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Ang Lee's 'Life of Pi' Kicks Off Dubai Film Festival

Hollywood and Arab cinema mix in the Gulf region's premier film event.

DUBAI -- Ang Lee's 3D blockbuster Life of Pi, which enjoyed a red carpet gala to kick off the 9th annual Dubai International Film Festival Sunday night, was a particularly apt title to open the Gulf region's premiere cinema event.

Lee's big budget adaptation of the Yann Martel best seller is, literally and figuratively, about the bridging of cultures as a young Indian boy struggles to survive a voyage on a lifeboat across the Pacific Ocean with only a Bengal tiger for company. Similarly, the Dubai Festival fancies itself as a bridge between the cinematic cultures -- and industries -- of Hollywood and the still developing Arab region.

Life of Pi marks the second Hollywood tentpole to open the festival in as many years, after Tom Cruise-starring Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which did extensive location work in the Gulf emirate, had its world premiere here in 2011.

“This is obviously important, to have the big Hollywood films, the red-carpet glamour,” Dubai Festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma told THR. “But we see ourselves as an international film festival with an Arab heart. More than two-thirds of our films are from the Arabic region. Our primary goal is to build the industry here and connect it with the global industry.”

The Dubai lineup includes several high-profile titles, among them the Anthony Hopkins/Helen Mirren starrer Hitchcock and Andrew Adamson's Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away, which, like Life of Pi, was shot in 3D. And a crowd of global cinema VIPs was on hand for the Life of Pi screening in Dubai: the film's Indian stars Suraj Sharma, Adil Hussain and Shravanthi Sainath strolled the red carpet, along with jury members Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Michael Apted, Kerry Fox and celeb attendees including Colin Firth and Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry.

Regional cinema, however, does have pride of place at Dubai alongside the Hollywood glitz, with such titles as the Iraq drama Bekas from director Karzan Kader and Wadjda from helmer Haifaa Al Mansour, the first-ever film shot in Saudi Arabia by a female director.

Dubai used to have the world of Arab cinema to itself, but the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, launched in 2007 and the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, set up in 2009 between the Doha Film Institute and Tribeca Enterprises, now compete for films and prestige within the region.

“When the other festivals launched -- and we say they were taking place before us, we were scared we wouldn't get any Arab films to show,” said Juma. “But you can see from our lineup -- with more than 50 world premieres and some 70 Arab cinema titles altogether, that local filmmakers want to come to Dubai. We can give them what all filmmakers want: access to the international industry and to a larger, international audience."

While Juma admits Dubai is “in competition” with Abu Dhabi and Doha for films and stars, he insists all three festivals have a common goal: to establish a real film industry in the Gulf region.

“If you look across the Arab world, the only real, functioning film industry is in Egypt,” said Juma. “We need another city in the region that has the infrastructure to support a real film business and it makes sense to have it in the Gulf, particularly in Dubai.”

While Arab cinema has come a long way since the first Dubai film festival back in 2003, Juma said the local industry still has to overcome several major hurdles. “We need an organized film board, we need film schools, there is a lot still to be done,” he said.

The Life of Pi gala, however, which culminated in a beach-front bash and fireworks blowout, shows Dubai has learned one key lesson in the film business: how to throw a fantastic party.