Arab filmmaker of the year

Even as the UAE, especially Dubai, sets the foundation for the commercial production of films, its national filmmakers lament the lack of moral and financial support. Digital Studio reports.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  April 1, 2005

I|~|abdullah.jpg|~|Abdullah Hassan Ahmed|~|Wielding a camera for a living is a courageous choice in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country that has no history in cinema and offers little support to its filmmakers. But it is a career that a few young Arabs have chosen and relentlessly pursued despite the lack of finance, adequate equipment and moral support on home ground. What is interesting though is how their love of the art and their collective struggle has helped these filmmakers bond with each other. They not only share their equipment but also offer their skills to each other free-of-charge to ensure that each of them can contribute to producing a good film. “The most important thing is to present a good film,” asserts 27-year-old UAE national, Abdullah Hassan Ahmed, who feels that there is a greater onus on this generation of Emirati filmmakers to create good movies. “Cinema is still very young in the UAE; so it is our responsibility to make films that have such a great impact on society that they feel the need to support this movement,” he says. Ahmed comes from a theatre background but four years ago, he had a change of heart. “I wanted to think visually in the sense that cinema provides,” he says. And since then, there has been no turning back for Ahmed, who is a full-time filmmaker today. Although he primarily directs, Ahmed has often doubled up as cameraman and actor for his movies and those of fellow filmmakers. Three years and fourteen films later, Ahmed’s efforts have paid off. On March 7, 2005, he received his first official acknowledgement at the Emirates Film Competition in AbuDhabi, where he bagged two awards — one for best documentary (The Rise of the Doing) and the other for best fiction (Al Fustan). A day later, he was also awarded Filmmaker of the Year at the Digital Studio Industry leadership Awards 2005 for his exceptional talent and skill in filmmaking. What makes Ahmed part of the award-winning league is his ability to perceive things differently and to show that difference through his films. The Rise of the Doing, for instance, is his first attempt at a documentary and it was on a common subject — Dubai. But what makes this 25-minute documentary different from other films that have dealt with the same topic is that the camera does not focus on the creek or the skyline of new Dubai. Instead, it rests on the faces that populate this city. The documentary begins in the backstreets of Dubai and its souks and then moves on to the more glamorous landscape that the emirate is identified with today. “I wanted to film the people in the souks because Dubai was built on the shoulders of these people,” says Ahmed. “Through it, I wanted to make a film that genuinely reflects us, our environment, our culture and our history.” When Ahmed set out to do this documentary, one significant challenge that needed to be addressed was budget. But this hurdle was soon crossed when Damas Jewellery stepped in with the Faradees Artistic Group to jointly fund the venture. Armed with US $4,000, a Sony PD 170 he bought a year ago and lighting equipment borrowed from a friend, Ahmed and his tiny team of three including a script writer, a production manager and a driver, set out into the streets of Dubai on a Friday to shoot. “Dubai is full of different kinds of people. As a filmmaker, I felt it was my job to objectively show this difference. Perhaps the fact that I am not a resident of Dubai helped me to look at it more objectively. It helped me to peel away the layers of glamour on the outside and go further inside to see where the heart of this city lay,” he says. For Ahmed and his team, making this documentary was an eye-opening experience. “For one, this required a lot of research. Secondly, you can’t have a straight scenario like you have for fiction. Here, there are no actors and no specific script. You can’t plan it to the last detail. It’s more of a searching with the camera. You go looking for something and keep looking till you find it,” he explains. ||**||II|~||~||~|Commenting on The Rise of the Doing, fellow filmmaker, Nawaf Al Janahi reiterates that the film is objective and attempts to show Dubai as it is really is. “This film shows us the real Dubai. It looks at it from the inside and from the outside, and it looks at everybody, everywhere.” In one scene in the documentary, we see a tired hod carrier resting in the evening near the Abra with a cup of tea and a piece of cake in his hand. When he’s asked what he thinks of Dubai, he says he doesn’t like it. “The film was honest enough to show that,” says Ahmed. “It doesn’t mean that he hated Dubai. Perhaps it was just the suffering of the moment. Maybe at another time, if I asked him the same question, he would have said Dubai is great. It was that moment and the film shows that. And that is the role of the documentary — to capture the moment,” says Ahmed. But the Arab national is quick to add that he’s one of the few filmmakers who has had the good fortune of getting budget to produce a film, finding sponsors who did not interfere in its making, getting a couple of awards and more importantly, having a group of talented friends, who pitch in with camera work, music composition, production work and other related skills whenever the need arises. That combination is probably one of the reasons why Ahmed’s Al Fustan won the award for best fiction at the Emirates Film Competition this year. Al Fustan, which translates to The Dress, is a 27-minute film, which focuses on three generations of Arab women living in one house and how they tailor clothes for a living. It shows how these women with different attitudes and dreams live together under one roof. Ahmed’s friend, Yousef Ibrahim scripted the film, Nawaf Al Janahi assisted in directing the film, Ahmed himself shouldered the camera and alternated with fellow filmmakers, Khalid Al-Mahood and Waleed Al Shehhi. The music was composed by Ibrahim Al Amiri and sound was taken care of by Omar Ibrahim, another filmmaker who won the award for exceptional talent in filmmaking at the Emirates Film Competition this year. None of these filmmakers have even been paid token sums for helping each other. “We work for free for each other and we work together,” says 28-year-old Al Janahi. Al Janahi himself has been making films for the last four years, and has had formal training for the same from a university in the United States. “When Ahmed is making a movie, I help him. When I am making a movie, he helps me. We don’t pay each other because we can’t afford to but we all want to make good films. All of us have different skills so we pool our efforts together. Even in terms of equipment, all of us don’t posses cameras, lighting equipment etc. One person has a camera, another has the lighting equipment, still another has the editing suite. This is one of the problems we face. We don’t have enough equipment. We are heavily dependent on each other for skills and for equipment,” he adds. Al Janahi, however, works with Abu Dhabi TV as assistant director and makes films in his spare time. “My salary is not enough to fund a film,” he says. “But at least, I have a job that pays,” he adds. ||**||III|~||~||~|Like Al Janahi, Khalid Al Mahood also works for AbuDhabi TV as a production assistant. But his first love is cinema and he devotes all his spare time to it. In fact, these young men have not been deterred from venturing out even in the hottest months of the year, when temperatures soar to 50 degrees Celsius. “We shot The Rise of the Doing in July 2004, which is the hottest month of the year. Even the PD 170 used to shut down by itself because the humidity was so high,” says Ahmed. Their love of the art and their desire to give the best to their films has also prompted these young men to scout for talent outside the UAE sometimes. “There are very talented Emirati music composers like Ibrahim Al Amiri and Fahad Al Jasmi. But we don’t mind going outside sometimes to other Gulf countries if we find talent there,” says Ahmed. “For my film, Amen, for instance, Al Janahi went to Saudi to work with Alah Al Maktoum, a young Saudi music composer. He did a great job.” From Ahmed’s movies, it is clear that he tends to be inclined towards socially-relevant topics and uses simple camera movements to create visually-evocative images. “My films are pretty straightforward and have been edited on Vegas 4.0,” he says. “We are not making music videos here. But that does not mean I won’t use special effects if there is a need but the image must further the ideas of the script.” In stark contrast to Ahmed’s style, we have Omar Ibrahim, another young director, who won the award for exceptional talent in filmmaking at the Emirates Film Competition this year. Ibrahim’s An Ordinary Day is the story of a writer’s struggle to get the first line of his story written. The 10-minute film uses a lot of special effects to convey the writer’s angst. “They say a writer’s biggest difficulty lies in getting his first line written. After that, the ideas flow. Because this is an abstract theme, I didn’t want to show it in an ordinary way. That’s why I used special effects,” he says. Ibrahim, a former actor and sound specialist, directed his first movie in 2003, and funded An Ordinary Day himself. He had no trouble getting an actor, a cameraman or editor. But he had other hurdles to cross. “This is the first time I have directed a film,” he says. “Since 2001, I have been doing the sound for films but I have always felt that I had the talent to direct a movie. With this film, there was a fear of how to do it and how to shoot it right,” he says. Ibrahim used a Panasonic DVC Pro camera for An Ordinary Day. “It’s not my camera. Khalid Al Rayhi, a good friend and cameraman, shot the film; he also edited the movie and did the special effects on Adobe Premiere,” he says. “The problem was that we had only one camera. It would have been good to have several cameras to capture the actor’s movements from different angles at the same time,” he says. ||**||IV|~||~||~|Perhaps one thing that the organisers of the Emirates Film Competition and young Arab filmmakers have unanimously decried is the lack of support from the government, the broadcast industry as well as the media. The government has invested in several media projects to help broadcasters but no budget has been set aside to help local filmmakers or gone towards making available necessary equipment for the same. Local broadcasters themselves have shown little interest in telecasting these movies. “Some broadcasters try to take advantage of us by asking us to give them the rights to telecast our film for free. Sadly, if it is a movie from another country, they pay a lot of money to get the rights to that movie,” says Al-Mahmood. Masoud Amralla Al-Ali, director of the Emirates Film competition, voices these same sentiments. “They are correct. Cinema has not had any patrons in the UAE but the problem is a little more deep-seated. The fact is that the image has never been the dominant form of expression for Arab society. Text has. So, it will take time for these attitudes to change and for people to appreciate cinema, which is a visual medium,” he says. “Also, our country is only about 30 years old and so, everything is in its formative stage. The only difference is that most other art forms here have found patrons. The theatre group in the UAE enjoys the patronage of a Sheikh, for instance, and writers’ unions have been set up for poets and novelists,” adds Amralla. What Al Amralla recommends is a change at the government and broadcasters’ level. “Broadcasters must promote cultural events on their channels to support the local community. Secondly, there are a lot of talented filmmakers here but they need formal training to give their movies that finesse. Right now, many of them don’t know how to translate their ideas to film because they don’t know enough about techniques, cameras and lighting to help them achieve these results. There should be more workshops on filmmaking to put these people on the right track,” he adds. In the meanwhile, the lack of support has not dampened the spirit of these filmmakers. In fact, they are determined to carry on making movies, says Al Janahi. “We care about cinema and we hope the government, production houses and broadcasters will take a step forward to support this movement. But we can’t just stop and wait for them to help us to start making movies. If we hadn’t started moving ourselves four years ago, we wouldn’t have reached this far. If it means we must keep funding our own films, so be it. But we will keep making films.” ||**||

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