For the first time, the Gulf States are coming together to promote themselves as a cohesive regional film hub. By Colin Brown

Even as large swathes of the ancient Arab-speaking world burn around them, business in the arriviste cities to the south continues at a blithe clip.

For all their own quirks and complications, the six countries that ring the Persian Gulf remain one of the fastest growing market blocs in the world in terms of movie consumption. Ever more meaningful distribution dollars are being generated out of this Arabian Peninsula. And for the first time there are also real signs of a unified film-making ecosystem emerging here where once there was just regional discord and self-interest.

This newfound harmony is a momentous departure. Although notionally banded together as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), those half-dozen peninsular states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE) have been anything but co-operative in developing a knowledge-based economy to replace the depleting carbon-based one.

Instead, a Balkanised collection of ambitious media fiefdoms grew up, each wielding their enormous wealth to impress themselves on the world stage. Ever the ones to capitalise on such industry fault-lines, Hollywood executives have happily played one city-state off the other to their own financial advantage.

‘I would like to see more independent or government entities promote Gulf films and talents regardless of their affliation’

Khalid Al Mahmood, film-maker

But now the movie powerhouses of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and their immediate neighbours are all coalescing around an overarching pan-Arabian vision.

Emblematic of this was the willingness of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, once prestige-chasing arch-rivals, to come together under a common UAE flag at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. For the first time, these neighbouring emirates shared the same pavilion to showcase their combined offerings.

“The fact Abu Dhabi and Dubai are only an hour apart really strengthens the UAE’s position as the leading regional film hub and accelerates our objective to fuel the development of a sustainable film production industry in the region, as it makes it easy to collaborate, grow a shared pool of local talent and leverage each other’s facilities,” explains Wayne Borg, president international and chief commercial officer of Abu Dhabi’s media campus twofour54. “When Universal Pictures approached us to provide South Asian locations for [2012’s] The Bourne Legacy, we identified suitable locations in downtown Dubai.”

As a further example of this greater regional co-operation, Borg cites Emirati director Ali Mostafa’s upcoming A To B, which twofour54 is supporting. Joining Mostafa are Egyptian writer and producer Mohamed Hefzy, Lebanese producer Paul Baboudjian and Saudi film producer Mohammed Al Turki.

Qatar’s Doha Film Institute (DFI), which along with twofour54 and Dubai International Film Festival, is one of the three cornerstones of this Gulf industrial axis, has also begun singing from that same collaborative songbook. At Cannes, the DFI announced it was shifting its flagship festival event from November to March in order to dovetail better with the regional industry calendar. Festival programming will also complement the various regional support mechanisms.

Under the artistic advice of Paris-based Palestinian film-maker Elia Suleiman, Doha’s new Qumra festival now has a Sundance-like mission to showcase first and second-time film-makers, supported by grants and a year-round film lab.

“Previously, the film festivals were all in a row, so at the same time we’re preparing for our festival, they’re doing the same thing and we’re too busy to talk to each other,” acknowledged DFI head Abdulaziz Al Khater in May. “I’m certain these changes will result in greater collaboration with the Abu Dhabi and Dubai film festivals; it makes no sense to be in competition. The film world has a lot of different sides to it. Dubai has a very successful market and that’s a direct benefit to what we’re doing and I don’t want to duplicate that. I want to help them make a more successful market.”

This realignment and refocusing of Gulf interests certainly accelerates the timetable towards that self-sustaining future by avoiding unnecessary waste of resources and by playing to everyone’s respective strengths.

But, unlike so many of the Gulf’s skyscraping landmarks, no-one expects a fully formed industry to mushroom overnight. The emphasis is less on spectacular fast-tracking these days and more on measured building blocks. A visual storytelling culture still needs to be properly incubated and so too the broad range of technical and business skills to be able to realise those stories in a commercially viable fashion.

In this respect, Abu Dhabi’s recently introduced 30% rebate on production and post-production has a role to play that extends far beyond attracting glamorous film shoots that benefit local tourism and burnish the UAE’s global brand.

“These productions provide the opportunity for Arab film-makers, crew and production support companies to work alongside their international counterparts,” notes Borg. “During the shoot of the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Hollywood film Beware The Night, for example, the majority of the crew was hired locally and at the same time we provided a number of Emirati interns with the opportunity to work behind the scenes. The inspiration gained on set and on location will drive a new generation of regional talent,” he explains.

‘Abu Dhabi and Dubai are only an hour apart, strengthening the UAE’s position as the leading regional film hub’

Wayne Borg, twofour54

This is film school through osmosis - and it will take time before the effects of this crawl-before-you-walk strategy are truly felt.

Like any bundle of initiatives designed to jump-start an entire sector more or less from scratch, there are always new gaps to fill and unintended consequences. Film analyst Alaa Karkouti, co-founder of pan-Arab creative consultancy MAD Solutions, is concerned that too much money may have been lavished on individual film productions in this nymph stage of the UAE’s film development.

“Emirati films have been supported with unrealistically high budgets given their potential audiences,” he says. “All of the features produced there over the last five years have cost at least $1m. [Tobe Hooper’s UAE horror] Djinn was made for $9m. While well intentioned, this indulgence can only harm aspiring film-makers since they become used to a certain luxury that other parts of the Arab world simply don’t have. The danger of overspending is that it can create a culture of dependency and a lack of business responsibility going forward.”

Unconditional support

Emirati film-maker Khalid Al Mahmood, whose 2010 short Sabeel became the first film from a Gulf country to be selected for either the Berlin or Locarno film festivals, praises the work that UAE and Qatar have devoted to laying the local film-making foundations. But he too questions some of their priorities.

“I’d like to see more independent or government entities promote Gulf films and talents regardless of their affiliation, since right now most entities only promote a film if it’s supported or funded by them,” says Al Mahmood. “Also, the film initiatives always seem to be targeting beginners. While it’s good to have those, programmes for Gulf film-makers who have some experience are equally needed, similar to those that support other Arab and international film-makers.”

Despite his European festival experience, Al Mahmood, along with his colleagues in the region, has found it challenging to make the leap into feature-length film-making, partly due to a lack of screenwriters.

“Directors might be able to bypass that particular problem by writing their own material, but then they face the additional problem of raising funds for that feature. Other than festivals, which can provide pre- or post-production funds, there aren’t a lot of places to turn to,” says Al Mahmood, who points to the need for companies that can take care of the entire production and distribution side.

But, he adds, things are improving. “Most likely those hurdles will become smaller in the coming years. There’s still a long way to go before film-making becomes a career or we begin to see careers as film industry professionals, but the elements are all there.”