Digital filmmaking in the Gulf

Arab filmmakers may favour digital cameras but experts recommend 35mm.
The inaugural edition of the Gulf Film Festival was launched on April 13 in Dubai with the screening of Four Girls, a Bahraini feature film directed b
The inaugural edition of the Gulf Film Festival was launched on April 13 in Dubai with the screening of Four Girls, a Bahraini feature film directed b
FROM LEFT: Bahraini director, Bassam Al-Thawadi; the panel moderator; Lebanese film critic and Dubai International Film Festival's Muhr Awards manager
FROM LEFT: Bahraini director, Bassam Al-Thawadi; the panel moderator; Lebanese film critic and Dubai International Film Festival's Muhr Awards manager
Masood Amralla Al Ali is the director of GFF.
Masood Amralla Al Ali is the director of GFF.
Abdulhamid Juma is the chairman of DIFF and GFF.
Abdulhamid Juma is the chairman of DIFF and GFF.


Arab filmmakers favour digital cameras for economic reasons; experts recommend using 35 mm to produce commercially-viable cinema and local distributors laud digital distribution but say the road to D-cinema is full of hurdles. We bring you all sides of the story from the Gulf Film Festival.

The inaugural edition of the Gulf Film Festival, launched in order to give filmmakers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries a wider platform to showcase their talent, received more than 200 entries primarily in the shorts and documentary categories.

Audiences were treated to a selection of different films from various genres at the festival, which was held at Dubai Community Theatre & Arts Centre (DUCTAC) in Mall of the Emirates.

The film opened on the evening of April 13th with Four Girls, a Bahraini feature film. Viewing the range of films that were shown at the festival, we were certain of one thing - that the cinema movement in the GCC had begun.

One important aspect of this festival was a panel discussion on Digital Filmmaking in the Gulf, which was attended by filmmakers whose films were being screened at the festival.

On the panel were Bahraini director, Bassam Al-Thawadi; Lebanese film critic and Dubai International Film Festival's Muhr Awards manager, Mohammed Rouda; and Gianluca Chacra, managing director of Front Row Filmed Entertainment LLC.

Rouda firmly stressed that although digital cameras might be a budget-friendly option for young filmmakers, 35 mm was the way to go for anyone who was serious about making a commercially-viable film.

"Confidence in cinema stems from the quality provided by 35 mm. To make an impressive movie, you have to shoot in a format that ensures good quality images and sound. Otherwise, people will not go to a theatre to watch a movie," he explained.

He cited the instance of Collateral, directed by Michael Mann. "Lighting is often an issue with digital cameras and has to be handled very skilfully to get appropriate results. Michael Mann used digital cameras for 80% of this film but he paid a lot of attention to lighting to ensure that they would achieve good results. They used 35 mm for some of the big interior shots because they felt this would achieve better results. If you want to become a professional director, you have to keep these things in mind as people do notice these things."

He urged directors to pay attention to cinema as an art rather than as a political weapon.

Director Bassam Al-Thawadi seconded this and urged filmmakers in the region to watch more movies made by well-known filmmakers in order to make movies well.

"Most of your film experience seems to stem from watching TV productions and soap operas. They are not based on films made by great film directors. To improve your styles and develop a film culture here, it is very important that you watch a lot of diverse films made by some of the great directors of the past like Kurosawa, Renoir and Hitchcock. Exposing yourself to a wide range of good films will enable you to gradually understand film techniques and experiment on your own," stated Al-Thawadi.

He did, however, admit that the lack of a good film school in the region compounded the problems of young filmmakers who wanted to produce professional films.

Al-Thawadi also added that whether a team shot in digital or 35mm, a production company such as his would have to invest the same amount of capital as professional stars and crew commanded the same amount of money for their services.

"An average no-frills movie costs about US $500,000 to make. If you have stars and professional crew, you have to pay them the same amount of money whether you shoot with film or digital. The important thing is to produce a film that is commercially viable irrespective of the format," Al Thawadi continued.

He also added that directors must make every effort to produce a commercially-viable film.

"If you look at the demographics in the Gulf, even the best Arabic films sell only about 16,000 tickets. Imagine if you have a no-stars movie. The likelihood of it getting seen and you getting any return on your investment is doubtful. Therefore, it is very important that you keep these things in mind when making a movie so that you get maximum return on your investment," he urged.

Gianluca Chacra of Front Row Filmed Entertainment LLC, who was speaking on film distribution within the Gulf region highlighted the differences between film and digital distribution and also the challenges that lay in the way of Digital Cinema.

He stated that while digital distribution of films would be considerably cheaper, installation of the equipment within each theatre would cost about US $200,000.

"The problem with digital cinema is that it is too expensive to deploy in the theatres. Each cinema needs about US $200,000 to have a digital projector and that does not make it commercially viable for theatre owners. For Arab filmmakers, however, digital prints would have been ideal as they would cost about US $10 as opposed to film prints, which cost about US $2000 for each copy. In a small area, it would cost about US $3000 to distribute a film (produced in 35mm) while in a place like the UAE, it would easily cost around US $60,000. Such expenses are prohibitive and difficult for a distributor to justify unless he can recover his costs. If the film is not professionally made, distributors would hesitate to distribute it while if it was in digital format, it would be easier because we don't stand to lose anything," said Chacra.

He cited the example of Kuwait, which has the only digital cinema in the entire Middle East. The cinema has so far managed to screen only two Indian films and one Egyptian film due to the problems caused by censorship and subtitling.

He called censorship the biggest hurdle to D-cinema making any progress in the region.

"Censorship kills people who want to make alternative films. It also stands in the way of making digital cinema possible because you need specialised equipment to make the cuts demanded by the censors. After that, you need to get the subtitles done. This entire process takes about three months. By then, the film becomes outdated," Chacra added.

He maintained that digital feeds through satellite and hard drives would have helped drive down piracy as well. However, he added that it was currently not a commercially viable option in the Middle East owing to the prohibitive costs and lack of any return on investment (ROI).

From the panel discussion and questions raised by filmmakers, it was evident there was a dearth of a good film academy here to nurture filmmaking talent. A significant number of the films screened at the festival made viewers aware that there was a lot of talent in the region.

However, this talent needs to be nurtured if it must produce commercially viable films and give the cinema movement the much-needed boost it needs.

Masood Amralla Al Ali

"This competition was open to the GCC countries, Iraq and Yemen. We got about 200 entries, of which the maximum number came in from the UAE and the second and third largest number of entries was from Saudi Arabia and Iraq."

"Given that movies are not even screened in Saudi Arabia, we were impressed by the number of entries from there."

"We believe there were some good movies at the competition. It is good to know that we have so many films being produced here. The Emirati films were a bit ahead of the other films in terms of quality."

This may have been because they started earlier and each director has at least seven to eight films to his credit while the Saudis and Qataris have only a couple to their credit.

"We believe however that this festival is a learning experience for all the filmmakers. They will see the standard of filmmaking around them and aspire to make better movies."

"We are also looking to market some of the better films on behalf of the filmmakers at other film festivals and show them on local channels and so on. Once we have finalised these deals, we will let the filmmakers talk to the parties themselves."

"We believe that such initiatives will help to grow the local film industry. Additionally, when Dubai Studio City opens, companies will look in the local market for talent and they will find that at least the foundation is laid here."

"Our main challenges moving forward are the lack of film funding and the paucity of good film schools. We need a dedicated school to teach film. The festival can do some things but a school guarantees the continuation of education for new generations of students. It will also teach them how to shoot in 35 mm and better film techniques. Formal education is essential and we now need to work towards bringing this to the region."

Abdulhamid Juma

"The Gulf Film Festival was essential to discuss the challenges that are unique to filmmakers in this region in a more intimate setting."

Dubai has now gathered all such cultural initiatives under one umbrella called the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority.

As part of this project, we will have a 20 km line of new buildings on both sides of the Dubai creek, which will include art galleries, cinemas and museums. All film festivals will be held under this umbrella.

"We chose the Creek because culture needs roots and heritage and that is where the roots of Dubai are; everything grew around the creek."

"At the same time, we also realise that we need to take culture to the people and this is the main reason for holding the film festivals at malls. Culture needs to come to the people and cannot exist somewhere in isolation."

"Today, most of the people are in the malls. That's why we have brought these films to be screened at the malls, where there's greater likelihood of them being seen."

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