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Thoughts on 2008 Dubai International Film Festival.

Held from December 11th-18th in Dubai’s luxurious Madinat Jemeirah’s conference center embedded in an upscale tourist resort with screening in other venues, the Dubai film festival is racing to be number one in the region. Catering to about 750 official participants who attended as guests and numerous other professionals, the program featured 181 films from 66 countries. More than 20 well attended industry events and panels were held ranging from marketing and distribution issues to case studies of films featured at the fest, accompanied by daily gala presentations, receptions, networking sessions, and a large number of press screenings and conferences. Unquestionably, the most important new addition for 2008 was the Dubai Film Market which I will cover in a different article. Given the resources of the Dubai Emirate the superb organization of the festival and the hospitality extended to the participants came as no surprise.

Like the Dubai Film Market, other initiatives of the DIFF serve to foster the rapid development of a film industry in Dubai, including but not restricted to the Dubai Film Connection, a funding circuit for Arab directors, the Producers Coaching Program, the DIFF Young Journalist Awards, the new Muhr AsiaAfrica competition, and a new animation component. The UNICEF Workshop, a well funded Cinema Against AIDS event, and a new FIPRESCI award for a feature in the Arab Muhr competition complement the industry development effort. DIFF’s professional standing was further enhanced by a DVD compilation of short films from the emirates, a most welcome industry manual, produced by DIFF with the Cannes Festival on global film market trends including a section on the Arab region along with superb background material provided to all participants.

Under its official motto of ‘Bridging Cultures and Meeting Minds’ the Dubai Fest sets its primary focus on Arab, African , and Asian film production without neglecting other regions. Thus a special section on one country was programmed, that is Italy in the 2008 edition and outstanding productions from other international festivals presented in the Cinema of the World section. To name but some titles Oliver Stone’s W as the opening film; AUSTRALIA (USA 2008, Baz Luhrman); BLACK NATION (2008, Canada-Sweden, Mats Hjelm), BLINDNESS (2008, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Fernando Meirelles); CHE (2008 USA, France, Spain Steven Soderbergh); ENTRE LES MURS (2008 France, Laurent Cantet); LOVE AND OTHER CRIMES (2008, Germany,Serbia, Austria, Slovena, Stefan Arsenijevic); KING OF PING PONG (2008, Sweden, Jens Johnson); SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE ( 2008, UK, Danny Boyle); THE WRESTLER (2008, USA, Darren Aronofsky).

Among films from the Arab region were first class productions on par with the best we see from other countries. Yet there was also a surprising absence of noteworthy productions , except for some shorts, from the Gulf countries, as symbolically expressed in the sudden cancellation of a press conference on Golf productions. Among my favorite films ranked the Egyptian EYE OF THE SUN by Ibrahim El Batout, who has worked as a documentary director and producer in most war torn regions over the last 15 years. Both concept and execution of the film are superb. Here is the story of a young girl from a cab driver’s family in a rundown section of Cairo told with a small budget without the sets or special effects while using few professional actors in a gritty neo-realistic fashion. EYE OF THE SUN seems much closer to the tenets of dogme film making than to traditional Egyption cinema. It is a film that will also play well for Western audiences. SALT OF THE SEA by the Palestinian born filmmaker Annemarie Jacir is the story of an American-born woman who returns to her homeland Palestine. She discovers in the occupied territories and Israel degradation, deprivations, homelessness, and the visible and invisible walls separating the Palestinians from the Israelis and is deported in the end. Jerome Cohen Olivar , a Moroccan film maker trained in the United States presents a horror tale based on the old legend of the spirit KANDISHA avenging women who have been wronged by men. Olivar succeeds with a cast of extraordinary actors like Hiam Abbas and David Carradine in making complex story plausible and presenting different levels of reality astutely.

The Dubai International Film Festival has been staged as a glamorous celebrity studded event for five years now with international stars and directors. In the 2008 edition the guests included Danny Glover whose company Carrie Productions backed one of the best films screened at the fest SALT OF THE SEA; Harry Belafonte; Deepa Mehta whose HEAVEN ON EARTH was featured at the fest , Goldie Hawn and Salma Hayek gracing the AIDS gala and Oliver Stone as well as Nicolas Cage .. Each year larger awards are granted and as of 2008 a new Muhr prize for the best films from Africa or Asia has been established ranging from $50.000 for a feature film to $30.000 for best short. It also speaks for the success of DIFF that in several cases outstanding Arab films were premiered in Dubai before they entered the international festival circuit

According to the chairman of the Dubai Fest, Abudulhamid Juma, DIFF has the goal of being among the five most important international film festivals within the next six years, thus playing the role of Venice or Cannes of the Arab Middle East region, For ICM’s Hal Sadoff Dubai has already turned into a rival of Toronto and Cannes.

Yet in spite of Dubai’s incredible achievements in re-positioning its infrastructure towards a service economy and rapidly expanding its internet, knowledge, and media sectors, some questions remain. Financially well endowed Emirate states do not believe in the division of labor, rather competing with each other in establishing sophisticated media structures as rapidly as possible. The Arab region is served by numerous film festivals and a new one was just announced. We have the two-year old Middle East International Film Festival at Abu Dhabi, with awards worth several million dollars. There is the Gulf Film Festival, the International Film Festival of Marrakesh, and Cairo’s International Film Festival now in its 32nd year. In November 2009 the Tribeca Film Festival Doha in Quatar will open. Certainly, worldwide there is an expansion of film festival and a regional platform and market for Arab productions is indeed necessary. But there is a stark discrepancy between the few films produced in the Gulf Emirates and the numerous festivals serving them, a discrepancy that may be overcome once film schools are firmly established in that region, funding secured with censorship no longer an issue.

Claus Mueller
New York Correspondent


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