| A Woman’s Passion
Al-Zain Al-Sabah - Film-maker
“They used to call me ‘Miss Lowya’ when I was a little girl” laughs Al-Zain. My rudimentary translation of this word reveals it to mean restless. I’m convinced they still call her the same.
A mother of three young children, and the Chairperson and Managing Director of Eagle Vision Media Group KSCC (EVMG) - a unique production company - demands on her time are constant and challenging.
Al-Zain established the company following her return to Kuwait having graduating with a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Video Production from the number one film school in the U.S. – the University of Southern California and after spending a further two years working with ABC News in the States.
“I wanted the young and ambitious potential movie-makers here to have the opportunities that I never had”, she explained. “I feel a sense of responsibility, not just to those who the company employs, but also to those who pass through the projects that we handle, those who we are now in a position to give valuable experience to”.
A year with the state television network, KTV, was never going to satisfy her, and when Al-Zain returned from the States, she struggled to find an outlet for her creativity and drive.
“I needed a place where I could be productive in the way that I know I need to be”, she said, continuing, “Unfortunately in our part of the world, this remains a male dominated business. Working in this field remains somewhat of a taboo for women”.
There are practicalities to be considered here, and some elements of the business that simply are not negotiable.
“The hours we work are not regular, by all means. Sometimes it is necessary to work forty-eight hours with barely a break, sometimes sleeping in the studio. We do it because we love it, and because we know without it we just won’t fulfil our jobs”. Al-Zain and EVMG ensure that their work is carried out in a safe and healthy environment.
Al-Zain’s aims are clear. Whilst EVMG is a commercially centered business, this means it has to make enough money to support itself, it also has a conscience - “We have a youth outreach program that allows anyone who wants to work in a production company to come to us and collaborate on projects”.
“Sometimes, people send demos, sometimes they just come to us with an idea, sometimes they just want to be involved in one of many other levels of our various productions. It may be that we see they have experience as a director, or to help them gain experience we’ll find them a role as a production assistant or an assistant director, but we’ll do all we can to ensure they have a place with us”.
This is no easy way to run a company. It would be far easier to ‘import’ proven talent. For sure there are enough talented and well-known professionals throughout the Arab world that Al-Zain shouldn’t need to trouble herself with working with ‘beginners’. That she does says a lot about her and her approach to life and to her business.
“Every commercial project EVMG takes on, we always involve one or two Kuwaiti teenagers as part of the crew”, she tells me.
“Without an initiative like this, how else will we start to cultivate our own future talents? I’m offering the youth of today experiences I was never able to have”.
For Al-Zain though, the benefit flows both ways. “We learn as much from the youngsters we work with as they learn from us. I’ve discovered that this free-flowing educational process really defines our work at EVMG”.
Sadly, it is not untypical for initiatives such as this to be driven by the private sector in Kuwait when, regionally as well as globally, such programs are more often inspired and driven by foresighted governments and leaders.
At the moment filmmaking, and the arts in general, are not a priority in Kuwait.
Does this frustrate Al-Zain? “It certainly does! I only have to look further down the Gulf to see the Tribeca Film Festival coming to Qatar this year, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are already well established centers in the film world. I’m a Kuwaiti and I want to see it happening here too” she insists.
Whilst the government here falls short, the same cannot be said of Al-Zain. Construction of a 2,000 square meter studio complex located in Subhan is well advanced. The site will feature two sound-stages and full post-production facilities, as well as screening rooms and meeting rooms.
The studios will be available on a commercial basis to other filmmakers in Kuwait. “We’re calling it a ‘One-Stop-Shop’ for filmmakers in the region”. The site should be fully open at the beginning of 2010.
Already Al-Zain has two major successes to her name. ‘Journey to Mecca’ has opened around the world to great acclaim, and will be screened at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. in front of an audience to include President Obama, and ‘Amreeka’ was the winner of the prestigious ‘Critics Award’ at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Doubtless there will be more.
All of this she does despite her family connections. “There were times at the beginning of all this that I’d wish I could change my name, just until I earn my wings”, she told me. “I found that it was much easier for people to criticize or judge me, rather than get to know me.”
Such is the jealousy of some that they would like to see nothing more than an Al-Sabah fail. “Worse still,” she continued, “I found that some would offer me work purely based on my family connections”. She adds, “And I always declined those offers.” Also, and this continues even today, some people look at what I do and think it is all funded by my family. That simply isn’t true. EVMG is a commercial business like all others. We have to take tough decisions sometimes too”.
She finishes by saying “Now though, I feel proud to be representing my family in the international world of media and moviemaking”.
Al-Zain’s greatest sadness is when she is approached with an offer of a project, or a script, by enthusiastic young filmmakers. “Sometimes I do simply have to turn them down. We can’t take on every project that we are offered. I’d like to think that someday we’ll have the support , be it through the private or governmental sectors, to be able to; but right now I have to do the best I can”.
“My dream for the next few years is to be turning down fewer and fewer projects by those aspiring young Kuwaitis. I thought it would get easier to ‘just say no’, but for me it only gets harder”, she laments.
“Whether I do this myself, or through my aim of creating a Kuwait fund for visual storytelling only time will reveal, but I am in no doubt that this is essential if Kuwait is to progress and take its place on the world’s media stage”.
For Al-Zain Al-Sabah, her entry into the movie world was never about winning awards. It will always be about her legacy for her country, and for the other female Arab Muslims that wish to pursue the same profession in the big wide world of visual storytelling.
First Published in Men's Passion Issue #15