Aerials by SA Zaidi and Tariq’s 2017 thriller A Tale of Shadows, have all managed to blend unique elements into the narrative while still being culturally sensitive.
Funding-wise, Tariq would like to see authorities spread the wealth – quite literally – more evenly to give both amateur and seasoned filmmakers an opportunity to flesh out their ideas onscreen.
“There is this company that funds movies for about AED 20 million. Why fund one movie with that amount when you can fund 20 movies for AED 1 million each? If you want to give every single director a chance, that’s how you do it,” he points out.
“The new breed of filmmakers is definitely talented. But I’d like them to not shy away from asking for support from the government, private entities and fellow creatives, anyone that can help them improve their craft or get their vision across. To produce something great, they all need to work together. It’s not easy, but don’t get tired of trying.”
Another hurdle facing the industry is the lack of solid support to help industry players like the actors, writers and crew.
Acting coach and talent scout Miranda Davidson explains: “I think in order to see that growth, we need to see more legal infrastructure, which includes health and safety guidelines.
“In addition to some sort of legal way for people to crowd fund or raise money for their projects, we need to give filmmakers a strong and healthy environment to create and then assist them in getting projects seen on a global scale.”
She continues, “We have seen this done on a micro level with the few filmmakers that Image Nation has cultivated, but we should look at making that accessibility greater.”
Things are certainly moving in the right direction. The government, along with local film studios, are eager to help boost the skill set of the creative community.
There’s the construction of Studio City in Mina Zayed – a 300,000 square metre backlot and studio development compound equipped with modern facilities and an outdoor film set.
Last year, the country formed an Oscar committee to select the best UAE film for submission in the foreign language category of the prestigious Academy Awards. It’s an obvious effort to make noise in the international arena.
Extensive changes from the ground up are essential to cultivate a dynamic film scene – and it has to start in our own backyard.
“I would like to see film industry players get more involved with policy and have a voice at the table when governmental decisions are being made,” says Miranda.
“The film industry is a very unique creature and sort of plays by its own rules. I would like to see a focus on things like how to get permits, customs, visas, protection for the cast, extras and crew, insurance – all specifically tailor-made for the industry here.”
Ironing out these kinks can unleash the full potential of local filmmakers, which can then help the UAE establish its own identity in the market, the same way that Hollywood and Bollywood have found theirs.
“I think filmmakers here are very good storytellers. Maybe it is in the genes as they’re coming from an oral-based society where just a few generations ago, stories were retold by mouth, passed on from one generation to the next,” Sascha reflects.
“Arab filmmakers have a talent for telling interesting stories and a very good eye for composition and framing. The production value and storytelling are changing and [improving]. There’s a lot of promise there, making the future bright for the industry as a whole.
“In my eyes, to build a flourishing film industry you need to have a solid foundation, meaning you need to support young and aspiring filmmakers, and I don’t necessarily only mean financial support.
“They need a platform where they can share their ideas, find partners and crew and get valuable feedback on their scripts and films. Once you have a solid base, the rest will come automatically.”
WORDS Ferdinand Godinez