The struggle is reel: The challenges facing Arab filmmakers

‘Wadjda' by Haifaa Al-Mansour. (Supplied)
Updated 19 November 2018

The struggle is reel: The challenges facing Arab filmmakers

  • The Arab film industry is undergoing tough times
  • Egypt remains the center of Arabic-language filmmaking

MALMO: The Arab film industry is undergoing tough times, its golden era a fading memory as tighter budgets, state indifference and Hollywood’s dominance restrict output and hinder movie distribution. Yet despite these difficulties, Arab feature films are garnering greater global attention and Saudi Arabia’s embrace of cinema could help revitalize the sector.

Egypt remains the center of Arabic-language filmmaking, which in its 1970s heyday produced 80-90 features annually. Today, that figure is around 40, with Lebanon and Morocco each producing 10-15 and Tunisia around 10. Typically, the annual combined budget is around $50 million, according to Cairo’s Arab Cinema Center (ACC).

The industry last year generated $25 million in cinema ticket sales, ACC estimates, and with earnings hard to come by, filmmakers tend to stick to popular genres such comedy and action. Budgets range from a few hundred thousand dollars to $2.5 million for a major film; in the UAE, the Arab world’s largest cinema market, 80 percent of the estimated $200 million in revenue is generated by Hollywood films, according to the ACC. No reliable data exists on revenues from sales to television, digital, airlines and other platforms.

“We have a lack of romantic movies, musicals, and family films, but I’m positive that if we had proper projects for these genres, they would do great,” said Hani Osama, managing partner of Cairo production company The Producers.

Over the past few years, many film funds and festivals have closed down, especially in the Gulf, making Arabic-language arthouse, and other less commercial, films increasingly dependent on European public funding for support.

“The money you get from funds is a healthy step, but it’s not enough to make a film,” Ahmed Amer, the Egyptian director of acclaimed 2017 comedy-drama “Kiss Me Not” told Arab News. “So you have to rely on a lot of private money, which is not easy to find unless it’s a very commercial film and you have the backing of a big company. You have to rely also on European funds, so you have co-production.”

'Wajib’ by Annemarie Jacir. (Supplied)

These funds often extract a high price for their support. For example, a fund might provide 100,000 Euros toward a film’s 1 million-Euros budget, but in return would require 150,000 Euros to be spent in its geographical region. Also, if — as is common — half the film’s financing comes from grants and half from equity, the fund will say it has provided 20 percent of the equity and demand 20 percent of the profits. Funds will also require input on the script and final edit.

“When you don’t have a choice, you agree to such terms, but you feel like you’ve been ripped off a little,” said French-Tunisian producer Nadim Cheikhrouha. “A few years ago, Tunisian movies used to be done only with Tunisian money, but it’s no longer enough. There’s a new generation of directors in the Arab world who are more ambitious and want to make movies that travel further. For those kind of movies, they all need European co-production to go above 200,000-300,000 Euros.”

Another problem is that unlike other industries, the returns from investing in filmmaking are so unpredictable that it’s impossible to provide potential investors with estimates on probable profits.

“Cinema doesn’t have a case study that you can show investors. To invest in cinema, you have to have a passion for film and understand it’s not like investing in any other industry,” said Alaa Karkouti, CEO and co-founder of Cairo’s MAD Solutions, a Pan-Arab independent studio and marketing and creative consultancy. He is also co-founder of sister firm, Arab Cinema Center.

Arab movies have only limited revenue streams, with the Arab cinema industry lacking a proper distribution system.

“When an Egyptian film is released in the rest of the Arab world, we, as producers, just sell the film to (local) distributors,” said Osama, whose company makes films, television shows and commercials. “For us, that generates a very small amount of money. Proper distribution would help the production industry.”

‘The Journey’ by Mohamed Al-Daradji. (Supplied)

Broadcasters such as ART and Rotana often used to buy screening rights following a film’s cinema run, but in recent years TV channels have cut the number of films they buy, constraining film production.

Piracy also remains a huge problem for Arab films — not only counterfeit sales, but illegal online streaming and downloads, plus, most perniciously, unauthorized transmission on illegal satellite channels, which devalues sales to legitimate television stations.

But the Arab film sector survives in the face of these challenges, and despite widespread government apathy toward the industry.

“We don’t have studios that finance movies, the producer also finances the movie, which affects the market. When it’s based on people, not on studios, with any turbulence it can be greatly affected,” said Osama.

Egypt did used to have its own film studios. Their decline started in the 1990s, with Saudi audiences desperate for any fictional content on VHS, which made money by including advertising.

“Egyptian cinema had been growing since the 1940s, but demand for these VHS movies persuaded Egyptian producers to stop counting on the box office, so cinema declined,” said Karkouti. “Then demand from the Gulf dwindled, because the quality was so poor, and much of the Egyptian audience had been lost.”

If the Gulf inadvertently contributed to the waning of the Arab film industry, it could yet spark its resurgence, with Saudi Arabia — the Middle East and North Africa’s largest economy — ending a 35-year ban on cinemas as part of wide-ranging plans to create a new leisure market. The Kingdom reportedly hopes to have 2,000 cinema screens by 2020, generating $24 billion in revenue and 30,000 jobs.

“Saudi will need at least five to ten years to see the results. The UAE and Qatar started with big projects and big funds and then they got cut back,” said Karkouti. “In the Arab film industry, it’s always good to wait and see, because announcements are the easy part.”

Alaa Karkouti . (Supplied)

Haifaa Al-Mansour’s debut feature film “Wadjda” was the first made by a Saudi director and the first entirely shot in the Kingdom. It premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, was shown at other festivals worldwide, and won a clutch of awards. The film was released theatrically in many countries worldwide, generating an estimated $7 million in box office revenues, which was remarkable for an Arab film.

“There were all the ingredients to make audiences super-curious. To repeat that level of interest will be much harder,” said Karkouti.

Other recent critically acclaimed Arab feature films include “Wajib,” by Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir, and Iraqi writer-director Mohamed Al Daradji’s “The Journey.” And with no shortage of subject matter or ingenuity, the industry’s protagonists seem optimistic about the future.

“In Arab countries, filmmakers are very motivated to get things done,” Cheikhrouha said. “Twenty years ago, movies were folkloric but now the subjects are modern. Directors and screenwriters have learned to tell stories in a more universal way. It can be a very local story but have wider resonance.”

He urged Arab filmmakers not to think they are in competition with each other, citing the example of Korean and Iranian cinema, which are now sought out by international audiences because of the diversity and quality of their films.

For MAD Solutions’ Karkouti, the industry’s lack of a proper structure will remain troublesome, but he paid tribute to the devotion of those making Arabic-language films.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “There are many Arabs loving cinema, working with passion, creating projects out of nothing.”

Talal Derki: ‘I’m not a part of this, but I have to understand’

Updated 22 February 2019

Talal Derki: ‘I’m not a part of this, but I have to understand’

  • Why the Syrian filmmaker risked his life for his Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Of Fathers and Sons’

DUBAI: Of all the achievements of Arab filmmakers in recent times, Talal Derki’s “Of Fathers and Sons” may be the most stunning. The only non-American film nominated for Best Documentary at the 91st Academy Awards, which take place this Sunday, “Of Fathers and Sons” is the kind of film one might imagine making, but never believe could actually be made. It’s a story that Derki risked his life to tell.

For two and a half years, the Syrian filmmaker lived in northern Syria with Abu Osama, a member of the Al-Nusra Front (also known as Al-Qaeda in the Levant), and his family. There, he pretended to be sympathetic to their cause so that he could film them in an attempt to learn, first-hand, how young men become radicalized. Focusing on a father and his sons, the film lays bare in terrifying detail how young boys with kindness in their hearts find themselves in an Al-Qaeda training camp at a tender young age, all to gain the approval of their beloved patriarch.

“The idea started with my previous film,” Derki tells Arab News. “After the siege of Homs in my last film, ‘Return to Homs,’ after all the massacres, a lot of people on the ground moved to be more radical. It’s a war, but I started wondering how this movement managed to brainwash and bring all these people (over) to their side, and how they gained their trust. I saw a lot of kids with their fathers involved in fights. All these things put questions in my mind. I’m not a part of this, but I also have to understand.”

Derki didn’t want to make a film about the Syrian war or about violence. He wanted to examine life behind closed doors, focusing on the generation of young Syrian men raised in wartime. To do so, he had to go deep undercover.

After starting research for the film at the end of 2013, Derki used many ‘fixers’ to help him work his way into this close-knit community, gain people’s trust, and identify his subjects. He settled on Abu Osama and his sons. He convinced them that he was on their side, and was given intimate access to their lives in return — all the time aware that he could not let them know what kind of film he was actually making.

“Abu Osama wasn’t well known. He’s not the leader. What attracted me to him is how strongly he believed in what he was doing, in the ideology. When you look at him, he looks like a normal father, a lovely father,” says Derki. “This paradox between these two faces — between a lovely father and the father who is ready to sacrifice his kids in order to (realize) his ideology — this is part of my cinematic vision. If I went to a regular cliché jihadist, people would not watch the film. People would leave the cinema after five minutes, believe me.”

Though Derki managed to gain the trust of the family and the Al-Nusra Front, he was always conscious that no matter how friendly they were with him, he was never really creating a true connection with anyone he was filming. And he was powerless to create positive change while he was there.

“I was undercover as a sympathizer,” he says. “This is how they know me. I couldn’t be more than an observer. Sometimes, if I could, I would act as a merciful guy with the kids so they would not get punishment. I played that role. But in a big-topic issue, you couldn’t do anything but make your own film out of this chaos.

“I was connected to them only as a filmmaker, because, at the end of the day, if they knew I had a different purpose than what they thought, I would lose my life,” he continues. “When I had a good moment to film, I was satisfied and happy. As time passed, I had to accept all these things — all these ideas, all this behavior — without any (question). My mission there was to make a film.”

“Of Fathers and Sons” is purely observational. Derki keeps himself out of the story as much as possible, zooming in on a father and his son in everyday moments, in order to see how they interact, the love and trust they build, and the ways that a son’s dedication to his father is twisted to dark ends.

“The knowledge I got from this experience is about the roots of violence — the circle of violence — and the eternal relationship between the dictatorial father and his son; the masculine power that destroys our society,” Derki explains. “All of these things gave me more understanding that it all starts from childhood. Why does someone like me decide not to carry a weapon? If you grow up in a society in which your father, your teacher, are harming you, and punishing you by hitting you, and you’re used to receiving violence, then when you grow up you are very capable of carrying weapons and killing someone for any idea you start to believe in.”

By the second half of the film, the eldest son of Abu Osama is participating in an Al-Qaeda training camp. In one harrowing scene, the young boys are told to lie still on the ground while bullets are shot next to their heads and feet in order to teach them to lose their fear. Even now, years on from filming, Derki thinks about Abu Osama’s young children, hoping they can escape from the fate that already killed their father, who Derki says died at the end of 2018.

“Emotionally, I feel sad for the kids. They are still around 12 years old, it’s still possible to take them out of this and start a new life. Even in the moment when I was there, it was still possible,” he says. “They appreciate life. (But) in this ideology, they appreciate death. Death is their request — not life. Not humanity.”

Derki is speaking to Arab News from Los Angeles, ahead of Sunday’s Oscars ceremony. While there, Derki has had the chance to celebrate with the other Arab nominees, Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek and Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki.

“It was great to meet them and to have some conversation — to be three nominees from the Arab world at the biggest global celebration. It’s very intense,” he says. “I hope that, in the upcoming year, this will bring more success for Arab filmmakers.

“Nadine said she liked it so much. And I liked her film,” Derki continues. “I really want to work with Rami in the future, he’s a very talented actor.”

Whatever happens at the Oscars, Derki hopes the attention his film has received will ultimately be a force for good in the Arab world.

“It’s about how we can protect the new generation in the other Muslim countries,” he explains. “What can we do to build a generation without violence, to focus more on life, love, and communicating with other cultures, instead of building walls around us?”