DUBAI -- When Amal Al-Agroobi and Hana Makki, two filmmakers in Dubai, began raising money for a documentary on autism in the United Arab Emirates six months ago, they did not get much attention from government or film festival grant sources. They needed $15,000 to start filming, with a plan to raise the remaining $45,000 for postproduction costs later.
After futile attempts to raise money through conventional methods, the two turned to a new means of financing projects in the region through crowdfunding online -- trying to obtain money on the Internet.
Rather than using Kickstarter or Indiegogo, which are popular global online platforms that gather money from the public for a variety of projects, they turned to a new platform called Aflamnah, which means "our movies" in Arabic. It started last July in Dubai.
"I had never tried crowdfunding before, but since this is a social documentary, it made sense to involve people in funding the project to raise awareness about autism and gain an audience for our film locally," said Ms. Agroobi, the co-director of "A Brain That Sings."
Ms. Agroobi, who is of Emirati and Syrian origin and lives in Dubai, said, "If local crowdfunding didn't exist, we wouldn't be filming right now,"
Access to funding is still difficult in the region. Most entrepreneurs turn to a handful of venture capitalists or angel investors for money. Bank lending also remains tight, and for those in creative fields like filmmaking, raising money can be very difficult.
Filmmakers rely on grants from large film festivals, like the Dubai International Film Festival, or a few government grants, but competition is fierce.
"The problem here is that there are few funding bodies and at the same time our culture is looking for mainstream films, so it was difficult to pitch a local documentary about children with social needs when all you see playing in cinemas are Hollywood movies," said Ms. Makki, the co-director of the Arabic-language film.
"In the Mideast, people are ashamed of having children who are different and there's a culture of absolute silence regarding special needs, " she said. " We want our film to change that stigma and to encourage the country to provide necessary services to help these families."
Through Aflamnah, they raised the $15,000 for "A Brain That Sings" to tell the story of living with autism through the eyes of Mohammed, a 19-year-old Yemeni, and Khalifa, a 6-year-old Emirati. One of the themes of the film is how music therapy helps children communicate in a world they don't understand.
Filming will continue until the end of May. Then fund-raising will begin again for postproduction costs to complete the film.
"We will probably turn to crowdfunding again to raise money for postproduction," said Ms. Makki, who is Yemeni and British. "You would think it would be easier to get access to funding through some sort of grant, because Amal is Emirati, but it's been difficult for us, and it's crowdfunding that made our plans a reality."
Aflamnah is modeled after Kickstarter, a global platform that started in 2009 in New York to gather money from the public for creative projects.
Before Aflamnah started, some entrepreneurs based in Dubai were turning to global platforms like Kickstarter to try to raise funds, instead of banks or venture capitalists.
Anna Stillwell and Erika Ilves, who are both based in Dubai, raised their target of $25,000 in just five days on Kickstarter for "The Human Project," a multimedia book on the challenges for the survival of humanity after disasters like pandemics and asteroid impacts.
"On the Internet, if your ideas are sound and you're willing to break a sweat and stick with it, you can find people scattered all over the world who want to back you," Ms. Stillwell said.
By the end of their campaign in November 2011, "The Human Project" had almost doubled the goal and raised $46,000.
"We're staring at the computer screen and receiving $1,000 from a Bangladeshi-Iranian we've never met and $250 from a South African woman," Ms. Stillwell said. "Crowdfunding is a platform that brings ideas and interested financial backers together, and with such diversity, it's clear that crowdfunding is not just a passing trend."
Today, there are more than 100 clones of Kickstarter worldwide and Aflamnah is one of the first to cater to entrepreneurs for creative projects specifically in the Arab world.
"We're still testing the waters to see if crowdfunding really takes off here, but there is demand for more financing of creative projects in this part of the world," said Vida Rizq, co-founder of Aflamnah who used to manage film productions for Dubai International Film Festival.
Aflamnah, which has 31 projects listed since it started in July 2012, takes 6 percent of money raised and asks clients to pay a $100 upload fee that is used to market their project. The largest single contribution so far was $5,000, and the average contribution is $140.
The idea is catching on, with another entry to the crowdfunding market by the end of this month: Zoomal, whose mandate also is to focus on projects in the Arab world or by Arabs.
"We need something like this in the Arab world to support concept ideas, unlike venture capital firms that need to see a track record of success in a company that's already making money before they invest," said Abdallah Absi, an experienced entrepreneur and founder of Zoomal. "It's still a new model in a market that is immature, but there's a clear demand for this kind of financial support at a very early stage that simply doesn't exist yet."
The site is in Arabic and has received financing from four prominent venture capital firms in the region, including Wamda Capital, which is based in Dubai.
"Crowdfunding not only lowers frictions to access capital, but allows the creation of projects that could significantly improve societies in the Middle East," said Habib Haddad, chief executive of Wamda.
Challenges still remain in terms of educating the market on the benefits and safety of pledging money online.
But though it is still too early to determine the success of crowdfunding in the region, one thing is clear: The demand for new avenues of financing is strong.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.