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BEIRUT: A film fund needs vision. It’s not enough to fund movies. The movies you make must have class.

One way for a film-financing fund to be recognized as discriminating and tasteful – rather than as an indiscriminate bag of money – is to have its projects programmed by prestigious film festivals.

So when the Sundance Film Festival announced earlier this month that its 2013 edition will open with “May in the Summer,” the sophomore feature of Palestinian-American filmmaker Cherien Dabis, the Doha Film Institute led the charge in letting the world know about it.

Dabis’ film is one of a growing number of works by Arab filmmakers that have been co-financed by DFI. In a region where producers routinely seek overseas funding, and with the financial crisis sapping Europe’s co-production muscle, funds in Abu Dhabi and Doha are becoming ever more important to filmmakers from the Middle East and North Africa.

Glancing back over the press reports since 2010, DFI has provided development, production and post-production funding to twenty-odd film projects from Lebanon alone. Beneficiaries include “Where Do We Go Now?” by Nadine Labaki, “The Mountain” by Ghassam Salhab and Ziad Doueiri’s “The Attack.”

Other feature filmmakers who have got DFI grants include Michel Kammoun, Hisham Bizri, Mazen Khaled, Niam Itany, Ahmad Ghossein, Susan Youssef, Alia Hamdan and Reine Mitri.

A few months back, Paul Miller became DFI’s head of film financing.

The U.S.-based producer says he cut his teeth making documentaries, science programs and wildlife films for U.K. television.

Movie enthusiasts with an IMBD tick may recognize Miller from his involvement in John Sayles titles like “Lone Star” and “The Secret of Roan Inish,” and well-received small fiction works like “Prozac Nation” and “A Love Song for Bobby Long” – “indie movies with big movie stars,” as Miller puts it – and feature-length docs like Peter Friedman’s “Poor Consuelo Conquers the World.”

Nowadays Miller oversees the three divisions of DFI’s film financing operation. Closest to home is the Gulf Development Unit, which is primarily involved in education and training workshops, development and production support for aspiring filmmakers from Qatar and the wider GCC.

At the other end of the spectrum are DFI’s (non-grant) co-financing operations. “I think our only rule is to support films that will play well in this country and this region,” Miller remarks. “We look at films with an eye to the bottom line but at the same time have some cultural input.”

DFI’s most-prominent big-budget features to date are this year’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” the latest from Mira Nair, and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Black Gold,” from 2011.

For most indie filmmakers in the Middle East and North Africa, DFI film finance means the MENA Grants. This independently juried process annually disburses about a million dollars of development, production and post-production monies among up to 50 projects, ranging from shorts to narrative fictions and documentary to experimental film.

“Most of the MENA grants are going to movies that are a million dollars at the most,” Miller says, “some quite a bit smaller than that.

“They’re designed for first- and second-time filmmakers who just don’t have the market weight ... to find all their money or at least get a start. And also for more established filmmakers doing something more artistic that’s not going to find its home so easily in the marketplace.

“We offer those grantees further support as part of the Doha Projects, where we match them with industry professionals. That’s just to help them get their films to the next stage.”

Probably the most politically sticky issue confronting pan-Arab cultural funding agencies is how to treat the work of ’48 Palestinians – those with Israeli citizenship.

The challenge stems from activists and artists’ calls for divestment from, and boycott of, the Israeli state. Since the state-sponsored Israeli Film Fund offers funding to ’48 Palestinians, pan-Arab funds face the specter of an Israeli co-production.

In this regard, Sameh Zoabi got financial support from Doha for “Bela Mobile,” his Nazareth-set 2010 debut feature, which screened in the Doha Tribeca Film Festival’s competition that year. Another DFI alumnus, Doueiri’s “The Attack,” was also shot in Israel but didn’t screen in DTFF’s 2012 program.

“We haven’t thought about this in a formal way,” Miller says. “DFI is a quasi-government organization and we are very much aligned with Qatar’s position. At the same time we want to support filmmakers and their voices.

“Though I am not associated with the DTFF selection, I think every festival in the world is sensitive to its audience and we’re no different. Again we’re in Qatar and Qatar has a position in the world and we’re sensitive to that.

“I make no decision based on whether [a film will screen at DTFF] or not. It would never occur to me to do that ... I have three films that got funding from Sundance. One got into the festival. Two didn’t.”

Miller says he was first exposed to the Gulf’s film production possibilities two years ago while attending the Dubai film festival. “I just loved the storytelling,” he recalls, “hearing stories different from the ones I’d heard in the U.S. and Europe. I think there is a rich culture of storytellers here.

“I’m aware of the challenges in producing films and [have] some experience doing little things and big things. There’s a real opportunity here and a real thirst for it. People love movies and like the idea of making them.

“I’m keen to cultivate a generation of filmmakers who don’t want to just make Hollywood movies, who want to make movies from here. I’m not from here, but I think I can help guide people in that direction.

“The idea is to build an industry here,” he continues. “Rather than build giant facilities or sound stages here, we’d like to become a cultural nexus for the region.

“I’m [interested in seeing] whether one can’t begin to develop a pan-Arab film financing ecosystem, one that doesn’t rely on the U.S. or Europe but which can stand on its own two feet.”

Miller says DFI is seeking out co-financing partners. “I was in Abu Dhabi [in the fall] where I sat down with twofour54 [the Abu Dhabi Media Authority]. We’re definitely actively looking at some stuff to do together.

“I do think that, from a purely financial point of view, you mitigate risk by sharing it with somebody else. The more that we can encourage filmmakers from the two countries, any two countries, to work together, the better. Making movies is hard so it’s better to do it with partners.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 27, 2012, on page 16.
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