Five leading Arab filmmakers outlined the difficulties they experienced in launching their careers in a troubled region at an Abu Dhabi Film Festival panel on Tuesday.
While aspiring filmmakers all over the world struggle to raise funding and gain recognition, most don’t have to contend with kidnappings, imprisonment and smuggling equipment across borders.
But Iraqi director Mohamed Al Daradji faced all this while making his first film, Ahlaam, in Iraq. He was kidnapped twice and imprisoned by American forces while shooting the film and had to smuggle in equipment from Syria and Jordan.
“Of course making movies in countries with wars, militias and corrupt governments is very difficult, but I always had some sort of agreement with myself to break through any wall,” said Al Daradji.
His second film, Son Of Babylon, was a collaboration between seven countries, which he says should generate revenue as it’s been distributed to around 25 countries. He is currently developing his third feature, The Train Station, about a female suicide bomber.
“We don’t have cinemas in Iraq, as they were all destroyed during the war, so we can’t speak of commercial cinema. We have to lay the foundations of real filmmaking in Iraq. At the moment it’s just a few individuals attempting to make films.”
British-Yemeni director Bader Ben Hirsi described a less violent but similarly fraught environment when he was shooting his debut feature A New Day In Old Sana’a - the first feature-length film to be shot in Yemen: “People came to my set and asked ‘what are you doing here? We don’t want such movies in our country’. Hopefully we’ll start shooting my second movie in January, but we can’t shoot in Yemen because we can’t find insurance and there are other difficulties.”
In richer parts of the Middle East, it’s often cultural and family objections that make it difficult to kickstart a career as a filmmaker. Abu Dhabi-raised director Nawaf Al-Janahi (The Circle, Sea Shadow) described how his father, himself an actor, initially pressured him to find a steady job. “It’s difficult when you don’t have any moral support to make you happy with yourdecision, and when people make you feel you won’t succeed.”
When Al-Janahi returned from studying film in the US in the late ’90s, he began to understand his father’s objections, as there was no film industry at that time in the UAE. In the intervening 12 years, he has worked with local filmmakers and the region’s upstart film festivals to build an Emirati film industry from scratch.
“Now lots of films, especially short films, are produced in the Gulf but that doesn’t mean they’re all good. And there are other problems - some students can’t stay on location until 8pm, especially girls. With Sea Shadow we wanted to bring entire families to the cinema to fight this idea that cinema is taboo.”
Egyptian writer and producer Mohamed Hefzy (Microphone) talked about the situation in his home country, which is still unstable following the revolution: “People are worried about freedom of expression and the political changes that have instilled this fear, so we have to do work outside of Egypt.”
He also called for more focus on the development process which he believes is lacking in Arab cinema. “I believe the Arab countries, with the exception of Jordan which has taken positive steps towards script development, need more seminars, workshops and labs. The Gulf film festivals are focusing on this, but we need experts who can be brought in from all over the world.”
Egyptian auteur Yousry Nassrallah, whose After The Battle is screening at ADFF, observed that despite the influx of funding from the Gulf states, Arab cinema still faces difficulties in reaching an audience: “The traditional market for Egyptian movies is Egypt as well as Arab markets, but that market is very restricted.”
He continued: “The traditional market of the commercial movie industries is changing in this era - we are witnessing a crisis - so it’s very strange dealing with the concept of support under these circumstances.”