The Middle East has a vibrant film culture. Erin Mc Cafferty went to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival to rub shoulders with international film stars and budding Arab filmmakers wanting to get their films to the silver screen. She caught up with one of the regions newest directors…
Egyptian film director Hala Lofty sits in the softly-lit press lounge of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in Emirates Palace Hotel. “It’s important to challenge the conventions of classical Arab cinema,” she states matter-offactly, adding that with her latest film – a feature length movie Coming Forth by Day she has done just that.
“Egyptian cinema for example,” she elaborates, “is traditionally melodramatic – too much in my opinion. What’s more, many of the plots or themes it features are similar and it relies heavily on celebrity actors. The pace too is usually fast. With Coming Forth by Day however I have tried to challenge these conventions, while at the same making a film, which I hope, is appealing to the general public.”
“I made it in long takes for example. I used unknown actors and focused on a subject matter which is rarely featured in an Arab film in such detail.”
Her subtle documentary-style film traces the last days of a dying man as he lies in bed, with his wife and daughter by his side. And it’s as much about the complicated relationship between the two women as it is about the loss of a loved one. It’s a subtle and intelligent portrayal of this relationship and it deals with the subject of death in an avantgarde but sensitive manner.
For 38-year-old Lofty, who comes from Cairo, it was a very personal experience having lost her own father just two years ago.
“Everyone sooner or later has to deal with loss of a loved one,” she says. “It wasn’t just me. In fact I found that many of the crew working on the movie had also had similar experiences. Even the main actor – the dying man – who by the way is a well-known newspaper editor in Egypt and had never acted before in his life – agreed to play the part because he said it was in homage to his mother who had passed away.”
“The irony is that this is something which sooner or later touches everyone and yet is rarely the subject of film in the Arab world. It’s a risk I know to challenge such conventions, but I believe it is important for any filmmaker to take risks. I mean how else do we move on?”
And although film in the region has come on leaps and bounds in recent years Al Shindagah 23 Issue 108 – she believes Arab cinema in general still has a long way to go. “I believe we should not be aiming to replicate Hollywood. Instead we should strive to make our own mark in the film world – to do things our own way. Movies are powerful tools and if used properly could serve the Arab world abroad well. They can bridge a lot of cultures.”
She adds that events such as film festivals in the region can help in this respect. “Occasions such as the Abu Dhabi Film Festival are a fantastic opportunity for people from all over the world to realise the potential that the region offers in terms of cinema.”
Now in its sixth year, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival continues to attract more and more movie industry professionals every year, as well as hosting a large number of celebrities – from the Arab World, Hollywood and Bollywood.
This year alone some of the top stars in attendance included actors Richard Gere who premiered his latest and much lauded Hollywood film Arbitrage on the opening night along with his co-star the US actor Nate Parker. Also in attendance was the film’s executive producer Mohammed Al Turki from Saudi Arabi, as well as the Indian film star Mammooty and the well-known Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani.
It wasn’t all celebrities however. The majority of film people in attendance were industry professionals from around the world – everyone from script writers, to sound engineers, to marketing executives and producers converged on the UAE capital to network and view films. And of course these films were open to the general public.
A total of 81 feature length films and 84 short films, representing 48 countries were screened over a period of 10 days. This year for the first time ever a number of UAE nationals joined international filmmakers on panels judging films in the competitions. There were a record number of entries in the Emirati category showing just how much interest in film making here has grown.
It’s an important event for the capital not only because it creates business opportunities in terms of the movie industry, but also because of the tourism revenue it generates. What’s more it’s proof of a growing movie industry here which although still in its infancy clearly has potential.
Ali Al Jabri, Director of Abu Dhabi Film Festival says this year has seen a record number of Emirati entries, especially from students.
“Remember that Arabic cinema is nothing new,” he comments. “ Films have been made in the region for as long as they have anywhere else in the world. What we are seeing is a new generation of filmmakers, young Arabs that are embracing technology and telling their stories in new and innovative ways. We are also seeing Arabs getting involved in all aspects of the industry, especially behind the camera and we hope the Abu Dhabi Film Festival encourages more to get involved.”