Flag bearers of cinema tomorrow

They could be the future of UAE cinema. A few years down the line, you might get to watch, at UAE theatres, full-length films directed by this bunch of locally-honed talented youngsters. Meet the first group of film-driven students of the American University of Sharjah, who unveiled their filmmaking capabilities at a special screening of their short films in Dubai. Rajeev Nair has the details

Photographs: Prashanth Mukundan

Faced with the situations given below, spell out in one word your true feeling:
1. Your favourite oh-so-cut teddy suddenly assumes supernatural power and starts knocking dead your friends one by one before training a gun on you: (Intrigue?)
2. You are a girl trapped in an elevator with one oddball of a boy; you start finding common ground and before long you don’t mind going out with him on a date. Alas, but for the realisation that the elevator-trouble was actually engineered… (That’s wicked fun!)
3. A gang bursts into a professor’s home, ties him up, thrusts a gun on his head and forces him to rattle out information — well, answers actually, to the class test (Wacky?)
4. You are in a never-ending queue to register your name for whatever, and when your turn comes after many grueling days, you realize that the closing time is over (Funny life, this one!)
5. A mother races against time to rescue her children from bulldozers that are leveling down her home (Sadness, pity, helplessness?)
Intrigue, hopelessness, sheer fun, rib-tickling comedy, chilling scare, love, lust, greed – every emotion worth its name was tackled in a selection of short films screened under the banner, Through a Different Lens screened by the students of the American University of Sharjah recently.
Conceptualised and executed to the last cut by the students themselves, these shorts were a pointer to the future of UAE cinema. Here is a bunch of film enthusiasts, who have learnt their craft and medium, arriving to roll out their turf.
The shorts also reflected what they had been taught by Kim Bigelow, professor of Media Studies at AUS: Tell a story but not the whole story, tell a story that moves you as an individual.
Bigelow must be credited with building a film programme at AUS, without having one in its strict sense. He brought together students from various faculties — but mostly from the department of mass studies — initiated them into the world of cinema, groomed them by screening classics, helped them out with the nitty-gritty of films and goaded them to make and shoot their films, their own way.
The result was for all to see, and if the applause generated at the screening of the shorts at Grand Cineplex in Dubai was anything to go by, sure enough, there is enough resonance in the corridors of AUS that complement the vision behind such endeavors as the Dubai Studio City and the Dubai International Film Festival (Diff).
Diff continues its tradition of providing a platform for students to interact with filmmakers and discuss films threadbare. This year, the event will find synergy in the filmmaking sensibilities of this bunch of youngsters from AUS.
The 16 films screened as part of Through a Different Lens covered an eclectic range of issues and topics. Some celebrated the great story-telling tradition of Arabia with an O Henry-esque twist to the tale (Searching for Subaira by Khalid Al Subaihi); The Robbery by Sami Safadi was a homage to Quentin Tarantino; My World My Pitch by Taryam and Khalid Al Subaihi was a sublime tale of the dreams of a wheel-chair bound boy who discovers in the desert and hills his football pitch; A Mother in Palestine by Neda Ahmed could have stood for any region ravaged by strife; Close Your Eyes by Ahmed Bolooki scared the wits out of the viewers with sheer, classic horror…
And that is just a random pick.
Recognition and applause for the films haven’t been restricted to the UAE. These films were screened before students and faculty at the University of Southern California. Bigelow recalls the professors there admitting that the quality of the productions embarrassed them. They had expected amateur student works.
The cinema-loving professor with a personal collection of some of the world’s all-time classics painstakingly built over five years, however, sees the success of the films in a different context: “These students, they learnt how to work together. The reaction (to the film screening) is a result of their extraordinary hard work.”
He adds: “We are looking at the UAE becoming a world class center for films but to bring in a film culture, you can’t just import talent from outside. The one thing that is extremely difficult about films is that you can’t learn the craft by watching some one else do it. It is very do-it-yourself. What I have tried here is to bring a film culture to the university and groom students for the Middle East.”
The 25-odd students who will graduate out with various degrees but a burning passion for films in their hearts will be his first-generation team. “They seem to have embraced the idea that there is a real career opportunity out there, and I hope it is true.”
Bigelow had begun out of practically nothing. There were little facilities and there isn’t a film programme. All they have is a bunch of film courses. But over the last three years, Bigelow, with the support of the university, built a state-of-the-art studio in the campus, which has features, some of them not found anywhere else in the Middle East.
Now, he would like the same sort of growth, a quicker paced one, if you may, in the real world out here too. “There was a desperate need here to groom local talent in the film business. That has happened. My students have shown their talent and potential. But where do they go now?”
They need a berth to utilise their skills, not play second-fiddle to people who might not have the exposure they have already earned at college. “When they go out, they will know more than their bosses, and that is a problem. They want an environment to grow,” says Bigelow. What is currently lacking in the UAE, according to him, are the “tools or expertise of the big league.”
He says a broad-based film programme of international standards will go a long in earning the trust of global studio houses. They will be confident of coming down to the UAE rest assured that they can pick in professional talent from here and not see their budgets go haywire.
The students echo the sentiment. “When I go out, I want to be at a place that is equivalent to this (AUS) not where I can’t use my skills and end up producing videos or advertising commercials,” says Reem Al Alieh, an Emarati student. “I want to make feature films.”
The students have seen what big-time filmmaking is all about, says Bigelow. They have been to Warner Bros, met with Academy Award winning directors and writers… “How do you give them less when they have seen where they ought to be?” he asks.
Bigelow says there is tremendous potential locally. “These students are extraordinarily talented and above all, you are dealing with one of the greatest storytelling cultures in the world. The Arab world is one of the few story-telling traditions left in the world. You put that and then you have these talented youngsters, and the end-result is what you saw (the films showcased in Through A Different Lens).”
His own advice to students was to follow an open creativity. “Pick any story, choose any subject matter but tell the stories from your cultural point of view,” says Bigelow. It was this new cultural perspective that fetched the films applause at the University of Southern California.
He feels that the students have developed their own film language, which is truly international. “We are producing some 200 films every year and what were screened were the top 15,” says Bigelow. “Every semester we see a higher percentage of better films. The students have become teachers (in terms of understanding the craft) and that is how you get the generational improvement.”
Saman Hamidi and Nadia Nubani, who worked with Reem Alieh on Out of Order, the film about two students trapped in the elevator, say the AUS films have transcended socio-cultural barriers. “It is easy to make films that your group understands but you must take your films outside. The kind of films we make are understood all around the world because we try to make films for an international audience,” says Hamidi, who is an expert in working on the multiple-camera switcher, the only one of its kind in the Middle East, at the AUS studio.
The AUS studio, previously a16 mm screening room, had fetched a $1 million overhaul to replicate advanced features found in an American studio. It has a 21 ft sweep, the tallest in the country; double rail curtains; and the UAE’s only breakaway set with movable walls ideal for shooting sitcoms. This particular set, Bigelow informs, was built through funds donated by students and their parents.
Four custom-built cameras, wide screen monitors, the UAE’s only wide-screen switcher that delivers images just like in a cinema, 32 channel digital audio system — with these feature and more, the simulated studio environment is indeed world-class. 
Hamidi dreams to be a filmmaker, and nothing less. Bigelow feels it would be a criminal waste if students like Hamidi will not be able to take up their dream vocation because of poor infrastructural support. “With the right support these students will be the future filmmakers of the country,” he asserts.
With the kind of enthusiasm about films doing the rounds, currently, that future which the students and Bigelow dream couldn’t be far away.

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