Eva Sayre '01

Developing Dubai's film industry
April 1, 2011
  

In the decade since Eva Sayre graduated from Duke, she’s climbed the corporate ladder as a strategic analyst at The Parthenon Group, an international consulting firm; was recruited by a headhunter to join Sama Dubai, the international real-estate development arm of Dubai Holding; and helped launch Veritas Films, a filmmaking company in Abu Dhabi that creates corporate and cultural documentaries in the United Arab Emirates.

Eva Sayre

Siddharth Siva

Arab Emirates. Last October, in her capacity as Veritas’ business director, Sayre accepted a $100,000 check from Robert DeNiro at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar for the Veritas film Teta, Alf Marra (Grandmother, A Thousand Times), which won the Audience Award for best documentary and a special jury mention for director Mahmoud Kaabour. The festival is a joint venture between the Doha Film Institute and DeNiro’s Tribeca Film Festival and is designed to showcase Arab and international cinema.

So how did an English and medieval and Renaissance studies double-major from Pennsylvania end up in Qatar rubbing elbows with the international entertainment elite? Sayre says that her degree from Duke helped get her noticed, and her drive helped her advance. “Despite my complete lack of business or econ classes, The Parthenon Group recognized some essential analytical and communication skills and trained me from the ground up in terms of strategic thinking and analysis,” she says. “Over five years in their Boston and London offices, I worked my way up to the manager level, gaining exposure to projects across a huge spectrum of industries and geographies.”

Eager to try a similar position in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia, she had begun exploring career leads when she got a call from a headhunter with an opportunity in Dubai. “That was right in the middle of Dubai’s incredible real-estate boom, and I found it fascinating to be in the heart of that,” says Sayre. “It was equally fascinating as it fell apart a few years later, but that’s a different story.”

While working at Sama Dubai, Sayre began dating Mahmoud Kaabour—now her husband—a documentary filmmaker from Lebanon who had gained international visibility for Being Osama, an award-winning 2005 documentary that followed six Arab men living in North America named Osama in the wake of 9/11. Kaabour had been working as a freelance director in the UAE but needed to incorporate as a company in order to take on the legal obligations of producing large projects. Combining Kaabour’s creative talents with Sayre’s business expertise seemed like a natural fit, and Veritas Films was formed in 2008.

Sayre says that Veritas’ corporate projects for clients such as the Ministry of Presidential Affairs and Dubai Investments enables the company to pursue the artistic endeavors such as Teta, Alf Marra, which tells the story of Kaabour’s feisty, eighty one-year-old grandmother and her life in Beirut as she nears the end of her life. Other forthcoming creative projects include a documentary about Sufi Islam in urban Europe, a television series looking at life in various Dubai neighborhoods through the eyes of those who live there, and a feature-length documentary about annual singing competitions in UAE labor camps modeled loosely on the British hit series X Factor.

Sayre says that she and her partners at Veritas like having the balance between the corporate and creative work they do. “Our corporate projects are the bread-and-butter of our business, which enables us to pursue our own artistic documentary projects,” she says. “Still, as much as possible, we infuse the corporate work with our driving passion for music, heritage, and compelling personal stories. We can be selective in the corporate projects we take on because we’re a small company and our business model is based on quality over quantity. We only take on a handful of projects per year, most of which are on direct commission from the highest echelons of the UAE government and are about social or cultural topics. In this way, we stay close to our inspiration in both the corporate and cultural work.”

Sayre says that the recognition at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival has already helped bring attention to the fledgling UAE film industry. “Teta, Alf Marra was the first film produced by an Abu Dhabi company and the first documentary produced in the UAE to win major international awards,” she says. “We find ourselves at the forefront of the development of the local UAE film industry, and we hope that we are able to push it, in our own small way, toward maturity into a market with better infrastructure and greater opportunities for film funding.”