Riding the wave of the Arab Spring, Egyptian film star Khaled Abol Naga and his international backers have launched a revolutionary bid to bring quality Arab cinema to the global market.
Kicking off at the Cannes film festival, Pacha Pictures aims to be the place to go for Arab "auteur" cinema, for which Abol Naga and his French and Lebanese partners say there is huge demand and little supply. Until now.
Their initial films include "18 Days" about Egypt’s revolution, which is to premiere at Cannes, "Microphone" about Alexandria’s underground music scene and "Stray Bullet" about a woman facing marriage during Lebanon’s civil war.
"18 Days" has stoked controversy at home because of the involvement of directors perceived as having propped up the regime of deposed president Hosni Mubarak, but, as they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Abol Naga says the idea for the company, in which he is a shareholder, came about after forming a network of independent filmmakers, directors and producers called Team Cairo three years ago.
"Pacha Pictures was one of Team Cairo’s ideas but we couldn’t do it because we’re just individuals, and we needed these guys, like Frederic (Sichler) who’s in the industry," and Lebanese producer Georges Schoucair.
"So we decided to make our own Arab content sales company that would be the target for anyone in the world looking for Arab content, and since nobody’s doing it, we decided to make it."
But soon after the involvement of Frenchman Sichler, who has worked in the arts and entertainment business for decades and spent the last three years working in Cairo for Saudi entertainment giant Rotana, the Arab revolts began.
"We talked about the idea last fall, and then the revolution started," says Sichler. "I’d just left Egypt, I said my place is not there, the guys from the West have to stay home, it’s their revolution. So we put everything on hold."
While the Arab revolutions stalled the project, they ultimately gave it the springboard needed to turn the dream into reality.
"We were always talking about it, but we never knew how to make it happen until the revolutions happened, the Arab Spring happened and it seemed like the right time," says Abol Naga.
"It was like a dream to be able to make it happen in a few weeks after the revolution in January and launch at Cannes."
The stated intent is to make films that are different from the mainstream of Arab cinema.
"We respect those films but we want to make other films, that can go universal, have a passport and travel," says Abol Naga.
Even when Arab auteur films manage to achieve some domestic success, they still have trouble getting sold and distributed outside the Middle East and North Africa.
"Sales companies in the world didn’t have much interest in Arab content, nobody knows what kind of structure exists, and Pacha is solving that problem now," says Abol Naga.
While a shadow of its 1960s heyday, Egyptian cinema still produces over 80 films a year.
But, says Abol Naga, those productions are "consumer films, formulaic family films, action films."
"I have to say we don’t like most of it because it’s just copying Hollywood and often not very well.
"But we’re getting something else now, there are young talented film-makers who are making their own films, films of today, auteur films. I’m very proud to be part of that."
Sichler says that previously even "the most brilliant films from the Middle East didn’t have anyone to help them."
"The only films that had international support or help were those that were co-produced with France or another country."
"You need structures, you need processes to join the international market, it’s extremely complex and no one’s waiting for you.
"But because of what happened, there’s an immense interest for what is happening in the Middle East," says Sichler.
"Right now in Cannes is phase one, to convert the huge interest into demand, but the supply of films (globally) is 10 times superior to the demand."