The Beginnings: Experiences of Arab Filmmakers
16.10.2012 - From Cairo to Beirut, Baghdad and
Sanna to Abu Dhabi, five well-known and highly praised Arab
filmmakers shared their stories about how they got their start
making films in the region with a large audience at a special event
hosted by ADFF at the Emirates Palace Ballroom on Tuesday. The
panelists included Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah, Iraqi
director Mohamed Jabarah Al Daradji, Egyptian producer and writer
Mohamed Hefzy, Yemeni-British director Bader Ben Hirsi and Abu
Dhabi-born-and-raised writer and director Nawaf Al-Janahi. The
event was moderated by Intishal Tamimi, ADFF's Director of Arabic
Just this week, Nasrallah was named Variety's Middle
East Filmmaker of the Year. The renowned Egyptian director has made
major contributions in shaping contemporary Arab cinema with films
like El Medina (1999), Gate of Sun (2004),
Aquarium (2008) and Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story
(ADFF 2009). His latest work, After the Battle, premiered
in Competition at the Cannes Film Festival and was showcased at
this year's ADFF.
During the candid and genuine panel session, Nasrallah shared
details of his early days growing up in Cairo. "We belonged to a
generation that was challenged when it came to cinema and film. We
couldn't even get our hands on a camera back then." He attended the
Cairo Cinema Institute in 1973 and recalls a story: "A group of us
went to the dean's office requesting to use a 16mm or even an 8mm
camera for a project. The dean responded mockingly by saying you
will never lay eyes on a camera until your fourth year. That was
when I decided to escape. I headed to Beirut."
He said he was desperate to be part of a cinematic world where
he could connect with other people in the field. "Although I was
brought up a small protected circle, I went to a small private
German school, my family was known all over Cairo so it was easy
for me - I decided to leave this comfort. All of a sudden, I was
simply Youssef, studying economics in Beirut in 1982; the city was
in the middle of war, where no one knew me, I lived with no
protection whatsoever." The priority during that time in Beirut was
just to be alive; this gave Nasrallah the motivation to make films.
"The newspaper was like an undertaker! It only spoke about victims
of war and the dead. Cinema talks about people who are alive!"
Al Daradji, the Baghdad-born director of the award-winning
Son of Babylon, (ADFF 2009), is no stranger to making
films in difficult circumstances, having shot two features in Iraq
after the US invasion. "Making film amidst a war is extremely
tough, not only because of the lack of resources, but accessibility
and mobility is terribly restricted. Iraq does not have the
infrastructure for living let alone filming." He said people used
to criticise him all the time and wonder why he put himself in such
Al Daradji's love for filmmaking was tangible during the panel.
"A film is like a beautiful woman; my passion for film is like how
one would fall in love with a woman." He added that making a film
is a process of self-discovery. "You have to be unstoppable; if you
are hijacked by troops or jailed, you cannot be discouraged ." He
said production was complicated by local curfews. "How do you
convince female actors to agree to shoot after 12 am and during the
night?" Editing in Iraq was almost impossible; he had to take the
film to Syria or Jordan.
Hefzy runs Film Clinic, which is recognised as one of the
leading production companies in the MENA region. He is the producer
of highly regarded Egyptian indies including Ahmad Abdalla's
Heliopolis (ADFF 2009) and Microphone (2010), and
recently co-produced UK director Sally El Hoseini's award-winning
My Brother the Devil. His films Asma'a and
Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Dictator both won
prizes at last year's Festival.
Hefzy attended the American University of Cairo and studied
architecture in London. He said he has had a love for both film and
theatre since he was a teenager, and being in London stoked his
passion. "London theatre was like a playground for me."
Ben Hirsi's films include the documentary The English
Sheik& The Yemeni Gentleman (2000), A New
Day in OldSanaʼa (2006), which became the first
feature-length film to be shot in Yemen. His TV series
Millionsʼ Poet, produced here in Abu Dhabi, became the
most successful show in Arab television history. He also
co-produced Al Daradji's Son of Babylon (which was
co-funded by the Festival).
Ben Hirsi contrasted himself with some of the others by bluntly
admitting the different experience he had growing up and learning
film. "I was born London, and basically I spent my entire life
living there. When I went to Yemen, my home country, I felt it was
my responsibility to create something that would positively change
the image of Yemen. I knew that in order to make a film in Sana'a,
I had to obtain funds from there; however I was aware that this
would be a difficult task as Yemen is not an economically rich
country." He said that the set of his first film was attacked a
number of times. The process was a struggle because it took a long
time to train the actors, as there was basically no film industry.
Cultural sensitivity was a must. "It was tough, people were
accusing of making adult films, accusing me of shooting these films
during prayer time, which were all false accusations." He said one
of his main goals was to pave the way for other aspiring
Al-Janahi started by saying "I associate most
with Bader Ben Hirsi in comparison to the rest of the panel."
Born in Abu Dhabi, he has been an integral member
of the nascent film movement in the UAE. His features The
Circle (2009) and Sea Shadow (2011) are among the
most prominent Emirati films on the world stage. "When I was 11, I
loved film and acting and my father was involved in television and
media. I especially loved watching 'behind the scenes'". He said
that it reached a point where he would watch eight films per day.
"When I was 16 I was certain that film was my passion and
filmmaking was exactly what I wanted to do in my life."
He was discouraged by the people around him, who put him down
and did not believe that he could do it especially in the UAE at
that time. His father did not want him to get into something that
was not financially sustainable. "I wanted to study cinema in
Cairo but my father was not going to support me. So I just stayed
home, because there was nothing else besides cinema that I wanted
to do." At one point he ended up in Cairo, studying hospitality, so
that he could have access to the huge film industry there. Four
months later he told his father that he was actually studying
cinema; the next thing he knew, his father told him that he got
Nawaf a scholarship to study film in the US.
Al Janahi returned to the UAE in 1999 and was a little
discouraged as filmmaking was still not as widely spread as it is
now. Then gradually he started to meet different people from the
film scene such as Ali Al Jabiri (now ADFF's Director). "I was
encouraged and in 2001, we gathered 58 Emirati films; and this was
when we all realized that an Emirati film culture actually exists."
Times have changed since then and the film industry has expanded
greatly in the Emirates, but as these four filmmakers are around to
attest, achievement and success mean more when the beginning was a