Hard sell for Arab films

In a dark corner of a Fullerton lounge, Ahmad Zahra sat dressed in cargo shorts and a gray T-shirt as around him moved the hubbub of filming “Three Veils.” Occasionally, actresses in little black dresses and heels walked by, waiting for the cameras to roll.

For more than a year, Zahra, the producer, had been trying to find investors to fund his film -- about the intersecting lives of three Middle Eastern women -- approaching individuals, trying to strike sponsorship deals and holding two small, failed fundraisers in the Los Angeles area.

But in late July, shooting a bachelorette party scene at Cherch Lounge in Fullerton and more than halfway through the production schedule, Zahra had only been able to secure a small percentage of the film’s budget. The remainder was being funded by himself and the director on credit.

The film’s story didn’t seem to please anyone: To some it was too conservative because it involved an arranged marriage, while to others it was too liberal because of one character’s struggle with her attraction to other women.


When Zahra, 40, began making indie films after graduating from UCLA film school, he was confident he would find support, both financial and consumer, among the Middle Eastern and Muslim communities in the United States. These, after all, were two intersecting communities that often complained of their one-dimensional portrayal in Hollywood movies as mostly fanatical terrorists.

But that support has yet to fully materialize. For many in these communities, Zahra said, a project must proselytize or match their personal views in order to warrant investment or even the purchase of a movie ticket or DVD.

At this weekend’s Los Angeles Arab Film Festival, Zahra Pictures will co-present “Help,” a Lebanese film portraying both a prostitute and a gay character. Each movie in the festival is being presented in concert with local Arab groups. But most shied away from being connected with “Help” because of the controversial story.

Michel Shehadeh, director of the festival, which also plays in other California cities, said the challenges faced by Zahra and “Help” are common among the filmmakers he deals with. This year’s festival features films from across the Middle East, Europe and the United States.

“In terms of art, if they don’t think of it as bad; they think of it as wasting their time,” he said. “So they don’t encourage their kids to go into it, because they don’t think of it as a money maker.”

Most Middle Easterners and Muslims come from traditional roots where art is thought of as calligraphy and fundraisers are more likely to be for Palistinian relief than for producers. Support has been piecemeal, at best, for a variety of reasons that Zahra says includes conservative values suspicious of what might be portrayed and a lack of appreciation for the role of film and theater in molding public perception.

“If there’s a fundraiser for building a mosque or a Ramadan [dinner], they’re more used to giving for those projects,” said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “But when you come and talk about public opinion and making movies, it requires a little more thinking and a little more explanation, and it will take longer to raise these funds.”

For Cherien Dabis, writer and director of “Amreeka,” a film about a Palestinian immigrant and her son that was recently in theaters, funding her movie wasn’t the hard part. The New York City-based filmmaker “met a really amazing Arab investor who believed in the film and me.”


But last month she sent out an e-mail to partners and several listservs regarding “Amreeka,” which garnered great reviews and won a prize at Cannes. “There seems to be a perception that ‘Amreeka’ has succeeded, and it has on many levels, but that success is not being reflected at the box office,” she wrote. “It’s the box office that will determine whether or not there is a future for films like this one.” She urged more people to see the film in theaters.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, Zahra thought the U.S. Muslim and Arab communities would be even more eager to see realistic portrayals of themselves.

He had studied medicine and practiced briefly in Syria -- following in the path of his father and grandfather -- before moving to the United States in the late 1990s to attend film school at UCLA. After he graduated, Zahra’s first idea was a documentary on the history of Muslims in America.

“I literally went to every single notably wealthy Muslim person in Los Angeles,” Zahra said. “Everybody would throw me over to the next person; they would be like, ‘May God reward you, but I can’t.’ I spent a year going around and all I got was a bunch of ‘May God reward yous.’ ”


Nor did things get better with “Three Veils.” He completed the film without raising significant additional funds and now is seeking a distributor.

Musa Syeed, whose films have won recognition at Tribeca and other film festivals, recently won a $100,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Production Fund for his film “Providence,” about pollution in a Kashmiri lake.

“When I was fundraising for my first film, I tried to raise funds from the Muslim and South Asian communities,” Syeed said. “We had very little luck, partly because the arts weren’t a funding priority of the community.”

Much of the reluctance the filmmakers come up against stems from a lack of understanding about the role film can play in society, they say.


“There’s a kind of PR mentality amongst those engaging in the arts in our communities -- the only goal is to fix our image,” Syeed said. “I understand that, but I think that can lead to narrow-mindedness and, worse yet, bad storytelling.”

When Eyad Zahra, who lives in Hollywood, was looking for funding for his film “Taqwacores,” about Muslim punk rockers, a mutual acquaintance put him in touch with a Persian Gulf businessman. They met at a Hollywood hotel. When the man finished reading the synopsis and business plan, he looked up at Zahra in shock. It was not the time to present a movie about angry and frustrated Muslims, he said.

Zahra gave his spiel -- the one so many other filmmakers like him have given before -- about the need to present a relatable and realistic image about themselves and the down-side of trying to show a sugar-coated reality. “So he, he just . . . ,” Zahra said, letting out a laugh. “I tried to explain it to him, he cooled down a bit and understood. But you knew there was going to be no way he would be interested in funding the film.”




Arab Film Festival

Where: Writers Guild of America Theatre, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills


When: Friday through Sunday

Price: Opening night, $20; single show, $12; seniors and students, $10; festival pass, $50