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DISPATCH FROM DUBAI: At a Film Fest in Dubai, Asking the Question, ‘What is Arab Cinema?’

DISPATCH FROM DUBAI: At a Film Fest in Dubai, Asking the Question, 'What is Arab Cinema?'

Much has been written about the city of Dubai and its intended status as a new global capital. Rapidly growing along the Arabian Sea, the mostly modern city has literally sprouted up over the past decade and become a growing force here in the Middle East. Paralleling the rise of this United Arab Emirates city is a film industry anchored here, in part via the development of the Dubai Studio City development, one of many vibrant zones emerging in Dubai’s many new districts. Three years ago, organizers launched the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), an exceptionally well-funded new event, hoping to create a destination on the annual festival calendar while also showcasing Arab cinema and bolstering the growth of the local film industry.

At a press conference here Monday, Dubai Studio City planners (who are also big sponsors of DIFF) boasted investments of 450 million AED so far, with the first phase of the studio opening next year. Some 65,000 sq. ft. of soundstages are on tap, alongside hotels, a film academy, residential space and amphitheaters. And the Dubai Studio City project is just one of many developments on both land and sea here in Dubai, including Dubai Sports City with stadiums, Dubai Marina for waterfront properties, the already well-known palm shaped resort island in the sea (named The Palm), an equally ambitious creation of some 300 private islands in the shape of continents (dubbed The World), and even life-sized replicas of the Seven Wonders of the World at the Falcon City of Wonders.

Aside from issues surrounding the infrastructure of an international film industry here, a particular struggle facing some here in the Middle East is the question, “what is Arab Cinema?” From a Western point of view, as Tunisian producer Dora Bouchoucha explained during an industry panel discussion Tuesday morning here in Dubai, the answer is often rooted in the expectation that a project will explore conflict. Financiers expect Arab filmmakers to depict their current struggles and crises on screen. During Tuesday’s session (moderated by Screen International‘s Colin Brown, Bouchoucha advocated in favor of a broader, entertaining projects that reflect the diversity of the region. A large group of local school children, all studying media, listened as she spoke and later questioned her about breaking into filmmaking.

Festival attendees outside the Madinat Jumeirah conference center, site of the 3rd Dubai International Film Festival. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

“Why should cinema in these countries be seen as (just one thing),” asked producer Bouchoucha. “Why do we only have to talk about our problems?” She explained the European funding bodies have a strict view of what Arab cinema should be and in the case of her successful recent production, “Satin Rouge” (2002), she noted that French funders felt the film did not represent Tunisia. “(They) had a certain idea of what Tunisian cinema had to conform to.” But, an independent producer, Bouchoucha persevered and now she cautions, citing the general theme of “Satin Rouge,” “there is “a discrepancy between our facade and what is inside.”

Just as film producers in other regions face compromises attached to funding, Bouchoucha noted that similarly, when Arab producers take European money they must meet certain requirements that stem from these narrow perceptions of what Arab cinema is, forcing filmmakers to limit themselves. “Because filmmakers depend on this money (there tend to be compromises),” she explained, “They tend to water down subjects to get the money.”

In addition to aiming for a wider range of funding sources, Bouchoucha hopes that outsiders will recognize the richness of Arab culture, rather than see it as a uniform entity. “The Arab world is huge, the differences within the Arab world are numerous. I invite people to look at these differences.

“The differences are really interesting,” Bouchoucha emphasized on Tuesday in Dubai, “If you look at Europe, it’s so big and different–and the Arab world is even more different. People tend to look at it as a (monolith), that’s a problem, a big problem.”

[indieWIRE’s Eugene Hernandez is covering the Dubai International Film Festival and will publish another dispatch from the event later this week.]

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