Giving young talent a boost: Introducing the Arab stars of tomorrow

Culture & Entertainment
Photo: Arab Stars of Tomorrow 2017 / Dubai International Film Festival

Film industry in the Middle East is year after year, both finding its feet and building a legacy. Role models are few and far between, especially when compared to other parts of the world, so young aspiring filmmakers and actors need a lot more to propel them forward.

This is why the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) launched a programme called the ‘Arab Stars of Tomorrow’ last year, adding to the festival’s many programmes to help create a film fraternity in the region.

A celebration of young Arab talent, the showcase is a Screen International initiative launched in partnership with DIFF, and for its second edition this year, Screen International’s France and Middle East correspondent Melanie Goodfellow was tasked to select five talented young artists.


Among these is 22-year-old Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek, who shot to fame following his role as the young Hassan El-Banaa in the series El-Gama’a (The Brotherhood), which discusses Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Arab Stars of Tomorrow 2017_Egyptian actor Ahmed Malik
Photo: Egyptian actor Ahmed Malik / Dubai International Film Festival

He stars in director Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson, which premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The film, which tells the tale of an Islamic cleric who likes to dress as Michael Jackson, is Egypt’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Academy Awards.

Noting that his work has been wide-ranging and isn’t afraid to tackle controversial topics, Malek believes that young people in film today need to focus on the art and not just the commercial element. “Of course, we do work to earn, but if we want to raise the profile of the regional film industry and create better opportunities for us and the generations to come, we have to focus more on the quality of the work we do rather than the quantity,” he said.

Marwan Abdullah Saleh agrees. The Emirati actor is set to make his big screen debut in Mohammed Saeed Harib’s feature film Rashid And Rajab, out early next year, and although Saleh comes from an entertainment background (he is the son of renowned actor and writer Abdullah Saleh) he still hopes that the exposure he is getting at DIFF will bring young actors like himself into focus.

Arab Stars of Tomorrow 2017_Emirati Actor Marwan Abdullah Saleh
Photo: Emirati Actor Marwan Abdullah Saleh / Dubai International Film Festival

“There is a gap in the Emirati film industry today,” he told My Salaam. “I started out in theatre, because people still want plays and there is an audience for good theatre. But there are fewer opportunities in films, and we hope that initiatives like this will change that.”

Marwan shares the concerns of many aspiring actors of his generation. “I asked myself, and the people at DIFF, why they chose me. The answer was that they saw potential in me. That encouraged me, as we need the validation. You see, when they were casting for the Fast and the Furious 8, the actors who were meant to be Arab were not really Arab.”


Palestinian actress Maria Zreik started her career at a very young age, bagging her first major role on the BBC series The Promise when she was 17. Her most famous role, however, is the lead in the Oscar-nominated Ave Maria, which was screened at more than 180 film festivals and won more than 35 awards.

Arab Stars of Tomorrow 2017_Palestinian Actress Maria Zreik
Photo: Palestinian actress Maria Zreik / Dubai International Film Festival

Most recently, Zreik has done a supporting role in Wajib, which is directed by Annemarie Jacir and is Palestine’s official Best Foreign Language Film submission for 2018 Oscars. But Maria is now looking to work in the Middle East, specifically with more local talent.

“This is my first time in Dubai, and I am so proud and privileged to be a part of this programme,” she said. “I hope to have the opportunity to collaborate and work with regional and Arab filmmakers: producers, directors, and actors. […] I really feel I belong to the Arab world more than to Hollywood, and I hope that being part of this showcase will finally bring people’s attention to me.”

Like her ‘Arab Stars of Tomorrow’ counterparts, Zreik too aims is to inspire better storytelling through film.

Twenty-five-year-old Lebanese director and writer Manon Nammour is another rising talent who wants to tell stories. She has been passionate about films since she can remember and jumped right into the field as soon as she graduated in film from Notre Dame University.

Arab Stars of Tomorrow 2017_Lebanese director and writer Manon Nammour
Photo: Lebanese director and writer Manon Nammour / Dubai International Film Festival

“I have made a couple of short films and also make commercials. The commercials are to pay the bills, but my real passion is in the feature film I am planning to make. I hope this platform gives filmmakers like myself the support we need to go further in our careers.”

This desire is echoed by Iraqi director Ayman Al-Shatri, whose short, Five O’Clock, won many accolades at DIFF in 2016. “It is certainly not an easy journey for us, considering all the issues we face in the region, but initiatives like this bring us together and allow us to raise the standards of what we do.”

Arab Stars of Tomorrow 2017_Iraqi Director Ayman Al-Shatri
Photo: Iraqi director Ayman Al-Shatri / Dubai International Film Festival

The sentiment is perfectly summed up by Malek: “We need people to invest in talent, not just in the business. At the end of the day, it should be about quality. The Kardashians make a lot of money, but is that the quality we want? If you invest in talent today, you will get the returns tomorrow.”

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