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Panellists at Berlin Film Festival discuss ways to put focus on Arab movies

An award-winning Arabic-language film, Hedi, will be released with Arabic subtitles in the UAE, and across the region, as the local industry looks at ways to boost the popularity of Arab films in cinemas.

This was one of a raft of measures to improve the popularity of Arab cinema, in the region and globally, discussed during a panel talk – New Prospects: Challenges and Opportunities in the Arab Film Industry – at the Berlin Film Festival on Saturday.

The panellists were: Alla Karkouti, chief executive of Cairo-based film studio and consultancy Mad Solutions; Jacques Kruger, general manager of Vox Cinemas; Perihan AbouZeid, who runs Movie Pigs, an Arab video-on-demand platform in America; producer Lamia Chraibi of Morrocan production company La Prod; and Egyptian financier Mohamed Hefzy of Film Clinic.

Karkouti said that Tunisian film Hedi will be released with Arabic subtitles because the local dialect and accent in the film was seen as being a possible issue for audiences in some of the 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Hedi screened in a competition at the Berlin Film Festival last year, where it won the Best First Feature Award, and star Majd Mastoura won the Silver Bear for Best Actor.

While such a move to show a film with subtitles in the same language as the dialogue is unusual, it is not without precedence – in the United Kingdom, films set in Scotland featuring strong accents and slang, including Trainspotting (1996) and Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen (2002), have been subtitled for release in some English-speaking territories.

Finding ways of boosting the popularity of Arabic films has become even more pertinent since the release of a report that suggested the number of cinema screens in the Arab world will double in the next decade. There are about 1,500 cinema screens in Arab countries. The UAE is the best served, with one screen for every 20,500 people – the regional average is one screen for every 234,000 people.

But the panellists raised concerns that additional screens will benefit only American cinema. The challenge, as they see it, is to get the local population to watch Arab films at the cinema.

Kruger pointed out that in “evolved cinema markets across the world, such as in Europe and Turkey, the local market is responsible for a significant proportion of admissions. The only evolved market in the Arab world is Lebanon and Egypt, where a quota system is in place”.

The collapse of the Egyptian film market since 2011 resulted in their share of the UAE market dropping from 20 per cent to 5 per cent.Hefzy said the Arab world must learn lessons from Hollywood.

“Outside of Egypt and Lebanon, most Arab filmmakers are making art-house cinema,” he said. “But from an audience point of view, it would help if we were making more stories from novels and our myths. Look at America – imagine if they were only making original-content movies. That would not work.

“I’m not against original content, but somehow we have to think more ‘out of the box’ and we have to develop an audience for Arab films. All the growth we see in theatrical is going for American films.”

To highlight this, Hefzy noted that the most successful Egyptian film in the UAE last year was Hady El Bagoury’s Hepta: The Last Lecture, which was based on Mohamed Saked’s 2014 best-selling novel, which was much more popular than Clash, a critically acclaimed original drama that had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. However, AbouZeid, who is based in New York, said that for American audiences the situation is reversed, as international film-festival screenings boost popularity compared with films that are hits only in the Arab world.

The panellists commended Image Nation Abu Dhabi for backing genre films, such as Majid Al Ansari’s Zinzana (2015) and Ali F Mostafa’s The Worthy, which will be released this month, but said more needs to be done to help them find an audience.

Kruger suggested disappointing box-office performance is partly to do with low audience expectations of Arab films.

Zinzana is a good film with high production values and they don’t manage to find an audience,” he said. “They don’t find an audience because they are tagged as Arab films. The only Arabic element in Zinzana is that they speak Arabic.”

Zinzana, also known as Rattle the Cage in English-language countries, was snapped up by streaming service Netflix, as was acclaimed Lebanese thriller Very Big Shot.

The big question is whether the Arab world can produce more films to match the global success of Nadine Labaki’s Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?, and recent Oscar nominated films such as Saudi drama Wadjda and Jordanian historical thriller Theeb.

One thing is clear – the Arab film industry cannot sustain itself if it remains a loss-making industry.

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