The international film scene is starting to sit up and take notice of the cinematic offerings coming from Dubai. Screen International magazine recently nominated the Emirati director Khalid Al Mahmood, whose award-winning short film Sabeel was shown in Miami, Locarno in Switzerland and Berlin as one of the 10 most influential Arabs in the film world.
Al Mahmood explains that over the last few years, he has witnessed a significant progression in the Emirati filmmaking scene. He adds: “It is great to have these platforms. Ten years ago there was nothing, but festivals like Dubai International Film Festival have led to international interest in my work.”
The corridors of the eighth Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), which ran until 14 December, bustled with eager film production students and directors taking part in workshops, while 14 Emirati films were among the 171 being screened, including the likes of Children, directed by Mohammad Fikree and Slow Death from Jamal Salim.
A decade ago there was no film industry in the UAE other than a handful of filmmakers creating shorts, fuelled by passion and savings from their own pockets. With no sponsorship, a limited pool of actors and a lack of experienced crew, most would-be directors had to fund themselves. The first feature length film was the Arabic movie Abr Sabeel in 1989 but it was another 16 years before the first commercially released film, The Dream, was made.
Budding filmmakers now have access to funds via the Emirates Foundation, set up to nurture young talent in the arts, and Image Nation. The latter, which co-funded the Hollywood hit movies The Help and Contagion, also recently released Sea Shadow, a coming-of-age tale set in the UAE and directed by Emirati Nawaf Al Janahi.
Its next project, Djinn, marks the fruition of burgeoning relationships between the Emirates and Hollywood. The supernatural thriller coming out in January is set in the UAE and was headed by Tobe Hooper, the director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
But there is still a long way to go. Neither Sea Shadow nor City of Life, the US$5m debut feature film from Emirati director Ali Mostafa premiered at DIFF two years ago, have secured international distribution deals yet. Mohammed Al Mubarak, the chairman of Image Nation, says it will take between 10 and 15 years to build a credible film industry in the country, capable of delivering five films a year.
“The market here is still quite immature and the national film industry is non-existent but there are a lot of great ideas and huge potential,” he adds.