Creative Tracks Series - Beyond the platform : Talal Al-Muhanna

Talal, film producer and founder of Linked Productions in Kuwait, travelled to Malta to take part in the Valletta Film Festival with the support of the RCF/Creative Tracks mobility grant.
What is your professional background?
Initially, I was trained in the performing arts in the US and UK and was interested in story-telling and artistic creation through performing myself. Then, some years ago, when putting together a dance-theatre performance in New York, I discovered that bringing together people from multiple disciplines to create artistic works is an equally exciting and interesting way to be creative and so I gradually moved from being a performer to becoming a cultural producer.
As a cultural producer currently based in Kuwait, it’s interesting for me to explore ideas with artists not just in Kuwait but across the Arabic-speaking MENA region in general, as there are things that bind us culturally, linguistically, socially etc. But it’s also a challenge because the artists cannot always express themselves as fully as they would like in their own countries and they face risks therefore. In other parts of the world, where people might take freedom of speech for granted, it should not be forgotten that there are places where such freedom of expression has limitations.
Can you describe the film industry in Kuwait to understand the local context of Linked Productions?
In the early 1970s, there was a film “Bas ya Bahr” (Oh cruel sea) directed by Khalid Al-Siddiq. It was ground breaking because it showed Kuwaiti life before the oil era with great cinematic form. It followed the style of Italian neorealism in its raw emotional quality and the film received awards in Venice and Chicago. “Bas ya Bahr” was produced during a remarkable period in Kuwait’s cultural history, what is now referred to as the ‘Golden Era’. There was a lot of social and political development at that time and much attention given to avant-garde movements in the art scene. In fact, Kuwait was a very liberal society in the 70s and people were curious about other cultures and the world around them. But after the Iranian revolution in 1979 things changed. Society became more cautious and conservative, there was an increase in sectarianism too. Within such a climate, film production was not well supported unfortunately. Nowadays, however, it starts to be more interesting because after decades of social and cultural conservatism, there is a kind of new movement to revive arts & culture. This new movement is led by the Emir of Kuwait, who has created KNCD (Kuwait National Cultural District), which comprises several museums, cultural centers, a new library and conference center... When the KNCD project was launched, the Emir expressed that it was his will for Kuwait to go back to the ‘Golden Era’ when the country was the cultural leader of the Arabian Gulf countries. So it’s a very exciting time for those involved in arts & culture as well as film. There are other recent film-related initiatives too, like the short film fund at the Ministry of Youth and Kuwait Film Festival, whose 1st edition I helped set up.
How do you define your role in this movement?
I love the idea of being able to contribute to the renaissance of Kuwaiti cultural life. As the framework of KNCD is now in place and the infrastructure within each institution is building up, there are new opportunities to take part in the expansion of cultural production. The people currently working at the new cultural centres have good intentions too. They are creating new and innovative programs for audiences here. As an example, I was invited to produce an operetta at the National Theatre in Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Cultural Centre for the opening of the 2017-2018 cultural season. The production was actually a revival of a Kuwaiti classic from 1979 called “Memoirs of a Sailor”. It was a big production with 150 performers and 100 production crew coming from all over the world (UK, South Korea, Greece, Serbia, Colombia, Germany…) For the audience it was very exciting because it was a very popular production when it first came out. So, on the one hand, the audience was therefore very nostalgic about it. But on the other hand, the project questioned if audiences were ready to embrace modernity in certain ways as there were unconventional aspects to the show too. It has launched a debate.
What impacts do you anticipate in the audience?
The debate is as one might expect when dealing with a cultural classic: With the “Memoirs of a Sailor” operetta the critics were mostly very favourable though some people thought it was too modern or not culturally authentic because all the performers were not Kuwaiti. This reaction is understandable when one is dealing with high profile and recognizable works and perhaps British or German audiences would feel the same about a certain rendition of Shakespeare or Wagner. However, contemporary artists have to try new things and provoke discussion and debate about the true meaning of pre-xisting artistic works. What matters most is the text and the ideas, not necessarily the style of it or the origin of the performers.
What is your strategic approach to inserting your venture in the local cultural market?
Mostly, I am producing films and we still have a lot of challenges as filmmakers. It goes back to the existing limitations on freedom of expression in much of the Arab world. There are a lot of restrictions about what you can say and what you can do, so you feel you have to be quite careful.
Nowadays the region has a lot of issues related to basic education as well. The education system needs different approaches because people are not encouraged to be innovative, they don't feel empowered to question authority. At the same time, authorities are cautious about freedom of expression through the arts in general and through film as a story-telling medium. Hence there is not a lot of money or support in this region for filmmakers, whereas in the EU there are structures that provide funding for creative output and cultural production with very few restrictions on content. So this is one area where I feel my company can influence things - by encouraging cross-cultural projects: Getting Kuwaiti filmmakers to go outside Kuwait – to get a taste of film culture in other places – and for film industry people from outside Kuwait to visit us here. That’s where I think I can make an impact most but of course it doesn’t always work: Recently, I proposed to a government entity to support the involvement of Kuwaiti trainees on a feature film project happening outside Kuwait, but the entity couldn’t get involved as the film was not considered culturally relevant enough at the local level. But there will be other opportunities I imagine.
In general, Kuwaiti filmmakers need to get out in the world and learn more about the institutions that exist that are interested in their stories. They will probably be surprised to find more support for Arab filmmaking & filmmakers outside the Arab world than within it! So, in one way, my strategy for improving local production is to research international contexts and find out which partners and structures will be able to support film projects from Kuwait – for which a big part of this is the question of networking. So far, I must have spent nearly four or five years building my network to finance my current creative projects and I still have to keep building that network up.
How do you build an international network in order to develop your projects?
Networking is about 50% of your success. You need to network to help your films get selected at international festivals and to get broadcast. You need to get to know the people in charge of programming and build professional relationships with them. Attending international film events is one way to build your network – festivals, workshops, courses etc. The internet can also be used to network too - something more affordable for many people than traveling of course. In any case, networking also helps you secure funding for your films. If the industry sees you regularly in attendance at events like film festivals or film markets, it builds confidence in your profile and can build your reputation as an active player in the industry. This is a weak point amongst filmmakers in Kuwait: While they are very gifted technically and artistically, when it comes to networking they are rather shy! With a few exceptions, they are more accustomed to work in small groups amongst themselves and network only locally, perhaps regionally. So I have been encouraging them for years to network internationally as much as possible. I try to give them confidence that their films are good enough to travel and I promote their films to festivals and programmers frequently. Lately, I helped promote one filmmaker’s short film to a programmer at Cairo International Film Festival and the film was selected and screened. So it’s rewarding even when connections between different stakeholders in the industry are created informally.
In Kuwait, you can more or less manage to make short films at the local level, because there is some local funding now in place and younger filmmakers are eager to help one another. However, with larger film projects you generally need a global network in order to discover where the best opportunities are. When I produced a documentary called “Nomad’s Home” by Egyptian director Iman Kamel, we had support from the Netherlands and UAE. We also got funding from the French Institute in Kuwait to finance the French subtitled version of the film, which increased its visibility in Francophone countries.
In summary, the more people you meet with similar interests the more success you can have. But the networking has to be considered as something for the long term too, not just for short-term gains. And it’s not just about taking, it’s also about giving. It should be a reciprocal relationship. At the same time, people who are passionate about film will probably remain passionate about film all their life. As an example, the person who supported the French subtitles of “Nomad’s Home” at the French Institute in Kuwait now works at the French Embassy in Jordan, where I hope to shoot my next film. So it’s nice to think about the possibility for a new cooperation with the French Institute in Jordan, as there is professional trust between myself and those in the French cultural network in MENA.
What are the next steps for the development of Linked Production ?
After so many years working only on films, it was really interesting for me to work once again in the performing arts on the operetta “Memoirs of a Sailor”. This gave me the idea of not only promoting and distributing Kuwaiti films overseas but also touring Kuwaiti art & performance projects that could be interesting for audiences outside Kuwait too. Since being in Malta I have been building up on this idea and recently began encouraging Kuwaiti visual artists to research opportunities for cultural & creative exchange there. Two such artists (Zahra Al-Mahdi & Hanan Al-Alawi) thus applied for an artist residency in Malta at Blitz and were successful in their application. They will head to Valetta in June 2018 to take up their residency and I hope to touch base while they’re there. Otherwise, I’m actively searching for potential sponsors for a Kuwait Cultural Week in Malta in 2018.
Helping to create links between like-minded people is part of what I do as a producer. It’s often based on my intuition about what I believe could be intellectually stimulating and artistically productive for each party. Then you just have to make introductions, bounce ideas and do things to make something interesting happen. Sometimes I don’t have a concrete strategy per se; it’s more of a feeling or a sense about something…
Being a cultural entrepreneur is like being an explorer: you have to go on a journey – in your mind or physically or both - to discover new artistic territories, to come up with new ideas. Often you embark on that journey not necessarily knowing where it may lead but, once you’ve launched, you have to make a commitment to completing the journey. I like to use the metaphor of a boat setting sail for a far away, sometimes unknown destination. Once you are on the boat you have to endeavour to reach your next port of call even if things don’t go according to plan or as expected. You can’t simply turn back.
Festivals, Film, Performing arts

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