How to make a movie in the Middle East
Conversation with independent filmmakers about the trials and tribulations of their work tends to be interesting. Sometimes the story of the struggle is more arresting than the work that comes out of it.
Because cinema is expensive, a key part of the challenge facing indie filmmakers in the Arab world, like anyplace else, is funding.
One of the more successful film finance funds to have emerged in the last few years is Sanad (Support). Established by the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2010, the fund’s managers aim to provide “meaningful support” to Arab feature and documentary filmmakers. The team overseeing the selection process erred, when possible, on the side of innovative projects, whether by young artists or more established filmmakers.
“Meaningful support” required a yearly budget of $500,000, disbursed in tranches of up to $20,000 for script development and $60,000 for post-production. The fund also organized screenwriting and pitch workshops and the like for its laureates and worked to tout their work throughout the year.
Since Sanad was created, the Dubai International Film Festival has launched Enjaaz (“completion”), which disburses up to $100,000 in post-production support per feature-length Arab film and documentary, and the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival has unveiled its MENA Grants, supporting Middle East and North Africa feature-length narrative, documentary and experimental filmmakers in development, production, post-production as well as prints and advertising.
Given its two-year-long existence, it’s likely too soon to assess Sanad’s success, but the fund has supported a range of interesting works whose aesthetics range from art film to political engagement to historical fiction.
Lebanese filmmaker Rania Attieh has co-written -directed and -produced a number of micro-budget works with her collaborator Daniel Garcia. Their debut feature “Tayyeb Khalas Yalla” had its world premiere at ADFF in 2010, where it took the prize for Best Film from the Arab World in the New Horizons competition for first and second features. It later found further festival fame internationally.
Attieh says she received a pair of Sanad grants – a post-production grant of $25,000-$30,000 for “Tayyeb Khalas Yalla” (supplemented by funding from New York’s Cinereach fund for indie filmmakers) and a $12,000 development grant for the team’s new project, “One Week Ago Today”(augmented by a Doha MENA grant for $10,000).
“The Sanad post-production grant was crucial,” she recalls. “Without it we wouldn’t have finished the film. We don’t have a production company and we do small-budget films that we self-finance. So having extra post-production help is very important because ...we can’t forego costs for things like sound mixing and color correction.”
International festivals tend to screen films their funds have supported, often in their competition programs, so a skeptic might argue that it’s no surprise that in the last couple of years Sanad films have been well-represented in ADFF’s expansive winners circle.
Yet many Sanad-supported films have not premiered in Abu Dhabi, which falls near the end of the festival calendar. The real mark of Sanad’s success, it’s been argued, is how many of its films have been selected for premiere in the main programs and competitions of major events like Venice, Toronto and Cannes.
Lebanese filmmaker and visual artist Joana Hadjithomas and her collaborator Khalil Joreige have made four feature films. Their new feature-length documentary, “The Lebanese Rocket Society,” premiered at TIFF and will have its Middle East debut at the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival this week.
The new film got development grants from both Sanad ($8,000) and AFAC (the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture). Hadjithomas says having such support in the early going is vital to a project.
“Usually when you do a film, you’re very lonely. You work with a script for years, in this case a film that needed months of research. Having [financial support makes] you feel, ‘Okay. I can do this. I’m going to make this film.’”
Palestinian filmmakers Annemarie Jacir and Ossama Bawardi have collaborated on a number of works and Bawardi was the principal producer of Jacir’s second feature, “When I Saw You.” It premiered at TIFF this year and later had its Middle East premiere at ADFF, where it won the New Horizons prize for Best Film from the Arab World.
The film received two tranches of Sanad support, a $20,000 script development grant (supplemented by an $8,000 award from the DIFF’s Dubai Film Connection) and a $60,000 post-production grant.
“After we finished shooting, we were struggling,” Jacir recalls. “I don’t know what would have happened without Sanad, in collaboration with the in-kind support – an editing room and lab – from the Thessaloniki Film Festival, where we won the post-production prize ... We went to Greece and were able to hire our sound designer and editor with the Sanad money.
“That’s also what’s great about Sanad. It’s money that we need to spend. It wasn’t in-kind, which would mean ‘Come do your film in Abu Dhabi’ or something, which would not have been practical at all.
“Also it’s not an investment. We’re making these films almost entirely based on investments, so the real grants are a godsend.”
“Investors are partners in the film,” Bawardi explains. “They have a share in the film. That means that if the producer starts to make money, they receive a share. There are two sides to this. The privilege is that they will help to distribute because they have a financial interest in the film being successful. At the same time it makes it more difficult for the producer to structure the finance of the production.”
Though he says he has no personal experience with this, he knows shareholders sometimes want creative control over investment.
“Sanad is not shy about content,” Jacir rejoins.
“That’s really important for filmmakers who are dealing with politically sensitive subject matter, or issues.”
Its recipients also appreciate Sanad for the fact that grants are awarded without conditions. This is not the case with certain European funds, for instance, which insist their awards be paid to European technicians.
“I hope we will have more of Sanad,” Bawardi says. “That would allow us to stop relying on European and foreign grants. I don’t say they are bad, but most European funds have obligations and guidelines that you have to fulfill and that makes it much more difficult.”
“Europeans have these weird thematic agendas,” Attieh says, “They have a specific type of content and a lot of rules – this producer from this country must be involved. The project becomes bigger than it needs to be. And they tend to go with the new wave. There were years where they were interested in Arab cinema. Next year they’ll be interested in Asian or Latin American cinema.
“With Sanad,” she continues, “you give them your budget and what you’re going to spend it on and you have absolutely no restrictions on what company you’d use. In our case they didn’t tell us, ‘You have to do your color correction at this place’ or to spend it in Abu Dhabi in a sound-mixing studio.”
As 2-year-old film funds go, Sanad’s accomplishments are not to be sniffed at. Yet for the past several months the fund has been in a state of suspension, its future in doubt.
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