A crowd-funded short film being shot in Dubai will give UAE actors the chance to get their names under the Hollywood spotlight, and help develop the next generation of aspiring filmmakers.
Michelle Nickelson, a UAE-based screenwriter and chief executive of Mena CineFinance SPC, UAE-based entertainment investment fund, is seeking $170,000 (Dh624,000) for a short film to be shot in Dubai in June.
The 25-minute film, starring Navid Negahban of Homeland and 24 fame, would be the first made here with both Hollywood and local talent, she said, adding that working with Negahban would help other UAE-based actors get noticed.
We need more screenwriters
The UAE needs more Emirati screenwriters to ensure the region’s stories can be told, said Michelle Nickelson. She said the fledgling UAE film industry was starting to move in the right direction.
“Abu Dhabi and Dubai are offering the right types of incentives to filmmakers, and you need that for production.”
Abu Dhabi incentives included up to 30 per cent rebates on different aspects of production costs, while Dubai’s were more on a case-by-case basis, she said.
However, more Emiratis needed to learn how to write screenplays if the industry was going to grow, she said.
“People here are good at directing and producing, but we need more writers — especially Emirati writers — to learn the skill of screenwriting. There’s lots of stories here, it’s just a matter of being able to tell them.”
Short films coming from Arab filmmakers were often based around ideas, with very little dialogue, which was something the contest was trying to encourage, she said.
“People need to start learning how to write more. They can start with short films, move to short films with dialogue and then feature films.”
Nickelson’s company is sponsoring the Emerging Voices From the Arab World Short Screenplay Contest. The competition, which calls for dialogue-driven screenplays of up to 30 minutes in length addressing issues of importance to the Arab world, such as the Arab Spring or youth in the Middle East, is open only to Arab Nationals.
The winner, judged by well-known Dubai-based Syrian director Nabil Maleh, will take away $10,000.
The real goal is then to get these stories on the screen, she said.
While the contest had so far attracted lots of entries leading up to the May 12 closing date, there were not many from Emirati writers.
“There’s a lot of entries from Syrian and Egyptian writers… where you have a lot of conflict, you have a lot of writers with a lot of stories. But I would love to see more Emiratis enter. It’s free — so they should give it a shot. You’ve got to be in to win.”
The screenwriting contest can be found at: http://www.menacf.com/screenplay.html 
“I know a lot of local talent, both Emirati and expat, and they’re always asking me: ‘How do I get to the next level? How do I get seen? Why doesn’t anyone use me for things outside of (the UAE)?’ It’s difficult even in Los Angeles to get noticed, let alone here.”
Nickelson said publicity so far had been good, with high profile US magazines including the Huffington Post, mentioning and asking about names involved in the film already.
Titled 51, the film was a thriller “based on algorithms, or numbers”.
“It’s about a man with a secret past, who has to confront his past when he runs into a woman stranger in Dubai. That’s all I can say.
“It’s a fun thriller, it’s just to entertain — there’s no ‘message’. It’s something everyone can relate to.”
Local talents Mylène Gomera, Dana Hamdan, Rik Aby, along with Dubai actor Omar Borkan Al Gala, who, according to social media sites, was reportedly ousted from a recent culture festival in Saudi Arabia for being “too handsome”, will also star in the film. Producers are also in negotiation with two other well-known Emirati actors, names yet to be released.
So far, producers have raised about $10,500 through Arabic crowd-funding site Aflamnah. Nickelson was optimistic they would raise the required total before filming begins in mid-June, with private and government sponsors also getting on-board, she said.
“We’ve been really fortunate to be supported by the Dubai Film Commission, and Dubai people have been wonderful...they’re really excited about it.
“It’s a learning experience, and it’s fun, and it promotes both the film industry and Dubai.”
Nickelson, an American who has lived in the Middle East on and off for eight years, said she called it a “community film project”.
“It really is about the community showing what the UAE is all about.
“The whole thing is we’re all different people, living and working here, and in light of some of the negative stuff (about the Middle East) in the media recently, it’s nice to do something positive.”
Despite plenty of talent, many actors here were struggling to make the transition from ‘hobby’ to making a living from their work, given the relative lack of projects here, she said.
“There’s a lot of television projects in the Middle East but not enough projects here to make a living as an actor. People need to go international too.”
As well as walk-on parts still being available, three speaking parts in the film are also still on offer as a reward to those who donate — one male, and two open to either gender. They would get to interact with Negahban, she said.
“They can do it themselves, or nominate someone.”
Nickelson said there would be plenty of time to coach people with a lack of experience, and get them up to speed.
“We want people to have a good time.”
An internship project will also run the week before and during filming, and is being supported by Shaikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Hamdan Al Nahyan, patron of the film and president of Mena CineFinance SPC.
Interns will undertake a series of lectures, giving them an overview of the film industry and the different roles involved, and then get to work on-set during filming.
About 10 Emiratis would be picked, with the rest possibly coming from crowd-funding donors, she said. Details were being worked out with the Dubai Film Commission and would be released soon.
“It’s a great opportunity to see how things work and ask questions about what people are doing.”
This drive to get more Emiratis involved in film followed the successful internship of Emirati filmmaker and fine arts student Ibrahim Al Khemeiri who, through the creative lab ‘twofour54 ibtikar’, worked on the set of the movie Plastic in London earlier this year, she said.
Those interested in the internship project can email firstname.lastname@example.org 
To donate, go to: http://www.aflamnah.com/en/51/ 
By Sarah Young
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