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Wed 9 Aug 2006 04:00 AM

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Lessons learned

Tarab Fashion, one of the first movies to be filmed in the UAE and in the Gulf dialect, went on general release last month. Ziad Batal, executive producer of Dubai-based Media Group, describes the challenges involved in shooting a two hour, million dollar feature film in the UAE

|~|DS_AUG_Cover2_HR-L.gif|~|Batal: “Dubai is a great city, but it doesn’t have the infrastructure for film.”|~|Emirati cinema moved into the limelight in July with the release of Tarab Fashion, a feature length film produced by Dubai-based Media Group. The two hour comedy is one of just a handful of feature films to include a predominantly Gulf cast and be filmed in the Khaliji (Gulf) dialect.

Tarab Fashion tells the story of Sarah, a professional singer’s jealous wife who yearns to become as successful and popular as her husband. She starts a band in her effort to become famous, but it turns out that she simply does not have any musical talent. The film’s comedy derives from her desperate efforts to become known, but Tarab Fashion does also have a serious message. The story apparently makes the point that talent matters more than beauty, and that women are just as capable as men and are entitled to follow their dreams.

Tarab Fashion is the work of two and a half year old Media Group, a production house currently enjoying success with ‘Street Smarts’ a 33-episode reality program airing on Infinity TV. The film was directed by Mohamed Daham from Kuwait and stars Emirati singer Saoud Abu Sultan and Mayssa Maghrebi in the lead roles. Tarab Fashion also features the comedians, Hassan Ballam and Abdul Naser Darwish, as well as popular film artists Mona Shadad, Shahed, Ahmed Jesmi and Mohamed Serafi.

For Media Group, a well-funded private production house, covering the film’s planned US $1 million budget was not the key factor in deciding whether or not to go ahead with the project. Rather, it was a case of whether or not the company wanted to enter the relatively unknown territory of feature films, and whether or not a Khaliji language film was the best way to do so. “We set up the company two and a half years ago and started working on development of television shows,” explains Ziad Batal, executive producer of Media Group. “Then, a script fell into our laps, we discussed venturing into film and we just said: “Let’s go for it.”
Key to the decision to go ahead with Tarab Fashion is the company’s long term plan to move into feature films. “We’re not here to make one movie and turn a big buck on it,” says Batal, “We intend to make other movies.”

Deciding to make a movie is one thing, but putting it all together is another. Batal feels the UAE is a great place for TV production, but making Tarab Fashion has shown him that the infrastructure for making feature films is still very much in development. One factor that looms large is cost. “If we were in Egypt or in Beirut, we certainly wouldn’t have had the same difficulties and what we’ve really faced is the cost of doing a production,” explains Batal. “We set a budget and went way over budget; Dubai is a great city, a great tourist destination, but it doesn’t have the infrastructure for film. It’s building an infrastructure for television; film is a totally different animal.”

Amongst the issues that Batal lists are the cost of putting up actors and crew, finding the right technical personnel and obtaining permits to shoot. Media Group overcame its problems in a number of different ways. To deal with the issue of personnel and equipment, Batal did a deal with a company in Egypt to bring in all the necessary expertise and technology. Filming was done on a simple 35mm camera and all post-production work went back to Egypt.

“We did a deal with a company out of Egypt to bring everything over here… because there was nothing available here,” explains Batal. “Even the lighting packages were shipped over here.”

Many of the issues that Batal mentions are down to the fact that Dubai doesn’t have a history of feature filmmaking. For example, well established filming locations offer subsidies and incentives to attract motion picture producers. Film shoots put money into economies and can also act as an excellent form of tourism promotion. “Films are good for local economies,” explains Batal. “Subsidies are usually given back to filmmakers to encourage people to do films. It acts as a tool to attract more filmmakers.”

Tarab Fashion was shot in around 40 different locations across the UAE, including five star hotels, Emaar model homes and the Dubai-Abu Dhabi highway. Batal did come across some problems with access and permits whilst filming in Dubai, opting to relocate to Ras Al Khaimah to shoot some of the film’s scenes. “Places need to open up to filmmakers, to make locations available,” Batal comments. “The Khaliji culture is still not willing to be photographed. Over time, it will change.”

As well subsidies, incentives and shooting permits, major feature films also rely heavily on product placement. Again, because Media Group was doing something that had never been done before in the UAE, Batal’s pitches to potential advertisers were unsuccessful.

“I spent a month and a half trying to get product placement and trying to get corporate sponsors, and I ran into walls,” he explains. “We ran into difficulties because it came down to: “How well is it going to do, how many people are going to watch it and what is my benefit?”

Now that the film has been released and with all the press it has attracted, Batal feels it will be much easier for Media Group to sell the idea of product placement. Nevertheless, a key question raised by Tarab Fashion is how much demand there is for Khaliji language films and whether or not anyone can make money from them. At the moment, no-one really knows the answer because Tarab Fashion is still very much a one-off and has not yet been distributed on DVD or sold to pay TV channels.

Tarab Fashion is currently showing at cinemas around the UAE and will also run in Egypt, Qatar and Bahrain. Batal admits that after DVD sales and sales to networks are eventually taken into account, his company will be happy to have broken even on the film.

What Tarab Fashion really does for Media Group is give it experience of making features and act as a precursor for further projects. Batal senses a growing interest in Khaliji language products, but he confirms that Media Group’s future feature productions are most likely to be in the English language.

The company is looking at making movies with a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour, but filmed in the English language so as to appeal to both regional and global audiences. Batal confirmed that he is currently preparing a film about a ten year old boy who turns into a crime-solving genius. “We are in budget stage and by, hopefully, September/October we’ll look at shooting. We’ll definitely be doing film number two, but in English with some Arabic actors and some English and American actors as well. It will be filmed entirely here,” he says.

Ultimately, any feature shoot will have its challenges and Media Group will be applying the lessons learned from its experience with Tarab Fashion next time around. A system of incentives, greater availability of technology and expertise, and lower hotel rates would certainly help it on its way.||**||

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