Across the region, the Arab film industry is flourishing. From drama to comedy and documentary, there have been plenty of stunning offerings at festivals and film screenings over the last few years. One genre that has been lacking widespread representation, however, is horror.
At this year’s Gulf Film Festival in April, the first ever Arab zombie film was screened. Set in Abu Dhabi and shot using a budget of AED3,000, Envy The Dead runs at just over nine minutes with no speaking, just poignant music and graphic scenes of blood, guts and pure gore. The tag line reads: ‘A lone survivor struggles to navigate the wreckage of an Arab metropolis in the wake of a zombie epidemic.’
The film has won numerous awards worldwide and Isa Swain, the 29-year-old Bahraini-British filmmaker who wrote, directed, edited and produced the short film says he was trying to break conventions, inject something new into the Middle Eastern film scene and ultimately become the Arab world’s first George A. Romero.
Swain explains the film had a tight budget and limited time frame so that in the end the making of it was 50 per cent preparation and 50 per cent problem solving. ‘Once you begin shooting things start to go wrong, complications arise and the window of opportunity between pre- and post-production isn’t one that can be left open indefinitely.
‘In my case, since the story is set entirely at night, I only had the option of shooting from dusk till dawn. The more prepared you are the easier it is to roll with the punches and solve the problems quickly.’
Yet, Swain explains: ‘I outdid myself as a producer on this film and I think the novelty of the project helped to bring a lot of enthusiastic people willing to get involved simply for the experience. This ranged from makeup artists to the horde of zombie extras that filled up the screen’. He played guinea pig on a few make-up tests himself and, in true Quentin Tarantino style, he even makes a cameo in his own movie as ‘tunnel victim’ at around three minutes 40 seconds in.
Swain was not always a filmmaker, he started his creative career as a photographer, when he primarily explored subjects of marginalised issues and people. However after completing a one-year degree at the New York Film Academy in Abu Dhabi, he began working within the local film industry.
His debut into the zombie horror genre has been a success so far. ‘Envy The Dead has done very well at festivals overseas – if I could have accompanied it I’d have completed a world tour by now. We’ve only been invited to attend one festival in the region (GFF) but Arab festivals beyond, around Europe and the Americas, have been some of the most enthusiastic and curious.’
It has not been without challenge, however. He explains: ‘I had an interesting conversation with the programmer for an Egyptian festival who suggested I was actually hurting my chances for acceptance to regional events by entering myself as a Bahraini filmmaker. She told me the judges would both expect and to a large extent be looking for a film that they could palatably identify as Bahraini, something very culturally specific. It’s not entirely unreasonable but it’s certainly a bias I haven’t had to contend with in regards to Arab film festivals representing the wider diaspora.’
Overall, Swain says, ‘this film has been a labour of love from the very beginning with the idea that we were creating something unprecedented always at the heart.
‘Horror has, despite its ever-increasing commercial appeal, always retained an identity or reputation as a genre that goes against convention. The film was produced around the notion that horror is, perhaps more than any other cinematic genre, grounded in its own conventions.’
While he may be itching for a more vibrant horror genre, however, Swain believes the Arab world itself is not entirely ready. ‘One thing horror fans need from a film more than anything else is the sense that it was made by people who love the genre as much as they do. That means throwing all other conventions out the window. Offending people isn’t a requisite of horror, but not caring if you do is.’