Public cinemas are prohibited in Saudi Arabia. So perhaps it is surprising that this year the country that has submitted the most films to the Gulf Film Festival (GFF) – 64 out of 270, to be exact – is… Saudi Arabia. Or perhaps it’s not surprising at all. ‘It shows the people want to express their opinions, but can’t find the environment in which to do it,’ says Masoud Amralla Al Ali, the festival’s artistic director. ‘I think with GFF, they found a way to communicate with others.’
The compulsion of the region’s filmmakers to communicate their realities to others is what makes GFF so fascinating. Now in its second year and taking place at the InterContinental hotel at Festival City from April 9 to 15, the event will screen more films from the Gulf than any other festival. Al Ali says developing a film culture in the region is crucial if Arab experiences are to be represented accurately.
‘Film is the closest medium for reflecting reality, to explore societies and how they are living,’ Al Ali argues. ‘For years now, Arabs have been misrepresented in the media. The medium through which to fight, to show another image, is cinema. It’s important now for us to have a say; a space to explore our thoughts, and to present them in such a way that others can understand us better.’
The Arab world has been largely absent from filmmaking until now. Al Ali points out that Gulf countries have developed rapidly in recent times. ‘In this part of the world, countries are very new and, in general, Arabs have been more related to text than image,’ he explains. ‘They are well known in poetry, but the relation to the image was missing.
I remember 20 years back, driving down Sheikh Zayed Road, you would never see an advertisement. Nowadays, they’re everywhere.’ Al Ali says the modern day prevalence of image over text – in adverts, on the internet, on TV – has penetrated the Arab world, and so we can expect to see more Arab films.
To encourage Emirati involvement, GFF is running a script competition, only open to UAE nationals. The prize money will go into turning the winning script into a movie, offering a unique chance to bring Emirati experiences to the screen and cultivate home-grown cinema. While you might think the UAE’s present provides enthralling fodder for film – the influence of western culture on Emirati traditions, especially – it seems most films produced in the UAE prefer to deal with the past.
‘Most Emirati films go back to the ’60s and ’70s and take their stories from there,’ Al Ali says. ‘With the modern city as it is, killing the culture and the tradition, I think we should save our past now. We don’t have a legacy of filmmaking; we never saved our memories and our traditions on video tape. So in the past five or six years, Emirati filmmakers have been going back to their old stories.’
Still, looking to the past can play its part in understanding the modern condition. Maybe these films can serve as more than wistful preservation. If Arab film is about creating better understanding, then maybe exploring the UAE’s past can foster a better relationship between the notably separate communities you find here – those of locals and expats. ‘That’s one of our main goals, that’s why we have this festival,’ Al Ali agrees. ‘Even UAE locals don’t know each other that well. But if we sit in one cinema and see the images, we learn about each other. Through cinema we can be one.’
It would be an oversight to discuss film culture without mention of that international cinematic dominatrix – Hollywood. Al Ali says many newcomers to filmmaking choose the easy route of replicating mainstream, box-office-busting Hollywood styles. But he also cites the emergence of ‘real filmmakers’ in the Gulf who use cinema as art, and are ‘finding their own voices’.
It’s not the quality of Arab films that hinder them from impacting the international film industry, he adds. ‘The barrier is distribution; films don’t make it to the West. For me, it’s one-way traffic – Hollywood to the Arab world. They don’t even consider the Arab market as a market for them.’
That might be true for now, but Al Ali seems hopeful this will change in time. He urges everyone to visit GFF and watch the Arab films, all of which have English subtitles, to experience something different. ‘In the future, in, like, 10 years – and I believe in this – Arab filmmakers will be the new blood in international cinema,’ he says. ‘They will come with the stories that have never been told.’
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