At the Dubai International Film Festival this week, Arab filmmakers agreed they now have unprecedented access to funding, but distribution and censorship remain major challenges.

With the rise of a troika of new film festivals in the Middle East, the region’s filmmakers have unprecedented access to funding programmes and high-profile platforms to launch their films.

But it soon became clear at this week’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) that funding and glitzy premieres are only half the battle. While Arab filmmakers have many stories to tell following the ousting of regimes across the region, they agreed it will take some time before the regulatory and censorship environment becomes clear. They also bemoaned the fact that it remains difficult to secure a theatrical release even in the Gulf, let alone in the rest of the region and international markets.

At a panel about distribution in DIFF’s Film Forum programme, film curator Livia Alexander spoke of the difficulties of gaining access to the North American market: “We need to be realistic about the chances of Arab cinema penetrating that market. Paradise Now is the top-grossing Arab film in North America but it was still only 109th on the [2005 opening weekends] list.”

Even securing a theatrical release in the Middle East is problematic – developed markets such as UAE focus on Hollywood and Bollywood titles, while many countries remain chronically under-screened. At a panel entitled Where Do We Go Now?, Tunisian director Mourad Ben Cheikh (No More Fear) said censorship issues had improved in his country, but distribution remains a major hurdle: “We now have 12 cinemas, but that’s not the basis of an industry – if we reach 150 cinemas, producers can expand. Distribution is our handicap, but we can’t force people to invest.”

It’s a situation that DIFF — which like the Abu Dhabi festival and Doha Film Institute — now provides Arab filmmakers with script-to-screen funding – hopes to address. “There’s more money available now – films are being made and the quality is improving. Now the key element is distribution,” said DIFF managing director Shivani Pandya.

In recent years, DIFF has been working with local exhibitors to arrange screenings of Arab titles including Masquerades and Pomegranates And Myrrh. And at this year’s DIFF, the Dubai Film Market unveiled a p&a fund of $60,000 for distributors who acquire films in the festival’s four competition sections for Arab films.

Eight grants are available – two $10,000 grants for Middle East distributors and two $10,000 grants for distributors from outside the region who commit to releasing an Arab feature film. There are also four grants of $5,000 each along the same lines for documentaries.

However, Dubai Filmmart manager Pascal Diot said education, not just funding, is key in solving the distribution problem: “Everything is changing very fast here, but there are not enough producers and usually the filmmakers don’t know how to distribute a film.” In response to this, the market was offering filmmakers a meeting with a consultant to explain how sales agents function, and then arranging one-on-one meetings with relevant sales agents and distributors. 

The other big hurdle faced by Arab filmmakers – censorship and the regulatory environment – is one that is obviously out of the industry’s hands. On the Where Do We Go Now? panel, local filmmakers said it’s too early to say whether the Arab Spring will result in more filmmaking freedoms – with some countries in the process of holding elections and others still in the throes of revolution.

Mourad Ben Cheikh described a promising situation in Tunisia where censorship has apparently been removed and filmmakers can proceed with new projects without the approval of government censors. Tunisian filmmakers have also been able to set up industry associations for directors, producers and technicians – a move that was blocked by the previous regime. However, he said the regulatory framework is still uncertain: “We don’t know who will come into power or what is the rhetoric of the Ministry of Culture.”

The situation also remains unclear in Egypt. Danish-Palestinian filmmaker Omar Shargawi (Go With Peace Jamil), who is planning to shoot a new project in Cairo next year, said he had no idea whether he’d have a problem with shooting permits. “I don’t know whether we’ll have a big team with 50 people or just steal the shots on the street, but the film will be shot no matter what. I can’t say right now because the situation about censorship is unstable.”

But Shargawi, who had the Arab Spring documentary 1/2 Revolution in DIFF selection, is one of a growing number of Middle Eastern filmmakers who may have a solution to the distribution problem – by actively pursuing co-production with Europe. “My hope and dream is not just to make my films from a Danish platform, but combine funding from both Europe and the Middle East, because that’s the only way in future to put Arab movies on the map.”

So while the political situation could take years, perhaps even a decade, to resolve itself, there were plenty of indications at DIFF that the industry side is evolving rapidly. When the dust finally settles, Arab cinema is likely be in much better shape than it was before the Gulf film festivals started to invest.