The Emirati film scene is celebrating a bumper year but does it have the makings of an industry? Melanie Goodfellow talks to local filmmakers about what is needed to help UAE cinema grow.

For the fledgling Emirati film industry, 2014 is turning out to be a watershed year.

Half a dozen features from the region have come to fruition this year and for the first time it looks like a number of local titles will get a big screen release beyond the festival circuit.

For a country that only started producing features less than a decade ago, this is an achievement.

Leading the change is Ali Mostafa’s From A To B. Following well-received festival screenings at Abu Dhabi, Cairo and most recently Dubai, the film is set to be released by Empire on around 60 screens across the Middle East on January 6.

It is expected to do well in the UAE but there are also hopes it will perform strongly further afield in territories that are usually difficult for non-local Arab fare, such as Egypt and Lebanon.

Other Emirati features in this year’s DIFF line-up included Waleed Al Shehhi’s Dolphins, Fadel Almheiri’s Abood Kandaishan and Nujoom Al Ghanem’s Nearby Sky.

Dolphins and Abood Kandaishan have just secured theatrical releases through VOX Cinemas and Gulf Film respectively, via the Dubai Film Market’s new distribution initiative, under which a number of regional distributors have agreed to pick up one title each from the DIFF line-up.

Another seven Emirati shorts also played, but it is the presence of the three features that is significant.

However, although there are signs that the local filmmaking scene is going from strength to strength, there is still much debate over whether it yet constitutes an industry.

Although there is a fair amount of support for first and second shorts, making a feature-length film remains a challenge.

“I think things are definitely taking off. It’s obvious from the festival line-up and the fact there are films by Fadel, Ali, Nujoom and me and that there are another two or three titles coming soon,” says Al Shehhi.

“Many of the people making these features are the ones that were there 15 years ago when filmmaking first started in the country, so you could ask what’s taken us so long,” he adds. “Things are taking off, but if you ask me whether we have an industry, the answer is ‘no’. This will take more time and investment.”

Respected documentary maker Al Ghanem says the industry still needs careful nurturing by local government: “If you look at the film industries around the world, especially in Europe and Canada, they’ve been built because of governmental support.”

She also stresses the importance of local film festivals: “If it wasn’t for the film festivals we wouldn’t have reached this point…Now it is our challenge to keep these festivals going because sustainability is very important for filmmakers.”

One issue Al Ghanem points to is that UAE production facilities are tailored towards TV and advertising production, so they charge by the minute, which is expensive for filmmakers who are making low-budget feature-length films.  

“We still need collaborative support so we don’t put all the pressure on the government,” Al Ghanem suggests. “We need public-private partnerships so that expenditure can be split and both sides will benefit from the facilities that are going to be built. If the dream is to grow, we have to have the right facilities that are affordable for filmmakers.” 

Another issue for Emirati filmmakers is the lack of visibility for their films locally once they are completed – although From A To B combined with the efforts of the DFM’s distribution programme could be a game changer.

Mostafa, speaking at a panel about distribution at the DFM, said that besides attracting audiences at home, Emirati films also needed to travel abroad if they were to recoup costs.

Talking about his debut feature City Of Life, which sold 77,000 tickets in the UAE, Mostafa said that although it had been the most popular Emirati film ever, it had been a commercial failure.

“The film lasted about nine weeks in the theatres but it wasn’t a commercial success. It was a success in helping Emirati cinema grow and making people aware of Emirati cinema, but not commercially,” said Mostafa.

“With From A To B, we decided it was important this time round not to make a big-budget film, but still try to make something that was commercially viable because if we don’t recoup, how are we going to make more films?”