Game Changers The Arab Art Issue

How Haya Al Ghanim connects Arab filmmakers with global cinema

Meet the Kuwaiti woman behind New Arab Cinema.

.للقراءة بالعربية انقروا هنا

By Afaf Bouagada

Haya Al Ghanim on set. Photo: Courtesy.

Haya Al Ghanim is a Kuwaiti filmmaker who loves art and cinema. She has written and directed a number of short narrative films and documentaries, including Same, Old, Freaky, Labor Day, and By the Medina, for the Medina.  What inspires her the most? People and their daily stories.

After graduating from Columbia University in New York, she decided to launch an initiative to advance the filmmaking sector in the Arab region. That’s how the production house New Arab Cinema was founded; to help Arab filmmakers deliver their works to the most renowned international festivals and introduce their Arab culture to large audiences. We speak with Haya about her new initiative, her goals as a filmmaker, and her opinion of cinema in the Gulf region. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has your experience with current pandemic been like, and has it affected your work?

Haya Al Ghanim: Honestly, yes. Adapting to new circumstances was the hardest in the  first days, since filmmaking requires collaboration between different parties. So, I struggled a little bit at first. Right before the outbreak, I had just finished filming one of my upcoming films and started the post-production stage, but then I had to postpone everything because I couldn’t meet the editors with whom I have been working with for  some time. However, with time, I learned that the solution was to adapt to what the circumstances impose by working remotely with the team. What else can we do? So, I decided to take advantage of this period and go back to writing, and creating a new routine that suited home quarantine.

Nevertheless, I never reached the level of productivity I was aiming for. The only activity I have found myself clinging on to, and felt that I really benefited from, was watching movies, almost every day, for inspiration.

What else inspires you other than watching movies?

Haya Al Ghanim: People and life. Those are the things that made me choose this field from day one, and that’s why I felt so restrained during home quarantine, since I couldn’t meet with new people and hear their stories.

You recently launched the New Arab Cinema project – a production house for Arab Cinema– during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Can you tell us more about this project and about what motivated you to work on it?

Haya Al Ghanim: For the time being, our scope is limited to short films, but we intend to work on feature films in the future. The idea behind the project came at the beginning of my career, when I used to produce short films and wanted to build a project that exceeded my vision to support filmmaking in the Arab world.

I was aware of the number of promising potentials in the region who were only waiting for direction. I also went through that stage in my life when I majored in filmmaking in New York. I knew well that I could never rely on my talents to make a living as much as I could do that here.

That’s how I decide to meet with some colleagues to launch something that embraces all of our works and enables us to share our experiences, and to encourage the Arab youth who are interested in filmmaking to make their own films and participate in international festivals. The idea is to work independently but together, so that the initiative can remain independent from any external intervention or funding.

How can New Arab Cinema help fresh graduates produce and market their films to be featured at the biggest international festivals?

Haya Al Ghanim: We work closely with filmmakers throughout all the stages, starting with the concept and looking for a story to writing the script and then production. Because of our members’ years of experiences and expertise, we know how to find opportunities and get to film festivals.

This process is the result of a set of stages that begin with formulating an idea and turning it into a script for a narrative film. The process is different for documentaries, however. When the plan of action becomes clear, we start forming a team to take over technical aspects such as writing, photography, lighting, sound and editing. Only after all of these stages are complete are films ready for participation in festivals.

A poster of Same Old. Image: Courtesy.

Is there a place for Khaleeji cinema in your project?

Haya Al Ghanim: Yes, of course. The last documentary I filmed was about the renowned Kuwaiti singer, Laila Abdel Aziz, who characterized the 1970s. Filming took place in January and we are currently in the editing phase. We’re expecting to begin contacting festivals by the beginning of next year. I have also just returned from Kuwait after filming another documentary there, and I’m about to start writing scripts for two other films, one of which will be filmed in Saudi Arabia. All of these are part of the New Arab Cinema initiative.

What are the themes or stories from Arab countries that could attract viewers to watch them and production companies to support them?

Haya Al Ghanim: I think the most important thing about any project is its universality and its relevance to its target audience. Personally, I don’t think how big the budget of the film is as important as getting Arab films exposure through international festivals. We, in the Arab region, are completely different from the rest of the world. It’s as if we’re living in our own little planet. This is why projects related to our culture gain a special interest from those seeking to quench its curiosity about how we live. Everything seems new to them, such as the way we eat, our architecture, traditions, etc. This is the concept I try to utilize in my projects – addressing topics related to my home with the use of storytelling to have the biggest impact on viewers.

What elements need to be present in a story or film to attract  an international audience?

Haya Al Ghanim: This differs from one project to the next. For example, characters need to be more realistic and include small details that the viewer can relate to. That way, the audience will see its reflection in the story and follow it. We’re tired of seeing the same techniques and scripts over and over again. It’s time to change. This is something that even viewers have become more aware of.

On the set of Same, Old. Photo: Tony Young, courtesy.

Who are some of the filmmakers you worked with so far?

Haya Al Ghanim: There are so many I can’t even count, since I started penetrating the world of filmmaking in my freshman year by helping and working with students on their films. That’s how I had the chance to work on different tasks and with a lot of people.

In my latest project, I had the pleasure to work with competent producers. It feels great when you work with people you can lean on because you feel as if a huge weight has been lifted off your shoulders, and you have the ability to focus on other tasks that you like. Trust-based collaboration is what brings life back to the world.

How do you come up with characters and stories for your short films?

Haya Al Ghanim: The lives of my characters inspire me, which is exactly what I’m looking for. In documentaries, I resort to places that attract me and inspire me. Whereas in narrative films, the plot revolves around a story or sentence that I encountered and couldn’t forget. I like my work to build on those little things that move something inside me.

There are a lot of cinematic talents in the Arab World. Why are we still not seeing a lot of Arabic movies in international festivals, in your opinion? What do we need to do to promote those talents?

Haya Al Ghanim:  Funding and all means are available in the Arab world. But, the popularity of movies [often] doesn’t exceed the borders of the region. This is exactly what encouraged me to study filmmaking in the United States. I believe the problem is the lack of expertise in technical fields and the heavy dependence on foreign producers and directors. During this process, something (that I still can’t put my finger on) happens and strips the project away from its original luster.

Filmmaking in the Arab world is still more commercial than artistic. When we find a balance point between those two, we will be able to catch up with European and American filmmakers.

What prevents GCC directors or producers from having their works becoming known internationally?

Haya Al Ghanim:  We’re still working inside a box and allowing restrictions to pressure us and confine our creativity. I really hope that one day, relevant entities will realize the importance of cinematic arts in promoting the country’s economy.

What projects are you looking forward to after the pandemic clears?

Haya Al Ghanim:  Quarantine has helped me reset my viewpoint and change my goals. I knew I had to adjust my process as I figure out what the best way to move forward as a filmmaker is in this situation. I’m currently working on a collection of new scripts while taking this point into consideration.

On the other hand, work is still underway with regards to receiving and working on the ideas and stories of Arab filmmakers through New Arab Cinema.

For further information about the New Arab Cinema, visit www.newarabcinema.com .


Afaf Bouagada is a Moroccan writer interested in culture, arts and advancing women’s issues. She is a contributor to a number of Arabic digital platforms.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

This article has been translated from Arabic.