Live From Cannes: The Middle East Rises


The white tents that freckle the edges of the Croisette like the pointillism dots of a Georges Seurat Neo-Impressionistic painting have all been packed away until next May, when studio, independent and budding moviemakers, producers, sales agents and distributors will again swoop in on Cannes to wheel and deal the next movies of the future.

In the U.S., between 2008 and this year’s festival we saw the first African-American man elected President of the United States, the mortgage industry collapse and the banking industry seesaw definitively toward a dismal death, only to be resuscitated by the government’s breath. With that brief smattering of significant, whirlwind events, it is far too early to say where we will all be and what we will be doing in 12 months time. It is fair to say however—if the plush white tent perched on a small rock jetty of the sea for the Abu Dhabi headquarters at Cannes are any indication—that the Middle East has the money and the drive to compete for a place among the film industry elite and that its presence will only grow in the years to come.

“We are focused on the development of local talent and the development of the Abu Dhabi infrastructure—stimulating more people into coming into the movie business so that we can feed talent and make it a sustainable part of the economy for future years,” says David Shepheard, Abu Dhabi Film Commissioner. With the Middle East International Film Festival, this time at the helm of Tribeca Film Festival alum Peter Scarlet, and the Circle Conference, a strategic initiative specifically targeting the creation of new moviemaking opportunities in the Middle East by bringing together leaders in the international entertainment industry (past examples include Spike Lee and McG), both going into their third consecutive year, the cohesive efforts in the burgeoning Middle East media business are casting a wide net. “It’s all part of the kind of forward planning of the government for changing the economy, trying to diversify,” Shepheard adds. The Abu Dhabi Film Commission was started just under six months ago. With studio pictures like Syriana and The Kingdom achieving success and worldwide recognition in the past, the film commission has its sights set on expanding possibilities even further.

“We are still kind of going through the development phase,” admits Shepheard. “What is surprising is the amount of people wanting to come to the Middle East. Some of it is because they are looking for financial partners, but others are looking to it for inspiration, for stories. The Arab region is a rich, storytelling culture. So much of the region is perceived badly in the news and in the press. I think now there is a will to look at the Arab culture in a different view.”

The Shasha Grant, a $100,000 production grant, fosters the talent and contribution of Arabic moviemakers and offers a first-look deal with imagenation, Abu Dhabi’s billion dollar film fund. “Projects that come to us with a real partnership attitude in seeing how we can both benefit—both the production and the local filmmaking community—that’s a real attraction for us. If we can see the impact and it delivers on what we’re trying to achieve over the next 12 months, we will certainly talk to those projects,” Shepheard elaborates.

Daniel Mitulescu, a Romanian producer who was in Cannes to sell a recently finished movie focused on the story of a prisoner, who, two weeks before his scheduled release, escapes because he wants to take a girl out for coffee. Having previously attended Cannes with other projects, he speaks of the reputation and growth of the Romanian film industry, “We are now trying to change the law in Romania in order to get more support for our films—more government money, to have access to other money, to have a kind of tax shelter. There is the artistic side and there is the financial side. I think that the producers should think more about the market and really try to find and to help scripts that are art house films with commercial potential and a strong story with good actors,” Mitulescu offers in terms of long range planning to promote more Romanian films in the international marketplace.

Cannes also clearly attracts the fledgling artists just making their mark on the film world, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the Short Film Corner in the basement of The Palais, where short film producers and directors can network and show their work amongst each other and intimate, invited industry audience screenings. Staking her territory in the Short Film Corner is aspiring producer, director, writer and actress Alexandra Fulton, in Cannes with the collaborative short, Plus One. “I’m either at the top of the world and I’m the crème de la crème or people have this feeling that they need to tell me how hard it is and put me in my place… ‘It’s not possible! What you’re doing is crazy!’ or ‘Great, fantastic, good for you! What else are you doing?’” she explains enthusiastically.

“Everybody can do a film now. In a way, this is good and in another way, bad. It’s good because there is a chance for talented directors to show themselves and on the other hand there are too many films for distributors to see and to choose the right one. It’s more a matter of chance. Good films push your creativity and you try to find more,” says Mitulescu as he thinks about the projects that speak to him. “I know for sure what kind of films we want to do.”

“Everywhere in the world, passionate people go out and make movies,” says Shepheard. “We have two filmmakers at the Short Film Corner. We’ve tried to help them get some more exposure at Cannes and they’ll be on the development cycle for future projects. In two years time I’d like to see a lot more short films here, I’d like to see some studio films we’ve filmed in the Emirates and some homegrown work.” Adds Fulton: “Last year I was promoting my first film, Omgasm, which I wrote directed, produced, starred in, made the sandwiches for and went to Home Depot and bought the plants for the set for,” she laughs after sharing her adventures of crashing with some paparazzi members in favor of footing the bill for hotel accommodations. “It’s one of the main challenges of being an artist. Why would you do it? How anything is made is a miracle. So you kind of have to lie to yourself. When people tell you ‘No,’ you need to ignore them,” she states simply, with an optimistic smile.

Cannes 2010 is another 12 months away and is likely to have much of the same cast return, some starring in their original, steadfast productions, others toting other fresh and exciting projects or ventures, all eagerly wondering which movie will be the next White Ribbon (2009 winner of the Palm d’Or by German director Michael Haneke). But one thing will always remain the same: Convening cinephiles from the world over by the sea in France for 11 days every year can never be a bad thing. The industry greats and the industry newbies will always aspire to Cannes. Dommage if you’ve never been. “I’m telling everyone and I’m telling myself, ‘Do your thing, man. Make a film and go crazy!,’” Fulton advises before teetering back to the Short Film Corner in her gargantuan heels, poised to meet whatever and whomever comes next. MM

Ashley Wren Collins is an accomplished actress and writer living in New York City. She welcomes your comments and thoughts at ashley@ashleywrencollins.com.

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