Groundbreakers

Young filmmakers in the UAE are gradually beginning to receive support from the government and the corporate sector to make movies. Although the lack of it has not stopped a young generation of talented Emiratis from surging ahead with their dreams, support will make a big difference to the quality of movies produced. Digital Studio meets some of the people who are stirring the flames of the cinema movement in the UAE.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  November 10, 2006

I|~|bigfilm.jpg|~|From left: Maitha Ebrahim, Khaled Al Reyahi, and Abdul Halim Ahmed Qaed.|~|In late August, a film titled Ahmed Suliman, directed by UAE national, Waleed Al-Shehhi, won the Best Arab Short Film Award at the Jordan Short Film Festival. In September, three Emirati films were selected to be screened at the Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentary and Short Films 2006 in Egypt. 12 additional Emirati films were also screened at the event as part of an effort to honour UAE cinema. In December this year, at the Dubai International Film Festival, huge sums of money will go out to the Best Feature film, best script and the most promising filmmaker of the year. All of this is evidence of the fact that filmmakers in the UAE are now beginning to make a name for themselves and correspondingly, Dubai is beginning to acknowledge and support them. Lack of money and good technical support have, thus far, been cited as the biggest challenges to making good cinema in the UAE. “We are only able to make short films because we can’t afford to make features. But shorts don’t bring in any money,” says 32-year-old Abdul Halim Ahmed Qaed, whose documentary, Mirage was nominated for screening at the Ismailia Film competition. Qaed, who recently graduated from the Higher Colleges of Technology with a diploma in Applied Media, works at Etisalat, the UAE’s monopoly telephone operator, for a living and makes movies in his spare time. Every year, Qaed works on two or three film projects. “I have three short films in the pipeline and am planning two long movies. So far, I’ve done only shorts with easily available cameras like the DV cam or the miniDV so I didn’t require any money. But to do feature films, I will need financial support,” he adds. Qaed is different from most amateur filmmakers in that he has tried his hand at making horror films. “I enjoy watching and making horror films but they are rarely appreciated at film festivals,” he says. “At festivals, awards usually go to films that focus on human interest or social issues irrespective of whether they are made well,” he adds. When Qaed thinks of filmmaking, he imagines that it must be technically well made. His films also reflect that view. On seeing Fear, one of his horror films, we see that the editing is professional as are the sound effects, which are bound to strike fear in your heart. Qaed takes his lessons from the horror films he has watched at the local cinema. “There is no film school here, and I can’t afford to go abroad. So my best bet is to go to the theatre and watch movies and learn from them. My wife also enjoys watching horror films so it’s good fun for us to go together to the theatre, and I try to recreate some of those effects in my movies,” he says. ||**||II|~|yasser.jpg|~|Yasser algargawi, coordinator of music, theatre and cinema, DCC says there are plans to create a formal association to represent the filmmakers by the end of 2007.|~|But horror is not the only thing Qaed does. He has tried his hand at other genres such as comedy and documentary as well. In his documentary, Mirage, the filmmaker touches upon one of the biggest myths in the UAE — that all Arabs are rich and live in mansions. “For most people, Dubai means Sheikh Zayed road and the Burj Al Arab. But these are not your normal neighbourhoods,” says Qaed. “I live with my wife and child in my father’s house because I cannot afford to live in a home of my own, and I represent the average UAE national,” he adds. Mirage is well made but it could have been better if Qaed had hired a professional narrator to do the voiceover. Instead, he has had to rely on a friend in his group to do the narration. Most Emirati filmmakers have managed to make movies by allying themselves to a group with different production skills. There are several such groups in the UAE namely Faradees, Desert’s Falcon Group, Inea’kas (reflection), Al Roa’ya (Vision), Al Boa’d al Rabe’ (Fourth Dimension) and so on. Each group typically has six to seven people with skills in direction, editing, acting, camera work and audio. “We often have to have different skills. For instance, I act, do camera work, edit and direct. But we have very few people with technical skills, especially for sound editing and special effects. Apart from the music editors, we don’t charge each other. If we did, none of us would have been able to make movies,” he says, adding that most of the equipment he uses is loaned from friends. At least, Qaed is part of a group and can get the odd camera to make his movie. For Emirati women filmmakers, making a film is a lot harder. For one, there are not enough women out there who want to make films and as a result, sourcing equipment and technical help is very difficult. Secondly, very few get support from their families. 22-year-old Maitha Ebrahim, who has just graduated from the Dubai Women’s College, knows that a career in filmmaking will be tough for her. But that hasn’t stopped her from moving forward with five short releases this year namely, The Rock, Non-Verbal Language, A Roof Over Our Heads, The Scar and The Adolescent Colours. Ebrahim is no timid girl. If she can’t find a group, she’s determined to form one. She decided to pursue media studies despite opposition from her family. She got her college to allow her class to specialise in film from the second year although traditionally, they do it only in the third year. She has made several short films and documentaries and has done so well so far that she is now working as an intern at Dubai Media Inc’s Sama Dubai channel. Ebrahim’s A Roof Over Our Heads was nominated for screening at the Ismailia Film festival. ||**||III|~||~||~|Ebrahim doesn’t have a camera of her own. So far, she has managed with kit from her college but once she graduates, she will no longer have access to that. “So far, the college has been giving me the camera, the edit suite and other essentials. But I will be graduating soon and I may not be able to use the college facilities anymore because there are other students who will need it,” says Ebrahim. However, she is confident that her internship at Dubai TV will give her the opportunity to learn more production skills. With the money she earns there, Ebrahim hopes to invest initially in an entry-level digital camera. “But my aim is to eventually buy a 16mm or 35mm camera. I went to some film schools in the United States and had a look at the equipment their students use. Most films students are taught to use a film camera and that’s where you ideally need to begin so that you know the basics. I’d like to buy a film camera some day,” she says. Like Qaed, Ebrahim has learnt to direct, do camera work as well as edit. “I keep doing storyboards, improving old story boards, watching movies and am constantly thinking of what shots to take and how to take them. I hope Dubai TV will eventually give me a chance to create my own programme and I have some ideas for a programme,” she adds. What she can’t find, however, are actors. “I have access to producers, directors, editors, even sound editors. What I can’t find are good actors. Perhaps when Dubai Studio City comes up, we will have more access to talent.” Most of these problems have, thus far, been discussed only informally between the filmmakers themselves. Now, however, the government of Dubai, has plans to give the filmmaking community a more formal representation. “Our plan is to create a formal establishment or association that represents the filmmakers by the end of next year,” says Yasser algargawi, coordinator of music, theatre and cinema at the Dubai Cultural Council (DCC). Algargawi’s job is to offer suggestions to the government on how best it can support filmmakers here. “UAE filmmakers currently work in an informal way and this does not work for the government. Through their association, they can decide whether they need funds, how much budget a project requires and what percentage of the film will be owned by them. Also, it will be a good way to schedule courses in filmmaking for members while also making available the equipment they will require to make films,” adds algargawi. He also says there is no proper film community out here. “Filmmakers here currently don’t have a place to gather or put their equipment. Once the association is in place, they can share their equipment, get in touch with people outside of their group and if they have a license for their editing software, they can load it on a computer at the association so that everyone can use it,” he explains. ||**||IV|~||~||~|Already, the DCC has moved forward funding a couple of projects like Omar Ibrahim’s An Ordinary Day. But with a formal plan in place, more talented filmmakers will have access to resources that will enable them to make better quality films. Last month, a young Sudanese filmmaker, Mohammed Al Traifi, called together a press conference in Dubai to announce the release of his film, Haneen. Al Traifi has, within a span of two years, gone from directing shorts to making a 90-minute feature film in Arabic. Most filmmakers dream of making feature length movies. As Qaed rightly points out, shorts don’t make money. “We usually make short films for our own satisfaction but they rarely make any money. I would consider myself a successful filmmaker when you go to the theatre and pay US $8 to watch my movie,” he says. Qaed may have his wishes come true a lot faster than he thinks thanks to the speed with which things take shape in Dubai. For one, Dubai Studio City is ready to open its doors to different companies within the film production chain. This will include world-class film schools as well. Secondly, the Dubai Cultural Council has submitted a proposal to the concerned authorities to authorise budget for the purchase of production equipment. “We will provide all of the equipment from A to Z that they need — right from pre-production to production and post,” says algargawi. “We will, however, provide only digital technology as there is no film movement here. Most of the filmmakers here only use digital equipment as 35 mm is very costly. Film stock is prohibitively expensive and most filmmakers here can’t afford it so digital technology works best for this country,” he adds. Moreover, for those filmmakers who want to show it on the big screen, the technology to convert it to 35 mm is available now, says algargawi. There are also plans to make available an office with telephone, fax and other facilities that local filmmakers can use. All of this is likely to take a year but when it does, the UAE will truly be able to stir a cinema movement. “We need to make a jump in filmmaking and only then, will we be able to see more mature cinema here. For that, we need more editors, better equipment and some financial support as well,” says Al Qaed. In the meanwhile, most UAE filmmakers are determined to continue making movies. Lack of support has not stopped them so far but with support, they will have the right tools to make cinema that would do their country proud. ||**||

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