“I don't like the words ‘new normal’. It's a temporary situation.”
Like celebrated filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja, we’ve all seen our fair share of positives and negatives over the last months and look forward to a time that is a bit more, well… ordinary. Lockdowns have necessitated some highly creative thinking and innovative new approaches in the film industry as, like everyone else, it learns to cope with doing things differently. But filmmakers like Nayla are not only optimists, but practical realists and have always had to call on reserves of adaptability, creativity and emotional fortitude to see them through their careers.
In a recent panel discussion for Canon Middle East’s ‘Frontiers of Innovation’, Nayla, along with fellow professional filmmakers Ahmad Abdalla and Faisal Hashmi, talked about the current climate for film and TV production in the Middle East, but also the ups and downs of their craft and the more personal challenges of bringing their stories to new audiences.
Negative: Paid work funds personal projects, and right now it’s hard to find.
“I am a storyteller. I burn to make films… but I don't want to be the struggling artist.” For Nayla, TV commercials are the perfect way to make money and gain valuable experience of working in a demanding and fast-moving environment. They give her the financial freedom to be able to experiment with her own projects and an income consistent with the needs of her family. However, social distancing and the slashing of marketing budgets have taken their toll on this avenue of income.
Positive: There’s plenty of time for creativity
“I joke with my friends that this has been my lifestyle for probably the last ten years, but suddenly it’s trendy,” laughs Ahmad. The sudden enforced ‘downtime’ is perhaps less of a shock for freelance and independent filmmakers than in other industries, used as they are to having periods of quiet between paid work. For Nayla, Faisal and Ahmad, it’s been a golden opportunity to take stock, pick up discarded projects, experiment with new formats, platforms, techniques and technologies, gestate new ideas and get writing.
Negative: Film festivals are all on hold
Nayla and Ahmad agreed that the film festival circuit is an essential part of getting your work seen, finding funding and forming creative partnerships. Without the networking that it facilitates all of these things become immeasurably harder. “Filmmakers are ambassadors of their countries at different festivals,” explains Nayla. “So, it's a stunning way of connecting through the powerful art of film.” For Ahmed, the ability to screen his work to a live audience is irreplicable. “I see how the audience reacted to the film, both positive and negative. This is something we are missing now.”
Positive: Online film festivals are democratising access to creativity
Faisal takes a slightly alternative view, in that he and other filmmakers do miss the human touch, but now have access to the kind of screenings that were largely out of reach before the pandemic. “South by South West is a big film festival and I’m able to access the films. [Before] the only way to do that would be by actually going to Austin, Texas. I think it's great what opened up in terms of panels and workshops. And a lot of these things are really valuable.”
Negative: Investor attention has never been so competitive
Making the valuable connections that can be the difference between investment or not is challenging enough when events are all online, but there is an additional layer of belt-tightening that is also affecting the industry and filmmakers have to work harder to convince investors that they are making a sound decision. “You need to show them the data. There are very limited pockets [of funding] and everyone's chasing them, especially through an economic upheaval,” explains Nayla. “Whether it's an economic crisis or this pandemic, investment in the arts in general gets hit badly. So, then the actual physical pain of chasing funding becomes much harder.”
Positive: It’s a great time to reach a global audience
Technology has moved fast in filmmaking and it’s easier to get your hands on professional quality kit than ever before, not to mention the ease with which content can be broadcast via online platforms. “There is no better time to be a filmmaker. The barrier to entry has completely been demolished in many ways, at least in terms of being able to create a film,” says Faisal. “I would say platforms like Netflix and Amazon are almost saving indie films because it would be hard for them to find the right platform in cinema. They are directly there for a large audience to watch and at the end of the day that's the reason we make film.”
Watch the full episode of Frontiers of Innovation, hosted by Eithne Trainor, on LinkedIn.