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'The Shawati' Interviews': Filmmaker and Mentor Scandar Copti

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Education is key to an artist, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the art of filmmaking.

One man who has been working extensively in both Doha and Abu Dhabi is Palestinian filmmaker Scandar Copti. Copti is best known for co-directing the 2009 Academy Award nominated film Ajami and for being one of the founding forces at the Doha Film Institute in 2010. His "Singular Drama" workshops help filmmakers work with non-professional actors and non-actors learn the craft. Currently, Copti is Assistant Professor of Film and New Media at NYU Abu Dhabi, where he gets to teach students from more than 100 different nationalities. He admits he wants to "connect people to the local community and with the resources that we have here in terms of talent." Brought to Abu Dhabi by "life and a love for cinema," Copti was excited to teach at, what he easily defines NYU to be, "one of the best film schools in the world, if not THE best film school in the world."

I caught up with the filmmaker to interview him for my piece on cinema in the Gulf featured in Shawati' Abu Dhabi. I enjoyed Copti's straightforwardness of answers and honesty of heart.

You conduct workshops with non-actors for filmmakers. Here in the Gulf region, most of the actors are in fact, non-actors. What are the differences between doing such workshops in Abu Dhabi and somewhere else in the world?

Scandar Copti: Basically, if you're talking about acting workshops for non-actors, every group is a different group. Every group is very singular, very unique, very different -- as a whole group and also as individuals. I do workshops all around the world, only this year I did Norway, Berlin, Portugal, Qatar, Nazareth and of course I'm now teaching in NYU so I also get to do here these kinds of workshops, It's different depending on cultural backgrounds and it's very interesting because there is one improv I do all around the world, it's a very simple improv and then you see how different people, different groups, different cultural background will take it to a totally different place in terms of the outcome. "Singular Drama" is the method I worked with in Ajami, and what I did is I gave the opportunity to people that are not NYU students to attend a workshop in which I worked with them and my NYU students and then my own students get to learn how this method works and shoot films using this method.

A group of students from Qatar, or Emiratis from Abu Dhabi, or say you are in Nazareth and work with a group of Palestinian students, what are going to be the very basic cultural differences and the similarities, because we are all basically just human?

Copti: I'm very very sensitive to cultural issues so when I work in Berlin with German students obviously I prepare different improvs, things that relate more to their culture. Or when I'm working in Qatar and the Emirates I work in a different way, I don't go against what exists, this is what I'm doing. I try to understand what exists here in terms of culture and history and this is not a culture that is so far away from my culture. We are all Arabs but I think the most important element is the humanistic approach, that we all share, in the end, the same passions and loves. We all want to be happy, we all share the same human values and when you base your work around the human values that are common to you and the participants of any of your workshops then it works. It's all about telling the story, it's always a different story but it always comes down to the same human values of love, of someone caring for someone else, and this is how it works, this is how storytelling works. Someone wants to do something out of love for those around him, but something is in his way and that's how conflicts are built. It's always a matter of the conflict being created by the collision of two different perspectives. But both sides will always both do whatever they are doing out of love for someone.

Khaliji culture is very rich in storytelling, is that an asset for the younger generations who are coming to you to learn filmmaking?

Copti: Of course, Arab culture in general and Khaliji included have a large history of storytelling. We have it in our blood, we were born storytellers. It's something we were fed with since the age of one day. It's an asset of course, and I think there is a huge talent of storytellers in the Khalij (in the Gulf) and in the Arab world in general. It will take time just to find the way to make it practical in the sense that if you want to tell your story through film then it will take some time until you find your own voice. And of course this doesn't just have to do with education, it has to do with the whole system and how it behaves and how it functions to where it's filming. The priorities in society, the priorities in governments and laws, the priorities in everyday life. This is something that might take more time.

It's a young cinematic culture, some neighbors in the Gulf don't even have their first theater yet, like in Saudi Arabia. So naturally, the majority of the films being made in the UAE are short films. How do you help with the challenge of stepping into features?

Copti: First of all, a short's filmmaker is a filmmaker. You talked about Saudi, just go on YouTube and they are making amazing, sophisticated, really, really smart things and it's beautiful to see. Going back to shorts and feature films, I think that it's a process and then it's the way we perceive cinema. If we are only talking, and this happens a lot unfortunately, in terms of creating an industry, creating revenue, creating a money-making machine in cinema, this will never work. Because the best local cinemas in the world were created not based on an industry, not based on the fact that people wanted to make their money back. It was a decision made by governments -- and I'm talking South Korea, I'm talking about Romania, and places like this -- to empower the local talent without thinking about making money. If you will work with the Hollywood model, this will never work here because we have different needs and we have different stories to tell. And Hollywood is there already and their need is not to tell a story, their aim is to sell more and more and more, and this is why things look the way they look today.

I don't believe in taking any model that exists already out there and trying to adapt it to a certain region or a certain culture. This is a recipe for failure. So I think a model has to come out of the different places in the different Arab worlds. I don't think that the same model that will work in Palestine will work in Qatar or in the Emirates or in Lebanon. Different models, and some of them exist already of course, I can talk about Lebanese and Palestinian cinema, the model there is co-productions with Europe. It is something that needs to be done in a process of trial and error but always by empowering the existing talent and empowering them to tell their own stories rather than trying to imitate something else. That might take fifty years even, but it has to come with the support of governments, like what they did in South Korea and also in Egypt and in France, most of the money will come from the box office, they have taxes on foreign films. Theaters can screen American films, it's alright, but you'll pay a higher tax when you screen a Hollywood film and the money from these taxes will go back to film funds, as for South Korean cinema.

The world knows so little about us, and they have a very fixed idea of what is a Muslim, what is an Arab and I think by telling our stories, our simple stories, our human stories showing what we love and what we suffer from and what we hate, the everyday stories will portray a humanistic story of the Muslim and the Arab. This could help. And break down the misconceptions, the stereotypes and so on. And I think it will be very, very good if governments in the Arab world start doing co-production treaties with other countries.

Do you think entities like the Dubai Film Commission and the Abu Dhabi Film Commission are helping?

Copti: Of course they are helping! They are doing most of the work, and also with the festivals which are a beautiful place to exhibit those films. Especially the Gulf Film Festival, what they are doing with short films, it's just marvelous. What they are doing in the Dubai International Film Festival and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and especially in GFF where they are really really empowering, inspiring local Gulf, Khaliji filmmakers and it's beautiful to see. Last year I saw some of the films and some of them were really, really good. Two of them were from Qatar, two friends of mine made them. They were really spectacular and they are now touring in festivals all around the world. I think that's the way, it will take time and I'm here to help and we'll get there.

A bit of background on this interview with Scandar Copti. Recently, I received my dream assignment. To write a comprehensive piece on the cinema culture and industry in the Gulf region for Shawati' Abu Dhabi. To call the magazine an elegant hub for arts, culture and lifestyle would be the understatement of the century. Looking through its pages feels like being a part of something luxurious yet down to earth, exclusive but deeply caring.

The piece was a dream come true for me because of my love for film from the region. Arab cinema has a humanity that connects deeply to its audiences, and year by year, is conquering fans all over the world. Perhaps it's because Arab films deal with women who look real, men who act real and stories that really get to the heart of the matter. As easily understood in Beirut, as in Berlin, Baltimore and Bombay.

While the entire piece, a 60-page stunning supplement in Shawati's current volume 7, issue 25 titled "In the Beginning, There Was Film," is my pride and joy, the individual interviews and voices present throughout are really what make the story. The story of a region in transition, growing daily, so much so that even a sentence written yesterday about it can seem obsolete today. And the voices of those who know it best, who create a cinematic culture by their sheer presence, are an indispensable guide to the industry's undeniable success.

The interview above, as well as one with Saudi Hollywood producer Mohammed Al Turki, one with Wadjda filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, others with Emirati filmmakers Khalid Al Mahmood and Amal Al-Agroobi, and many more to come, are all part of the cinema supplement. I wanted to share them online, since Shawati' is only available at selected newsstands and bookstores.

Photo of Scandar Copti courtesy of the filmmaker, used with permission