In February this year, the Middle East woke up to great entertainment news – Netflix had announced its first Arabic original series, Jinn, by Lebanese director Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya and Jordanian screenwriter Bassel Ghandour. The six-episode series, a teen supernatural thriller, is set in Jordan and will screen next year. This follows Netflix’s first Arabic production, Adel Karam: Live from Beirut, which premiered a few months ago.
Going by the stupendous success of India’s first Netflix show Sacred Games, the streaming service has high expectations of the Middle East, particularly since Saudi Arabia opened up cinemas from this year. Under the Vision 2030 programme, it’s touted to pump $64 billion into the entertainment sector over the next 10 years. And with a population of over 32 million, a huge chunk of which is under the age of 30, the kingdom is poised to not only attract massive box office sales, but also boost the film and entertainment industry in a region that remains grossly under-tapped.
‘Saudis have faced a real lack of culturally relevant, accessible entertainment, so this is an incredible opportunity for our industry,’ says Michael Garin, CEO of Image Nation Abu Dhabi. In fact, the GCC as a whole offers unprecedented potential; according to the media company, around 26 million GCC nationals are underserved by the local content on offer, making high-quality Arabic productions critical and in high demand.
‘The plan is to ramp up more and more local productions – we believe the Middle East is a region full of great storytellers,’ says Yann LaFargue, head of technology and corporate communications at Netflix. ‘We know that viewers in the Arab world turn to Netflix for ‘me time’; during Ramadan, for example, viewership peaked in the middle of the night especially between 2am and 5am. Arab viewers are hungry for more local content.’
Every drop of water counts to fill a bucket – so it is with films and other content in the region. The past few years have seen a steady growth of genre-driven films aimed at developing a holistic film industry where indie and commercial coexist side by side.
‘Mainstream Arab cinema has existed for years,’ says Rami Yasin, a prominent regional producer, writer, director and actor. ‘What has happened over the past 10 to 12 years is that Indie Arab cinema made a real mark on the international circuit. In other words, it is arthouse and commercial arthouse Arab cinema produced by independent producers and written and directed by independent film-makers that made strides in the world arena.
‘The two main factors in my view that contributed to this achievement are that the region has really talented storytellers and hard-working and risk-tasking producers who turn out good movies. Secondly, the world, due to the unfortunate geopolitical situation has become more interested in us and our stories. But do these films make a dent in the box office? Unfortunately not.’
Yasin’s producer credits include the Emirati films Zinzana and The Worthy, both of which made a loud splash globally. Both were picked up by Netflix in 2015 (Zinzana is the first Emirati film to be featured on Netflix) and 2017 respectively, a huge win considering they pushed invisible boundaries imposed by a world that expects artsy cinema with sociopolitical messages. ‘In many ways the Arab region is still misunderstood by international audiences, who often have strong preconceptions about what life is like here,’ says Garin. ‘A part of Image Nation’s mandate is to showcase local culture in a more nuanced way, sharing unexpected perspectives and telling authentic regional stories to the world. For example, our legal drama series Justice was created in close consultation with the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department and offer an opportunity to clarify the UAE’s culture and laws to an outside audience, while also providing entertainment.’
Cinema is one way the region is fighting the stigma-ridden schematic, but simultaneously, genuine progress has also occurred thanks to the explosion of social media, a massive young population and opening up of borders, cultures and societies, fuelling a whole new popular culture.
‘The Arab world has changed dramatically since the Arab Spring – it was a tipping point,’ says Nayla Al Khaja, the UAE’s first female film director. ‘Censorship has loosened and there’s definitely progress across the region. But there isn’t such a thing as a film industry here; it’s a film movement.’
Nayla’s presence on the Gulf stage is iconic. In May, Nayla became the first Emirati film-maker to have her screenplay – the feature-length version of her acclaimed short Animal – accepted by Cannes’ prestigious Producers’ Network for funding.
Amr Salama, one of Egypt’s most prominent directors today, echoes the cultural change as well: ‘The youth of the Arab world got unprecedented exposure because of the internet, which reflected on them politically, socially and therefore artistically. The region is still in a flux, moving very rapidly towards openness and liberation.’
But the explosion and worldwide dissemination of Middle Eastern content has brought a significant issue to light – money, or the lack of it, as well as shortage of producers and few grants to raise an Arab film industry. Cairowood, as the Egyptian film industry is known, only produces Egyptian cinema, which doesn’t necessarily resonate with other Arab natives, and contrary to popular global perception, the Arabic spoken in the different countries across Middle East and North Africa (Mena) differs widely.
‘If I went to Tunisia today, for instance, I wouldn’t understand half of what people speak, even though Tunisians speak Arabic as do I,’ says Nayla. ‘If we had one Arabic language, we’d have one Arabic industry but that’s not the case. Unfortunately, this tends to water down returns on investment or it becomes difficult to make films at a certain production value.’
It’s clear that genre-driven content alone isn’t enough to develop a full-fledged industry. This is why Saudi Arabia is such a game-changer. ‘Many indie Arab film-makers don’t make movies with a view of being a commercial success,’ says Yasin. ‘Many don’t even know what audience they’re targeting. This is where Saudi Arabia comes in. It has a huge talent pool and an even bigger audience base that could turn things around. It potentially means more film-makers, more movies, more financing and most important of all enough audiences to become profitable.’
Nayla adds that countering the language barrier to build a Khaleeji film industry is now possible with the kingdom joining the fray. ‘If 100 screens open in Saudi Arabia this year, there’s huge potential. Films are then viable, we’ll have interested investors willing to put money in.’
Of course, there are other ways by which the Middle East, particularly the UAE, has carved a niche for itself in terms of supporting film-making. The UAE is one of the world’s hottest shooting destinations, favoured heavily by Bollywood and Hollywood. It’s no secret that several big-budget films and top-notch franchises have been shot here over the past few years – Mission Impossible, Fast & Furious, Star Wars, Star Trek, the list keeps growing. Netflix’s Six Underground, which is its biggest budget movie so far and stars Ryan Reynolds, is scheduled to be shot in Abu Dhabi.
‘The UAE is one of the most stable and safest areas to film in the Middle East with a variety of locations to suit any backdrop,’ says Garin. ‘Additionally, it has invested in important incentive schemes to bring down the cost of filming and producing content here like Abu Dhabi Film Commission’s 30 per cent cashback rebate.’
Image Nation has single-handedly changed the face of film development in the region, spearheading a cultural revolution of sorts. In fact, it is the first Arabic-language producer to secure global distribution deals for its projects, and it’s no surprise that the company has already partnered with O3 Productions, the production arm of MBC Group, to develop content in Saudi Arabia. This includes production of a feature film and a spin-off TV series based on the bestselling Saudi sci-fi romance novel HWJN by Ibrahim Abbas. Image Nation and O3 Productions will also coproduce four feature films including the comedy Love Above the Law written by Saudi comedian and actor Fahad Al Butairi. The media company also runs the flagship Arab Film Studio and Arab Film Studio – Young Film-makers.
More and more movies now are flirting with different genres, narratives and storylines, signalling a gradual coming-of-age for the Arab film world. For instance, Shabab Sheyab is about four seniors living in an assisted facility in Dubai who escape when one of them inherits a fortune. Rashid & Rajab is another comedy slated for release. Both have been developed by Image Nation. Elsewhere, Salama is writing a film tentatively titled Iraqi Sniper – his riposte to American Sniper - as well as working on a TV show Paranormal, both Arabic.
‘I’m optimistic, we have a much bigger pool of talent, 100 times bigger than what we had 10 years ago,’ he says. ‘We’re destined to push the boundaries and break all taboos, because how else will societies develop?’ And Salama is known for his bold strides; his last film Sheikh Jackson is a quirky look at an Islamic cleric who likes to dress up as Michael Jackson and his journey in the wake of the pop icon’s death.
Yasin is looking forward to being a part of building a strong film industry with a long-lasting and solid financial outlook. ‘Our audiences are very genre-driven and quite savvy from years of being exposed to mainstream international cinema. So, experimentation and moving away from social or political festival darlings towards what audiences want is a very good thing. When we start making movies for those who pay for tickets and buy soda and popcorn, you’re making everyone happy and building an industry.
‘That’s why I believe in companies like Image Nation who have made it their business to tackle this aspect head on. They combine the best of Hollywood studio practices with an indie spirit to develop and produce high-quality genre films by promising Arab film-makers. We need many more such companies, plus more private equity firms or individuals joining the ranks to support these filmmakers and help finance their movies.’
Yasin is in the middle of raising finances for a musical comedy and a horror drama as writer-director, and attached as a producer to an Indian/Bedouin film as well as a crime drama. ‘I hope to witness the transformation of Indie Arab cinema from a festival-led industry to a box-office based industry because that is the only way it’s going to survive.