In Search of Gulf Cinema

Mahmoud Khalil | Al-Majalla
Publication Date: 
Sat, 2005-05-07 03:00

For more than three decades, film makers from the Arabian Gulf have tried to leave their mark on Arab cinema. They have exerted every effort to create a distinctive Gulf cinema and have sought investments from both governments and the private sector. In the world of Arab cinema, very seldom indeed has a Gulf film achieved wide fame. In fact Arab Gulf cinema does not even exist on the map of Arab cinema. This is perhaps surprising in view of the fact of so many successful Gulf TV shows and even live theater. Kuwait and Bahrain were the first Gulf states to produce films. While these attempts to establish a cinema industry in the Gulf were hailed by the media, for a number of reasons, the industry never advanced beyond its first few steps.

Obstacles in the Way

As reality would have it, the way to establishing a Gulf cinema is not sprinkled with flowers so much as carved with difficulties, obstacles and challenges that lead to an almost inescapable conclusion: It will be a long time, if at all, before the Gulf establishes its own cinema. Perhaps this is due to a lack of finance and specialized resources as well as the failure to lure and attract audiences in the wider Arab world outside the Gulf.

The Bitterness of Complaint

And the bitterness of the situation increases when Gulf film makers speak of their hardships and their dashed hopes. For many, the reality of Gulf cinema began in 1971 with Khaled Al-Siddiq, a Kuwaiti, who directed the film “Enough, Oh Sea” which was followed by Bahraini Bassam Al-Zuwadi and the Saudi woman Haifa Al-Mansour. Despite their accomplishments, there have been many difficulties and obstacles in addition to the worst of all — a lack of financial support.

Given these facts, Gulf cinema remains far behind the rest of the world. This leads to a number of questions; among them is whether the region’s cinema can make a niche and maintain itself in a world dominated by TV dramas on Arab satellite channels — to say nothing of Egyptian, US and Indian films.

Cinema Infrastructure

The Kuwaiti director, Khaled Al-Siddiq, president of the Arab Gulf Cinema Association did not stray far from the truth when he said that there was no genre of Arab Gulf cinema even though there are many movies made in the Gulf. Al-Siddiq calls for the provision of foundations and elements in order to form the core of a cinema industry infrastructure in the Gulf region; in other words, colleges specializing in cinema, studios and production companies. Schools for teaching acting must also be established. It is understood that these should all have government backing and perhaps private support as well. Al-Siddiq took part in the production of some Gulf narrative films in the 70s which generally enjoyed great success. At the same time, the films’ popularity did not create a generation interested in cinema or even a conscious cinema audience. Nevertheless, the younger generation seems set today to revive things with new long and short films. Al-Siddiq feels strongly that there will never be a real Gulf cinema without financing and investment by the private sector.

Uncertain Future

Masoud Amrallah, who has long been involved in cinema in the UAE, believes that Gulf cinema lacks technicians and cinema camera operators, script-writers, professional actors including a cinema audience, and capital to support the industry. He also stated that until these problems have been satisfactorily addressed, Gulf cinema will not develop. Amrallah did not conceal his pessimism when he spoke of creating a Gulf cinema industry. He sees no future in it and asked, “How can we try to find something that doesn’t exist?” He emphasized the absence of awareness in the public and private sectors regarding the importance of a cinema industry. He went on to say that there was a lack of confidence in Gulf actors and called for acting schools to be set up in order to produce versatile, well-trained performers. He mentioned a film competition in the UAE which offers monetary prizes and incentives. According to Amrallah, the competition achieved its objective: To encourage film makers in the UAE and the Gulf. He also said that another obstacle facing Gulf cinema was the basic conservatism of Gulf culture. Despite this, he feels that the community is open and accepts the notion of having its own cinema and seeing its issues onscreen. This in turn would assist in resolving problems and thinking seriously about them.

The Saudi director, Haifah Al-Mansour, disagrees with Amrallah and sees the beginnings of the cinema in the Gulf. She says that Gulf cinema is at a difficult point and needs time and space in which to develop; she sees digital technology helping in the creation of cinema and making it much easier. In her opinion, the biggest obstacle in the way of Gulf cinema is the absence of financing and marketing and the fact that there is no investment in an infrastructure for cinema. Another obstacle is finding an appropriate way for a cinema culture in the Gulf to develop, keeping in mind that it will not happen if the Gulf continues to see cinema as outside its culture. When — and if — that changes, investors will be encouraged to plow their money into a new industry. Al-Mansour is optimistic about the future of the Gulf and the cinema; she feels that the private sector should take strong bold steps to support cinema and bring it into the light. She also thinks it time that the sector supported the cinema by financing it. She was quick to point out that a conservative society does not mean the absence of a cinema industry; she cited the example of Iranian cinema which has proved itself and made an international — rather than only a regional — reputation. She views the annual cinema festivals held in various Gulf countries as an introduction which is spreading the word among audiences and creating an awareness about the power and influence of film. At the same time, she admits that the festivals have not achieved these objectives.

A City for Gulf Cinema

The Muncipality of Dubai has announced its intention of establishing a city of studios aimed at activating a new TV and cinema industry in the Gulf. It would assist in the creation of a Gulf cinema industry. Bassam Al-Zuwadi, the Bahraini director and Secretary General of the Arab Gulf Association said: “I used to think that the Arabian Gulf countries encouraged cinema and supported those working in it. The truth, however, is something that we have always ignored: The Gulf consumes a vast quantity of imported films which have nothing to do at all with our lives and our culture. What about a Gulf cinema to balance this? The ideas I hear for establishing a Gulf cinema sound as if they originated in outer space. And we keep hearing the same old story about our not having the human resources, the cultural awareness or the technical ability to produce films and cinema. Then we must get all worked up about Gulf governments not really wanting a Gulf cinema even though those same governments spend vast sums on cinema festivals to attract stars, audiences and, of course, sponsors.” Al-Zuwadi goes on to tell a tale, familiar in many contexts, of recommendations made and nothing done.

Main category: 
Old Categories: