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DISPATCH FROM DUBAI: In the United Arab Emirates, Cultivating a First Generation of Filmmakers

DISPATCH FROM DUBAI: In the United Arab Emirates, Cultivating a First Generation of Filmmakers

Chatting informally during one of the receptions earlier this week at the Dubai International Film Festival, an attendee noted that older generations in the Emirates frown upon filmmaking as a legitimate profession. A career in the movies is not seen as distinguished, according to the Emirati. In fact, just as in some other countries, a career in a such a creative field can seem shortsighted to older family members. Particularly in the United Arab Emirates where there is no tradition of local filmmaking. But as Dubai begins to lure production to its ambitious Studio City project, alongside the growth of its new film festival, it is inspiring some younger Emiratis to explore filmmaking. At its 3rd festival, DIFF is again presenting a selection of homegrown work in the Emerging Emiratis section, and the Class of ’07 directors arrived amidst growing expectations.

Six new short films are screening in the program, Waleed Al Shehhi‘s “Ahmad Sulaiman,” Nayla Al Khaja‘s “Arabana” (Wheelbarrow), Jassim Mohammed Al Salty‘s “Al Hellah,” Hamad Mansoor Al Awar‘s “Once Upon A Seed,” Juma A Sahli‘s “Sara’s Secrets,” and Abdullah Hassan Ahmad and Omar Ibrahim‘s “Sama’s Sagheera” (Small Sky). Organizers noted that that films offer “unique insights into Emirati lives and some tackle challenging topics.”

“We have no problem discussing sensitive issues in the UAE,” explained Waleed Al Shehhi, whose film offers a glimpse into the life of a one-legged, mute Emirati. “This is no problem for us.” Continuing, he added, “Our films try to reflect aspects of our society.”

Pictured at the Dubai International Film Festival on Wednesday are filmmakers Jasim Al Salty, Waleed Al Shehhi artistic director of Arabic Programming Masoud Amralla Al Ali, Nayla Al Khaja, Juma Al Sahli, Abdulla Ahmed, and Hamad Mansoor Al Awar. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Standing out among a group of young UAE filmmakers on Wednesday in Dubai was filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja, the lone woman, dressed in black among a group of male directors all dressed in white on the stage. The group gathered at a press conference for DIFF’s Emerging Emiratis section and the particularly outspoken, 26-year old year old filmmaker offered some clear insights into the UAE’s potential first generation of filmmakers.

Al Khaja spoke on behalf of a number of emerging filmmakers who live in a country with no cinema tradition, limited local production, a young film festival, and no national film schools. Her new film looks offers at caring for young children, while her previous work, “Unveiling Dubai,” was a documentary about her home town that she produced and funded herself, making her Dubai’s first female film producer.

“Film school, film school, film school,” Nayla Al Khaja told a questioner, when asked about tips for those wanting to get started in filmmaking. “We need a film university,” she continued, explaining that she was able to travel to the U.S. to study filmmaking. “We need places where this talent can be nurtured,” she emphasized, calling for a film department at one of the local universities, along with programs for actors and others. “From film school, we learn how to work on bigger sets, and you acquire all these technical issues that will help you develop better films. It’s not that easy, you have to have an extreme passion for it.”

The filmmakers are optimistic about opportunities that lie ahead, Al Khaja explained, “Because we have no film infrastructure yet, this festival is a huge step.” But she hopes for even more.

“I hope the government will allocate a budget to produce a few films each year,” Nayla Al Khaja said on Wednesday, “It’s only when that happens that we will see better films coming out, just like it happens all around the world.”

“We’re paving the way,” Al Khaja noted, but adding that it will take time. “To have an excellent feature come from the UAE, that will take time–as it should.”

[indieWIRE’s Eugene Hernandez is attended the Dubai International Film Festival and will publish a final dispatch from the event this weekend.]

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