Buro 24/7 Interview: Darine Hotait, founder of Cinephilia
The NYC production house with strong Middle Eastern ties
Founded in 2009, Cinephilia Productions is an independent film production house based in New York City that specialises in narrative short, feature and animation films – with a strong affiliation with the Middle East, Africa and South Asia regions through its 'Screenwriting and Directing Lab' programs.
Buro 24/7 speaks to the brains behind the concept, an initiative that produces titles with original and daring content (with an emphasis on striking visuals) from all corners of the world. Cinephilia's strapline is "All in all – we like the unusual."
Born in Beirut and settled in the United States at an early age. Hotait received her Masters Degree in Film Writing and Directing from the prestigious Art Center College of Design in California before founding Cinephilia Productions in Los Angeles, and later in New York City. Her short films have screened in international film festivals and won awards such as Best Short Film and Excellency in Filmmaking at the Evolution International Film Festival, and 'Honorable Mention' at the Los Angeles International Film Festival.
And not only that, in her own new movie, Orb, Darine is considered to be the first female to have made the first science fiction film in Arabic. We sit down with the talented cinema enthusiast to find out more:
How would you describe the Cinephilia concept to someone unaware of the initiative?
Our main emphasis is to produce original and daring content from all corners of the world – ith a special affiliation with the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
Cinephilia's initiatives in the MENASA region started in 2012 with the launching of the Cinephilia Screenwriting Lab for Shorts – a state of the art platform that helps filmmakers to develop their storytelling skills, their criticism faculty and their technical proficiency. It is a highly selective lab choosing 8-10 filmmakers who are in development of a short film screenplay. The lab offers one filmmaker the Best Screenplay award where Cinephilia funds and produces the film.
What are your personal highlights from the Cinephilia Screenwriting Lab for Shorts Beirut 2014, in particular?
The Beirut 2014 session was quite successful and truly beyond my expectations. Filmmakers showed a great deal of commitment and professionalism in the way they approached their craft. You can sense a significant evolution in the Lebanese film scene.
There is a young movement in Lebanese cinema that's blossoming. There is an interest in telling stories outside the box. I wouldn't say there is full maturity however there is definitely an exceptional aspiration. All what's lacking is the technical proficiency – that is not available in film schools unfortunately, and the financial support – that is also very limited. There is still a wide range of experimentation involved and if there is no investment in those experiments then how would we expect a progress?
How do you quantify a good short film? What are the ideal 'ingredients'?
There is no specific recipe that makes a short film good. This is an unconditional art form. However, the basic ingredients always lie in the screenplay, the theme and the concept. You might think they are identical terms but they're not. Each one has its own function. If we have a well-written screenplay (story/plot) that's conceived within a great concept to get across a novel theme (message) then you have the basic ingredients. You don't have to follow the dramatic rules to tell a story. A good screenwriter is the one who can coordinate between the rules and his own novelty. The other elements of filmmaking are tools to help telling the story but everyone has to remain faithful to the written words.
Who has particularly impressed you in terms of commercial filmmaking from the past year?
Blue is the Warmest Color by Abdellatif Kechiche was quite an inspiring and touching film. And Her by Spike Jonze – I simply loved it.
Tell us more about your current title, Orb...
It's a Cinephilia Productions release, and now on a crowd funding platform as part of the Arab Women Pioneer Challenge on Zoomaal. It's going to be the first science fiction film from Lebanon and it is getting a great deal of attention.
How do you feel that the pictures involved in Cinephilia differ from those made in the rest of the world?
With Cinephilia we emphasise a lot on the writing and the concept of our films keeping a great attention on reaching the highest standard of visuals. The films that we're involved in making from the Middle East are uniquely written for their own local market. Meaning, the success of those films is first anticipated in their own country then on the international platforms and that's what makes them special. Middle Eastern audiences are used to watching American movies, and that in itself has been shaping the society for a long while. We're trying to bring back authenticity. That's how you gain power of change when you speak to the audience with their own language.
"The films that we're involved in making from the Middle East are uniquely written for their own local market"
What have been your key personal challenges and achievements during the past seven years since Cinephilia launched?
Cinephilia has been a journey full of challenges that I enjoyed for the most part. I would say the key challenges were first finding financial support especially for anything related to the MENA region, which is still a challenge. Second, being used to the American system of production, deciding to produce films in the MENA region with no clear knowledge of how the film industry works, felt like a nightmare of on-going experimentation. I was rowing a boat to cross the Atlantic. Fortunately the achievement is that I landed on a safe shore and was happy that I did this journey. The key achievement is seeing the impact that Cinephilia have made and is still making ever since it was created.
How do you plan to build and expand on Cinephilia Productions in the next 12 months?
We are now in pre-production on three short films, the winners of the Best Screenplay award from Lebanon Agoraphobia by Yasmine Ghorayeb, from Dubai Maude by Jason Joseph and from Cairo Interlude by Salma Ibrahim. Each film will be shot in its country of production between July and October this year.
A still from last year's winner of Best Screenplay at the World Film Festival, Ash by Yasmina Hatem
We are now opening up to the production of feature films by launching the Cinephilia Screenwriting Lab for Feature that targets professional filmmakers from the MENASA who are in development of a feature film screenplay. The first lab will take place in Beirut in June 2014 with lab mentor and award winning screenwriter Brad Saunders from Los Angeles - and are expanding to include a Directing Lab that will take place in Cairo in September in association with See Foundation.
Our 2014 Cinephilia Filmmakers to Watch screening series will also be touring in the region. The series includes five award-winning films from Lebanon, India, Turkey, Afghanistan and the UAE. The series promotes upcoming talents from the region followed by networking events to encourage the opportunities of collaboration.
With all these activities we are looking into partnership opportunities with film industry professionals and local sponsors in different cities to help us expand our collaborations with local artists... Oh, and we are also launching a Film Journal in the summer. The journal will include interviews and videos with filmmakers from the Middle East.
Find out more about Darine's film Orb, here.