Filmmaker Maurice Bouri and his friends, Ziad and Jad Oakes, just happened to all be in Dubai at the same time for a few days last summer. Oakes had just bought a new digital SLR and was snapping away as the three drove around Dubai. Meanwhile, another filmmaker, Yosef Khouwes was back in the city after completing his studies at the New York film school in Hollywood.
Both groups decided at the last minute to enter last year's MINI Film Festival , a competition organised by BMW - open to anyone with a camera.
Both claim they have benefited more from this decision than from the presence of Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) in the region.
The high profile DIFF has certainly added to the publicity Dubai garners all around the world. Big names, big films, big parties and all the trappings of an international film festival. Well, almost.
"I am not convinced DIFF provides a platform for people doing low budget or even no-budget projects," says Bouri, who is now based in Dubai. "All of the other big international film festivals always have room for something new or for young filmmakers. This one has offered nothing."
DIFF, however, did launch the Muhr Awards for Excellence last year purely to encourage more participation from young Arab filmmakers.
Bouri and Oakes won the US $1350 people's choice award at the MINI Film Festival for their film Buzz of Dubai made entirely from the still shots taken by Jad. Bouri is now working on hi+s first full-length feature film The Twelfth Task - an opportunity he feels has come from his win at the MINI Film Festival.
"I've won an award, I was part of something that was pretty well publicised; everyone knew about it, and so I managed to put together a crew of 25-30 people who have stayed together with me for the last seven months [of filming]. I think that has come about because they know that we managed to pull something off last year."
Khouwes, a Venezualen with a Syrian background, came second at the MINI festival last year. He also feels that the recognition from winning an award has helped. He is now working on the film version of Mariam Mulla's novel Zaman al Saber or Time of Patience, about life in the UAE before the country struck oil.
"Two things helped the offer come to me. First, the fact that I studied in Hollywood and second, that I won the award," he confides.
Khouwes feels that film festivals and competitions are a good way for people to feel like they are participating even if they don't walk away with a prize. However, he decries the lack of ample financial support for such projects in the region.
"What we really need help with is the finance. I am now looking for financiers for Zaman al Saber but we are a little handicapped because there is no funding.
In order to get any money from the government or a sponsor, we need to write the script. In order to write the script, we need to pay a scriptwriter," says Khouwes.
Bouri identifies with this situation and says Dubai is in need of a film commission to provide the industry with funding. He picks out the British Film Council as an example of a successful model.
However, it's not all bad news. Considering how successful DIFF has been, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) has set up the Middle East International Film Festival. This year's event - running from October 12-17 - will include the launch of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, a department that will also be responsible for providing funds to regional filmmakers who have a good script.
"The authority for culture and heritage is trying to do three things," confirms Abdalla Bastaki, a young filmmaker who also works at ADACH. "For one, there will be a film commission to provide funding for films. Secondly, there are attempts to organise proper film education and finally, provide a platform to launch these films."
Some efforts have already been made in the above areas although they will be launched officially only at the festival.
For one, there have been reports that US $10 million has been provided for Ben Hirsi's new feature Arabian Sands, about the life of British explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, who travelled through Arabia in the 1940s.
With regards to training, ADACH has already signed up with the New York Film Academy to open up a film school in the capital. Under the agreement, the first phase will see the delivery of educational and training workshops on filmmaking and acting arts from January next year while full-fledged programmes will be taught at the academy at a later stage next year.
The agreement was signed recently by Al Mazrouei; Jerry Sherlock, director, president and founder of the academy; and Michael Young, provost and director of Education at the academy.
All of this will be explained in more detail at the Middle East International Film Festival next month.
In the meantime, Dubai, which has been running DIFF for the last two years, has attempted to give Arab filmmakers a greater voice at the festival with the launch of the Muhr awards last year which had a total prize fund of US $325,000 for the winning submissions. The event, open to filmmakers of Arab nationality or descent, attracted 250 short films, documentaries and full-length features last year. "In order to grow internationally you have to start locally," says Khouwes.
With the increasing number of opportunities for directors within the region to showcase their work, there will be less reasons to travel far for it. The challenge now is for more young filmmakers to take up the challenge and translate their dreams for the big screen.
October 14-19 2007
Dubai International Film Festival
December 9-16 2007
The MINI Film Festival
November 29, 2007
The Emirates Film Competition