In Dubai, a Festival Is Born. Next, an Industry?
By HASSAN M. FATTAH
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates
Tinseltown it's not. But Dubai, a swiftly rising city of cranes and skyscrapers on the Persian Gulf, has highly ambitious plans for the silver screen. And frustrated Arab filmmakers are hoping that this is their moment, too.
The weeklong $10 million Dubai International Film Festival, which ended on Saturday, was billed as a showcase of Arab and international films. Coinciding with the comparatively lower-budget Marrakesh and Cairo film festivals, the Dubai version, with 13,000 people attending, was even talked up as a spur to starting a film industry here.
About 75 films were shown, together meant to appeal to Dubai's diverse community of Asians, Arabs and Westerners. But more than anything, the festival was all Dubai: a mix of Disneyland and Las Vegas. Like most things in this desert emirate, the 50-yard-long red carpet leading into the main festival hall was brand new. Even the location, a resort complex built to resemble an old-fashioned mud-brick city, seemed appropriate - more movie lot than luxury hotel. The program - indie, Hollywood and Bollywood films - was meant to please. And big American movies, like "The Grudge," "Polar Express" and "Ocean's Twelve," proved the biggest draws.
About the only unhappy people were Arab filmmakers, who fancied themselves as the stars of the program. For much of the week, nearly 50 of them wrestled with their fundamental problem: lack of support. In screenings, talks and frequent informal sessions, Arab auteurs flown in by the festival made no secret of their frustration with their moneyed hosts and with the perceived apathy of potential Arab backers.
"I'm sick of co-productions and going for money from Europe and the U.S.," said Annemarie Jacir, a Palestinian-American whose short film, "Like Twenty Impossibles," about Palestinians navigating Israeli checkpoints, played to packed audiences. Despite all the talk of building bridges with the West, Ms. Jacir noted, it would be better to build them closer to home. "What there really needs to be is a bridge between the gulf and Arab filmmakers," she said, speaking about the wealthy Persian Gulf region.
Abdul Hamid Juma, chief executive of Dubai Media City, a government-sponsored media free-trade zone that sponsored the festival, said he hoped to have an answer for the directors soon. Media City - similar to an office park but for publishing, broadcasting and entertainment companies - intends to create a Dubai Film Commission to support producers, a Dubai Location Management Commission to encourage film production, and an infrastructure and a Dubai Film Fund to finance movie projects.
"Only Dubai can do this at such a critical time," Mr. Juma said. Blame the dearth of financial support on politics, said Mohamed Maklouf, who organized the festival's Arab shorts program. With authoritarian governments running much of the Arab world, few are likely to back independent cinema, Mr. Maklouf said, because, "Our leaders are terrified of the moving image."
But many other problems dog Arab filmmakers, including distribution of their product in the region. Movie distribution is often handled by the equivalent of cartels in Arab countries, and unless filmmakers are connected to them, they can be denied distribution and thus a take at the box office. The subject matter of many independent films does not sell either. Many Arab films, says Taher Houchi, a Moroccan-Berber filmmaker, live on the festival circuit but cannot make it on their own.
The largest producer of Arabic-language films is Egypt, which releases between 30 and 40 feature films a year, said an Arab film critic, Essam Zakarea. Known mainly for their adherence to formula and to slapstick, Egyptian films are made by a handful of small and midsize producers, and have budgets of well under $1 million each. They do, however, make it onto DVD and video CD (an inexpensive format on CD-ROM used throughout Asia and the Middle East) from Djibouti to Iraq.
Filmmakers in countries with nascent film industries like Tunisia and Morocco can receive money from their governments, but they are comparatively small sums. Tunisia has a fund of about $500,000, which it uses to help finance three or four films a year, said Nawfel Saheb-Ettaba, a Tunisian film director who produced a feature-length movie with almost two-thirds of the money coming from the government.
The vast majority of Arabic-language films, especially those that reach the West, are made with European or private money. And that, many filmmakers say, has its own price. "The reason this film exists is because of French cinema," said Kamel Cherif, a Tunisian-born filmmaker, about his short coming-of-age movie "Sign of Belonging." The film, which examines both East and West through the eyes of a Tunisian boy who faces circumcision, was made largely with French government money. The 30-minute movie cost $200,000 and won the award for best short film at the Venice International Film Festival earlier this year. But, Mr. Cherif said, he paid a price for that support. A co-producer was added to work with him, and he had to do most of the post-production work in France at a significantly higher cost, which ate into his budget.
"It becomes a real problem because the Europeans are beginning to put controls" on films in exchange for financial support, Mr. Cherif said, adding, "I would hope that one day a film like this would be funded by an Arab." An Arab would have understood the subject matter better, Mr. Cherif said, and helped him to produce a more authentic product.
Can Dubai come to the rescue? Mr. Juma said it could, with a bit of time. "I don't want people to come here and shoot the desert or terrorist movies," Mr. Juma said. "I want to create an industry."