May 8, 2017

twofour54’s creative lab: Nurturing Arab Media Talent

Children learning how to film against a green screen during 2016 summer camp (twofour54)

In April, the United Arab Emirates launched the Soft Power Council to enhance the country’s image regionally and globally. The UAE was suited to take up such a challenge, as it has one of the fastest growing media zones in the region – twofour54. Among twofour54’s initiatives is creative lab. This lab offers opportunities for growth and exploration for any individual, regardless of nationality, in film, television, publishing, music, gaming, animation, or illustration. Additionally, creative lab offers year-round workshops in photography, videography, and other creative disciplines, while providing community members access to audio and video post-production equipment.

To learn more about creative lab’s offerings, AGSIW spoke with Fatima Al-Yousef, creative lab’s acting head of outreach. And to hear more about its impacts, AGSIW spoke with Omar Al-Dhaheri, a creative lab intern turned filmmaker, currently working as a talent development associate at creative lab.

Workshop at the lab (twofour54)

AGSIW: Fatima, what inspired the creation of creative lab?

Fatima: creative lab has evolved over the past few years out of Abu Dhabi’s tax-free media zone, twofour54, with the goal of adding to the Arab media content. We started as a funding department for creative projects in the fields of filmmaking, animation, gaming, and music. As time went on, we saw the need to go beyond funding to providing talented Arabs the opportunity to experiment with high-end technology and post-production equipment. We literally take up creative ideas from the very beginning until the end, by helping with the creation of the idea itself, assessing the feasibility of the proposed project, helping with budget sheets, and overall supporting creative individuals up until they’re able to execute the project in the best way possible. Additionally, we provide proper mentorship and training. We have been doing this for the past six years, and we’ve produced over 70 projects, some of which have made it to film festivals all around the world. Our goal is to help creative people gain confidence, as this is a lab where we want people to make mistakes and experiment; even if their projects end up not succeeding, they have learned something in the process.

AGSIW: Tell us about creative lab’s activities and how it is cultivating talent from across the different emirates and the Gulf.

Fatima: creative lab includes #thelab, which is our physical space that is open seven days a week to all of our creative members, students, or simply anyone who wants to experiment with our facility. #Thelab is equipped with a video editing room, audio room, and the ideas lab, where members of our community can brainstorm their ideas. In the ideas lab, many people who did not know one another have come together, brainstormed ideas collaboratively, and ended up working together on a project of interest. We also host around 80 workshops a year in #Thelab.

We provide internships through Abu Dhabi’s media zone authority by matching the right student (high school, undergraduate, or postgraduate) with the appropriate place whether with us, twofour54, or with one of our strategic partners. Before we do that, we hold an individual career counseling session to find out what exactly this person wants to do, regardless of their academic background. In addition to our internship program, we hold an annual summer camp for children aged 9-12 years that is filled with fun, media-related activities. We teach young ones how to film against a green screen, design an advertisement, write scripts, and give a presentation.

Talent Open Day at creative lab (twofour54)

AGSIW: creative lab has an online platform where creative individuals can share their portfolios with fellow artists and potential employers. Would you tell us more about this feature?

Fatima: We host a virtual creative community of over 11,000 individuals, 5,000 of whom are based in the UAE. This community goes beyond virtual as we invite them to in-person workshops over the year and try to engage them with our ongoing projects. Many of them have full-time jobs outside the arts, but they are passionate about video editing, acting, animation, and other creative pursuits. We try to place them with an opportunity for growth, whether it be with a governmental entity or in the private sector. Eventually, our goal is to offer career placement for those who are interested in pursuing freelancing, part-time, or full-time jobs.

AGSIW: What challenges do you see for young, talented Gulf individuals?

Fatima: Our main challenge in the Gulf is that there are so many talents, but a great number of these talents can be shy and feel overwhelmed when approaching opportunities presented by big corporations or establishments. Initiatives like creative lab provide a safe space for experimentation, so that creative individuals can explore their talent and get feedback in a stress-free environment, and once again, gain confidence in their skills without feeling pressured.

Omar Al-Dhaheri filming Shamma Al Mazrui, UAE minister of youth, and Noura Al-Kaabi, UAE minister of state for federal national council affairs, and chairwoman of twofour54, as they talk during the 2016 youth retreat. (twofour54)

AGSIW: Omar, what’s your experience with creative lab?

Omar: My relationship with creative lab started in 2013 when Fatima and others visited my university in al-Ain. They gave a presentation about creative lab’s facility and what they do. After their visit, I found myself curious to go and see the lab’s physical space, so I went there and was very excited to find that they have equipped video and audio rooms, along with the open ideas space. I started following them on social media, and one day they posted that they were looking for a volunteer who would serve as a presenter covering what people thought of the Abu Dhabi Media Summit in 2015. This was my starting point.

As a presenter, I got to interview Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel from Saudi Arabia, CNN’s Becky Anderson, and Uturn’s CEO Kaswar Al-Khatib, among other influential media figures. A few weeks later, a community member called me asking to do similar coverage of a traditional festival in Abu Dhabi, which I was happy to do. I got so involved with creative lab’s community that I’d drive for almost two hours from al-Ain to Abu Dhabi just to attend workshops held there.

AGSIW: In what ways has creative lab enriched your talent?

Omar: creative lab opened my eyes to different creative pursuits that I was unaware of. I started as a presenter and tried photography, videography, acting, and directing all while an intern. I then knew for sure I wanted to be a filmmaker. creative lab hired me after my internship, and since day one, I worked with Minister of State for Youth Affairs Shamma Al Mazrui. creative lab introduced me to a new definition of media, and it particularly showed me the importance of social media.

AGSIW: Do you have any final thoughts for those who want to experiment with a creative pursuit?

Omar: For anyone who is interested in media, creative lab is the place to be in the UAE. It can take your talent to another level. You’ll go places with creative lab; you might end up working there as I did or you could start your own media-based business.

Follow creative lab on Twitter and Instagram for updates on future workshops and check out the online platform.

Mai Alfarhan is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.