As political change and renewal sweeps across the Middle East, the film industry in the Arab world is also undergoing a transformation. In step with this week’s Doha Tribeca Film Festival, Screen profiles some of the region’s rising film-making and acting talent now stepping onto the international stage.
The volume of film production across the Arab world is enough to sustain an estimated 5,000-10,000 actors across all salary scales. While the majority of their work has not been seen outside their respective countries, let alone outside the wider Arab-speaking world, it is becoming increasingly clear their talents and those of their film-makers will assume an ever bigger role on the international stage.
“I tell young actors: it’s a global career now,” London-based casting director Dan Hubbard told a panel at last December’s Dubai International Film Festival. Speaking alongside him was one of the best examplars of this globalisation: Egyptian actor Amr Waked. With roles in two Hollywood films, Syriana and Contagion, Waked’s stock is about to rise even higher following his performance opposite Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt in Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, one of this year’s hottest acquisition targets at Toronto, where it was snapped up by CBS Films.
According to Waked, the crux of an actor’s success hinges on his ability to make the audience believe he is the only person who could play that role. Focus on being authentic, and the rest will follow.
“You should never throw yourself in the path of a casting director; that should be the job of your agent,” he says. “Do the best you can with what you have and then people will find you.”
And, yes, Arab actors can be prima donnas too. Persuading established Arab actors to audition for parts can be difficult unless the director happens to be a big name. “There is an incredible amount of resistance across the profession,” says Waked.
Another tell-tale sign of Arab cinema growth is that casting directors are now having to deal with ever tighter production schedules. “We used to have three months to find actors,” recalled Paris-based casting agent Gérard Moulevrier at Dubai. “Now we can be given just two weeks to prep before shooting begins.”
It is a trend that will likely accelerate once the revolutionary smoke across the Arab world begins to settle and legions of newly empowered filmmakers flex their storytelling talents even more. It won’t be long before one of their creative endeavours will supersede Caramel, Nadine Labaki’s 2007 breakthrough that established new benchmarks for what an Arab feature could achieve in the international marketplace after opening theatrically in more than 40 countries for a collective take of nearly $15m. Her follow-up, Where Do We Go Now? won the coveted People’s Choice Award at last month’s Toronto film festival.
Here is a look at future Labakis and Wakeds tipped to make an international mark.
Actress and film-maker, Saudi Arabia
Ahd, who is known now just by her first name, is a native of Saudi Arabia, a kingdom not readily associated with film-makers or actors. And yet she has won early acclaim in both spheres, winning prizes for her short film The Shoemaker, in which she co-stars opposite Amr Waked, and was named best actress at the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival for her screen debut in Razan.
Based in New York, where her production company Odd Camel Films reflects her open-minded spirit, Ahd also has extensive production experience having worked alongside Peter Berg on The Kingdom in roles that included set assistant and technical advisor.
As Ahd develops her first feature, Smile, You’re In Jeddah, her personal take on her hometown, she has every intention of continuing this multi-hyphenate existence.
“Film-making and acting go hand in hand,” she says. ”They complement each other and fulfil different aspects of telling stories. In my next projects I hope to continue to grow in front of the camera and behind it, bringing life to heartfelt stories that transcend cultural barriers.
“Arab Cinema in general and Saudi specifically, have all the potential in the world to reach the universal stage: the timing is excellent, the stories plentiful and the talent is all available. We just need to dare to dream the impossible and focus on making it happen. “The challenge for any film-maker regardless of their background, is to communicate to the industry their artistic point of view and my responsibility as an artist is to show a full truthful picture that captures the human, universal side of Saudi culture along with the preconceived common notions associated with it. So far, I’ve never been more proud or fortunate to be a Saudi woman.”
As his full name suggests, London-based Khalil straddles multiple worlds. From a British-Palestinian background, he started as a second-assistant director on Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention. The surreal black comedy remains one of Khalil’s cinematic touchstones as he developsA Gaza Weekend, a lighthearted take on Arab-Israeli politics. The project is set in a fictional contemporary period where Israel is under an embargo due to a mutant virus and Gaza is the only safe place in the region because of its isolation.
“I am a strong believer in thought-provoking and entertaining films, and in my opinion, it is about time the world saw a wider range of films from the Middle East, a comedy with a heart.
“Being half-Palestinian, half-British I was always able to look at the Israeli-Arab issue with different eyes. I enjoy the challenge of pushing the boundaries of storytelling, and in this film I plan to deliver a story where the characters’ human side shines more than anything in the absurd world they live in.”
Among those impressed by Khalil is Julian Friedmann, the UK literary agent who is now working with him on an adaptation of Nathalie Abi-Ezzi’s novel A Girl Made Of Dust, set in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion of the 1980s, to be directed by Wafa’a Halawi. “Basil has clarity of thought and articulation,” says Friedmann, “He is personable and proved to be very diligent when I asked if he would like to be involved in A Girl Made Of Dust, which I am executive producing. He is realistic in evaluating how much clout he has — or doesn’t yet — as a producer: he suggested we should have a more experienced executive producer on board. Although he is young he is ambitious and open-minded.”
Shoestring budgets may be a necessity in a film-making micro-climate such as Jordan, but that doesn’t mean creative ambitions or audience reach need also be reduced. For evidence, look no further than Nasser. Having cut her production teeth on BBC documentaries shot in her country, she joined Jordan’s Royal Film Commission in 2006 and has been a galvanising presence ever since.
“Jordan has produced less than 10 features in all until now and three of those films have been produced by Rula,” marvels Alaa Karkouti, the Arab film business journalist who runs the movie marketing company MAD Solutions. “She’s a real pioneer and fighter, and the person really responsible for active film-making in Jordan,” If she could, her ambition would be enough to accommodate five features every year.
“The most important thing about her way of production is that it confronts the financing challenges inherent in Jordan,” says Karkouti. “She has created a no-budget framework. People who can make movies from nothing are the ones who can build a real industry. They will be the real base of Jordanian cinema.”
In August, Transit Cities, a feature that Nasser shepherded through the Royal Film Commission, played the Montreal World Film Festival.
Nasser says her aim is to make universally entertaining films. “I don’t want to make films that are only seen in festivals,” she explains. “What I love about cinema is that it is a bridge to connect you and take you wherever you want.”
Zaid Abu Hamdan
Born and raised in Jordan, Hamdan was enraptured with drama from a very early age. Years later, while studying communication arts in Beirut, he would find himself fascinated by the natural ability of children to act and react organically. That fascination led him to become an assistant director/writer for the Jordanian version of Sesame Street and then, more potently, to his short film Baram & Hamza. The tale of a short-lived friendship between six-year-old boys, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, it deals with Middle East politics in purely human terms and played the festival circuit extensively in 2010.
It is his latest short, Bahiya & Mahmoud, about an aging Jordanian couple, that will likely stand as his career breakthrough. Having received the best of festival award at the 2011 Palm Springs International Shortfest, it now becomes eligible for Academy Awards consideration.
“I believe Zaid is of one of many new-wave film-makers rising in the Arab World,” says Masoud Amralla Al Ali, artistic director of the Dubai International Film Festival. “His dedication and sharp vision of Arab storytelling are amazing. He tweaks his plots into ironic comedy with an enormous sense of humour.”
Zaid, now in the midst of securing Arab and Western co-producers for his first feature Nostalgia, divides his time between Hollywood and an Arab world he views as being on the cusp of its own breakthrough.
“We now have great platforms that allow Arab film-makers to communicate our art to the world, like the Doha Film Institute, Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, Dubai, Abu Dhabi [film festivals] and others,” he says. “I have strong hopes a very solid and self-sufficient Arab film industry will be formed in the near future. As an artist first and an Arab film-maker second, I believe our Middle-Eastern and Arab culture is full of magical stories, beautiful characters and fantasies that need to be told to the world. There are magnificent talents in our region that just need to be polished and directed towards being in the right place.”
Now coming into her own as a filmmaker in the giddy aftermath of the Arab Spring, Amin’s career path offers a textbook case of following one’s inner voice. After studying commerce in Cairo and then toiling away at HSBC, she decided to take film-making courses, without necessarily knowing where that might lead. While at the Art Lab at the American University in Cairo, she produced the short Her Man, which was selected for the Clermont Ferrand International Short Film Festival among several others. But it was when she studied film directing and experienced life as an assistant director on a number of feature films, such as Alive, that she found her true calling.
“I discovered I love directing,” she explains. “It’s a means for me to express myself. Otherwise I always have trouble with the words. I never seem to express myself completely unless I am directing.”
Always in search of challenging projects that “push towards my limits”, Amin directed arguably the most difficult segment of three that made up Tahrir 2011, the documentary about the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt that won an award at this year’s Venice film festival.
Despite her misgivings, acknowledged in her narration, she interviewed members of the security forces about their violent suppression of the Cairo demonstrators.
“I’m glad I bet on her as one of the directors of Tahrir 2011,” says Mohamed Hefzy, founder of the Film Clinic, the film’s Cairo-based production company. “Ayten embodies exactly the type of talent that I seek and rarely find for Film Clinic projects: young, undiscovered, full of promise, with a high sensibility, and a huge reservoir of talent.”
Last December, Amin was announced winner of the Cairo Film Connection (CFC) prize for what will be her feature-length debut 69 El Mesaha Square (69 Medan El Mesaha). An unlikely comedy, it revolves around a 62-year-old man who faces a terminal illness. As he nears his death, people from his past invade his isolation and change his view about life. “The project was chosen because it is ambitious and represents the vitality of the new Egyptian cinema,” explains Samir Seif, head of the CFC jury.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been much better known for the largesse of its multiple film festivals and film financing initiatives than for its cinematic output. In other words, a film-making superpower without portfolio. But watch this space. Films by UAE nationals are just starting to ripple outwards, starting with Sabeel, the first film from a Gulf country to be selected for either the Berlinale or the Locarno film festivals.
The award-winning 20-minute drama, by Abu Dhabi-born, University of Denver-schooled Al-Mahmood, follows two small boys in the Emirati mountains who sell vegetables on the road in order to buy medicine for their grandmother. A succession of long shots and zig-zagging mountain roads are resonant of the Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami — although Al-Mahmood himself would be the first to downplay such lofty comparisons at such an embryonic stage in his career. He is patiently putting together the elements for his follow-up.
“I doubt Sabeel would have reached so far without the successes of earlier films from other regional directors who set certain standards for future film-makers,” he says with characteristic modesty. “As for me, I feel so proud to have placed this new benchmark for UAE and [Gulf state] film-makers; it is not only a challenge for them to surpass, but also for me too. As for UAE cinema, there have been small successes in terms of a film doing well at the box office and a company stepping into the role of producing films commercially. They are helping to build the infrastructure for a proper industry but still it’s limited.”
Others are less hesitant about Al-Mahmood’s impact. “Even in Europe and the United States, with their solid industry bases, it’s not easy to find a film-maker with nerve,” observes Egyptian film journalist Alaa Karkouti. “So imagine a film-maker coming from UAE, where there is practically zero industry, and exhibiting that nerve. With Khalid, you can feel a real vision coming from a film-maker who knows exactly what he wants — the result probably of having worked in numerous industry capacities, including at film festivals.”
It is tempting to see Gouda as the Arab world’s answer to Aishwarya Rai. Much like the Bollywood superstar, Gouda is a former beauty contestant who worked as a model after reaching the finals of Miss Earth 2004 and wearing the best model in the world tiara a year later. Her screen career happened almost by accident, after she was offered a walk-on part as, yes, the best model in the world by a friend.
But a year later, she stunned everyone in the Egyptian industry with her portrayal of a drug addict in Amr Salama’s On A Day Like Today which went on to play at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2008. Not only that but Gouda was named best actress for that role in Egypt’s equivalent of the Oscars.
“How could such a beauty play so ugly,” asks local film journalist Alaa Karkouti with the same wonderment that was shared at the time by many of his countrymen.
“Over the last decade most female starts in Egypt focused more on their beauty, while essentially playing characters that were good. Arwa understood the game. Her first cinematic role was Khaled El Hagar’s None But That! In which she plays a malleable young girl who wants to become a famous singer. Then she took the role of a drug addict and her career was launched from there. In the five years since, she has become of the best new actors in Egypt.”
It is a reputation that was further burnished during Ramadan this year, traditionally the most watched season in the annual calendar, with her performance in Citizen X that also flew in the face of the stereotypical gentle Egyptian female. In the series she stands out as a tough-yet-charming biker girl who owns a motorcycle agency.
“The beauty of acting is that you can be anyone you want who you can’t be in real life,” she says.
Hamze’s early childhood was one of constant movement. Seeking sanctuary from the constant threat of bombshells, her family fled the mountains of Lebanon for Beirut, then rural Baalbek and finally France. Hamze herself was packed off to boarding school in the UK. The experience not only left her with an appreciation of Shakespeare, courtesy of those school plays in England, but a propensity for change and breaking new ground that has carried over into her professional acting career.
“My ambition, as it relates to Arab cinema, is to be able to have more young directors tell their stories more courageously and say what is going on in this region of the world,” says Hamze. “I hope we can keep investing all our talents and potential in the Arab film-making world to be able to see our own image in movies, and make it an industry that competes at the highest standards out there.”
While certainly not a newcomer in her native country, where she enjoys a strong following, Hamze’s willingness to take on startlingly different and risk-taking performances makes her the likeliest to break out of Lebanon. She caused a stir when she took the lead role in Fouad Khoury’s Shola Cohen: The Pearl, portraying the Jewish-Lebanese woman who became known as Israel’s Mata Hari after organising a spy ring based in a Beirut nightclub.
Her appearances in Iranian films and TV shows involved learning lines in the foreign language of Farsi, not to mention a challenging regional commute. And her time in London was marked by some experimental films in English and even a published collection of poetry.
“Yes, I like to choose diverse roles and dare myself to transform into such opposite characters,” says Hamze, who this year caught the international eye with a starring performance as a chanteuse in Danielle Arbid’s Hotel Beirut, which also showcased her singing voice. The film premiered in competition at the Locarno film festival.
“Once she has a character to play she studies it from different angles, tries to understand it and even creates its history,” says Sabine Sidawa, executive producer of Hotel Beirut, through Beirut-based Orjouane Productions.
Documentary film-maker, Syria
Al-Beik is a self-professed pigeon breeder, football player, conceptual artist and film-maker. Hearing that, it won’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that his artistic career — one that is as at home in still images as it is in moving ones — stems from unconventional roots. Having earned a degree in business administration from the University of Damascus, Al-Beik’s real professional education came from the 10 years spent working at a camera repair shop during the 1990s. It was there he received his formal training in the medium, one that has seen his photographs displayed at prestigious showcases throughout the world.
Equally self-taught when it comes to cinema, Al-Beik has nonetheless become one of Syria’s leading film-makers and one who follows in the tradition of Syrian auteur cinema and its strong association with social critique. His invitation to the 2006 Venice film festival, where his feature I Am the One Who Brings Flowers To Her Grave won an award, was a first in the history of Syrian cinema. He returned this year to the Lido to present his short film, The Sun’s Incubator.
“My story is kind of funny,” acknowledges Al-Beik in a video portrait commissioned for the Doha Film Institute. “At one point, I dreamed of becoming a professional football player. But later you realise that time flies by: you can only play football until a certain age. In a way I feel that film-making has no age limit. You can start at a very young age and keep making films until you die.”
“There is magic in making film and there is even more magic making independent film. You can describe the world as you see it. I don’t feel the problem is just about money. The bigger issue is what you actually want to talk about, how to talk about it, and how the film will actually look. There is a saying I like by Robert Bresson. He says that when he goes to make a film, he feels like he is going into battle.”
He describes his planned second feature project, Aspirin And A Bullet, as an audiovisual confession about his parents, a liberating autobiography made in preference to paying to see psychiatrists.
“Aspirin And A Bullet is not only a film, it is also a way of living, the first step towards my future independent films to be made with patience, honesty, madness and a lot, a lot of freedom.”
Those who saw Omar’s short documentary State Of Emergency six years ago, will have seen the writing on the Cairo wall. A firsthand account about police brutality and torture during the Hosni Mubarak’s 2005 presidential election campaign, the bravura film anticipated the simmering anger that boiled over last December in Tahrir Square. Like many of his peers, Omar rushed in to film — only to set aside the camera, join the protest and serve as a witness for the organisation Human Rights Watch. He got shot in the process, but his injuries only kept him away for three days.
Ten months on and Omar hopes “to capitalise on the attention and optimism world viewers seem to share about the Middle East. Even if it’s mixed with a sense of reservation and anticipation, there is a pervasive desire to change perceptions 10 years after conservatives from both sides of the Atlantic dominated the media dialogue. It all starts in the mind, and film is a tremendous tool in this respect.”
In Omar’s view, there are distinct parallels between what is happening on the ground politically and on the screen cinematically.
“The generational divide, which is arguably the most important factor fuelling the Arab spring, is very much extending into Arab cinema,” he suggests. “There is a new term we are throwing around these days, which is ‘revolutionary film’. That’s not necessarily a film about any revolution, but rather a film that is itself revolutionary or innovative and pioneering in its style and substance.
“Young Middle Eastern film-makers are breaking new taboos daily and are increasingly focusing on our own Arab identity and Arab audiences. I’ve had many conversations lately about ‘tightening’ the Arab world cinematically and culturally, and think this will be a recurring theme in the future. I expect a lot more Arab stories will have inherently youth-oriented issues, ideas, and will attempt or aspire to redefine what Arab cinema actually is.”
As for his personal ambitions, Omar’s upcoming projects, both due for release next winter, underline his insistence that so many Arab stories are left to be told. Les Petits Chats follows an Egyptian cover band from the 1960s and 1970s who came together for a reunion concert last year; The Dream Of Shahrazad by director Francois Verster, explores the new landscape of resistance as Arab women join the good fight through the power of storytelling. He is also working on 69 El Mesaha Square, the feature debut of Ayten Amin (see separate profile).
“Considering the relatively short time he has been in the business,” observes Charles Schuerhoff, commissioning editor for PBS International, “Wael shows an excellent understanding of how things work, good business judgment and a real passion for the projects he gets involved with.”