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Cultural Connection

Arab Art’s Social Adjustment

Nawaf Al-Janahi accompanied by filmmaker Khalid Al-Mahmood, tours the UAE to raise awareness for his Emirati Cinema Campaign, one of the projects successfully funded through Aflamnah's crowdfunding platform in 2014. (Courtesy Aflamnah)
Nawaf Al-Janahi, accompanied by filmmaker Khalid Al-Mahmood, tours the UAE to raise awareness for his Emirati Cinema Campaign, one of the projects successfully funded through Aflamnah’s crowdfunding platform in 2014. (Courtesy of Aflamnah)

Over the past few years, a sharper lens has been focused on the Arab world’s contemporary arts and culture sectors. But as they have continued to grow across the region they have faced a common challenge: limited access to sustainable support and adequate funding infrastructure. The issue inspired long-time Dubai-based communications and media professional, Vida Rizq, along with her husband Lotfi Bencheikh, to come up with a new way of providing support to this burgeoning creative scene.

In July of 2012 they launched Aflamnah, the first crowdfunding platform dedicated to creative ventures in the Arab world. “When we did our research, [we found that] 85 percent of projects don’t get offered the money and opportunities they need—and the ones that do, don’t get all the money they need. There are projects that simply never see the light of day,” Rizq told The Majalla.

Aflamnah, based in Dubai, is a startup with a core advisory board comprised of professionals in the legal, media, finance, and arts fields. It was designed as a participatory funding model to encourage public engagement in creative endeavors.

Accepting state funding, grants or other private funding opportunities can often leave an artist or innovator incumbent to the requirements of the donor. Aflamnah’s crowdfunding model, therefore, may well be a game-changer and, many hope, an indication of a greater cultural shift. The idea, according to Rizq, is to encourage people to invest, no matter how small the amount, in the future and vitality of their own creative cultures. The crowdfunding model promotes not only the engagement of the public, but a sense of shared responsibility and a network of support on the civil society level.

It was designed as a participatory funding model to encourage public engagement in creative endeavors.

“We say this all the time: ‘There’s no shame in giving small amounts—the real shame is in not participating. We are saying, ‘Please take part,’ instead of placing emphasis on the amount of money given.”

Rizq is firm in her emphasis on building up a culture of support rather than merely providing funds where they are needed. This also means that, as a small and relatively new startup, Aflamnah needs to earn peoples’ trust. To this end, Aflamnah has been proactive about partnering with high profile organizations and brands to establish a trusted public image for participants and funders. “We never wanted trust to be an issue,” said Rizq. “Which is why we asked for [major brands such as Arab TV channel MBC and the Dubai International Film Festival] to morally support our projects . . . In this part of the world, it legitimizes us.”

“Arab projects tend to get lost,” continued Rizq, speaking of the world’s limited focus on contemporary Arab projects in the creative field. “We want to tell different stories, to change the stereotypes of the Arab world. This year the Oscars had three Arab films nominated. [This] demonstrates an interest [in the region], but there is still a dearth of stories being told.”

While crowdfunding is a common model in other parts of the world—take widely known platforms Kickstarter and Indiegogo, for instance—the concept has not yet impacted the Arab world—until now. Since its launch in 2012, Aflamnah has funded 70 projects in the region and raised 300,000 US dollars, going from an initial two projects a month to its current six projects a month.

Past Aflamnah-funded projects include Bilbaal, a social network created by Dana Salloum and Rasha Kashkoush which connects people with Palestinian nonprofit organizations across the globe; Champ of the Camp, a documentary film by Mahmoud Kaabour that explores a singing competition in the labor community in Dubai; and The Brain that Sings by Emirati filmmaker Amal Al-Agroobi that documents the lives of two young autistic boys, and was created to raise awareness of the condition in the UAE. The award-winning film, When I Saw You, by Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, was one of Aflamnah’s launch projects.

In April this year, at the recent Middle East Film and Comic Con, Aflamnah hosted a live crowdfunding event—the first of its kind in the region—with Dubai-based photographer Martin Beck. His photography exhibition We Can be Heroes marks one of Aflamnah’s recent successes. The event attracted nearly 200 supporters who made donations on the spot, switching from the virtual realm to face-to-face interaction.

In March, Aflamnah teamed up with MBC’s corporate social responsibility chapter, MBC Amal, to hold a crowdfunding workshop in Egypt, at the British Council in Cairo. The event was led by Emirati filmmaker and director Nawaf Al-Janahi, who used the Aflamnah platform to successfully raise funds for his project, the Emirati Cinema Campaign, an initiative that educates people on the UAE’s rich, yet underrepresented, cinema culture.

An upcoming crowdfunding workshop is being planned to take place in Saudi Arabia. “The workshops are very hands-on,” reflected Rizq. “We don’t glamorize crowdfunding; we need people to see what it really takes.

As a first in the region, Aflamnah’s approach to crowdfunding is significantly hands-on. Each project that comes across the virtual desk is carefully reviewed not only to make sure it fulfills all requirements, but also to ascertain if it is strong enough. Once the submission is approved, constructive feedback is given. “People often underestimate the amount of time it takes to put a campaign together. We tell people all the time: ‘It’s a full-time job.’”

Establishing a break-out market in Dubai and across the Arab world has also required some adjustments from the traditional crowdfunding model: Aflamnah allows participants to take home all of the funds raised, regardless of their target fundraising goal.

“We are not an all-or-nothing platform,” explained Rizq. “We found in our research that people felt the risk was too great to put so much effort and commitment [into a campaign]. From the viewpoint of creative people, some money still brings them closer to their goals.”

In terms of Aflamnah’s future goals, Rizq believes that “the education [of the public regarding crowdfunding] still needs a push.” Along with more projects, she would also like to see more corporations and brands brought in to fund projects they support. Aflamnah’s plans also include tapping into new sectors, such as gaming and technology. “What’s interesting is the number of ‘invisible’ projects that come alive; the number of projects that don’t fit into [traditional] categories. People can make a difference if they believe in it. The creative field is built up of normal people . . . We don’t do that alone. That’s social change, evolution,” she says.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Aflamnah does not take a commission on funds raised through the site.

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Clarissa Pharr
Clarissa Pharr is a freelance writer and editor specializing in arts, culture and media in the Middle East. She has worked both in Cairo and in New York, where she is currently based.

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