In the desert, winds of change

First Dubai market scores high marks; Jordan film fund eyed

Complete Dubai fest coverage

DUBAI -- As the Dubai International Film Festival headed to the finish line Wednesday, organizers and participants were exhausted but enthused after a week of screenings, meetings, feasting and, yes, deals.

Begun Dec. 11 at the Madinat Jumeirah resort complex and in cinemas around the city of 4 million on the Arabian Gulf, the fifth edition of the festival carried the motto "Bridging Cultures, Meeting Minds."

Festival director Abdulhamid Juma and DIFF artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali, dressed in elegant white robes, oversaw attention to every detail for a diverse global guest list that included everyone from veteran Hollywood stars like Danny Glover and Nicolas Cage to up-and-coming filmmakers from the world over.

The Dubai Film Connection, organized by Jane Williams, honored six of 21 Arab filmmaker finalists, including several DIFF returnees. Awards totaling $118,225 were granted to help finish their next works. As the rest of the world struggles to find film financing, Dubai offered a major increase from last year's $70,000 prize money with help from Desert Door of Kuwait and Bahrain Film Production.

And talk of even more regional money was hinted at in the halls of the elegant Madinat Jumeira Arena, home to the DFC and DIFF's inaugural Film Market.

On Wednesday, the Royal Film Commission of Jordan told The Hollywood Reporter that it plans to launch a film fund in 2009 for small- to midsize films from the region, welcoming filmmakers to participate in the fifth edition of its Sundance screenwriting workshop each October.

"Now that we've been training filmmakers for four years and developing projects, it's time to start giving them the money to make their dreams and ours come true," said Nada Doumani, the commission's communications and culture manager.

Three DFC films this year are set to be shot in Jordan beginning in 2009. George David, the commission's deputy GM, said that Jordan can double for many countries around the region and that production services and security are a top priority.

"We can offer 20%-25% budget savings, which is important in these tight times," David said. 20th Century Fox executives have made three recent visits to Jordan to explore the possibility of shooting some of its forthcoming feature "The A-Team" there, David said.

The week's series of DIFF panels sparked lively and candid discussion on such topics as the challenges of regional financing, the future of creative documentaries and traditional and alternative modes of distribution.

In DIFF's inaugural film market, where organizers said that 58 meetings had occurred through Wednesday afternoon with a "95% success rate," some filmmakers chose the venue to publicize details of their most recent deals.

For example, Dubai-based Xpanse announced it will begin to shoot the emirate's first CGI film, about a cyborg on a spiritual journey, and London-based Starfield said it had optioned "Six Suspects," the next novel by Vikas Swarup, on whose last book "Slumdog Millionaire" was based.

The first market revolved around a state-of-the-art digital screening facility, the Cinetech, which allowed buyers to watch the 211 films screening on-demand.

Throughout the eight-day market, Arabic films dominated the list of the 10 most-viewed titles. Two films vied throughout the week for the top spot, with the Palestinian feature "Pomegranates and Myrrh" ultimately winning out over the second-place drama "Casanegra" from Morocco.

The third-most-viewed film -- and an exception to the Arab dominance -- was Swedish director Mats Hjelm's "Black Nation," which made its world premiere at the festival. The film focuses on black masculinity in America.

The fourth-place film, "Masquerades," tells the story of an arrogant Algerian villager, while the Iran- and Iraq-set "Niloofar" -- the story of an intellectually curious 12-year-old girl who seeks an education in a village where girls are forbidden to go to school -- rounded out the top five.

"Niloofar" was produced by one of this year's DIFF Lifetime Achievement honorees, Rachid Bouchareb. All together, there were 1,186 screenings at the market with only three of the 211 titles not screened at all.

Many buyers did 9-to-5 shifts at the Cinetech, marking a welcome break from the hectic schedules at many traditional markets, which feature set-time screenings, where exhausted buyers often screen films around the clock.

After scheduled meetings and screenings had ended, guests packed one party after another under the stars at the Jumeirah or on the beach facing the sail-like Burj Al Arab.

Wine and spirits flowed and local delights such as shawarma stood in colorful -- and delicious -- contrast to standard film festival fare. The sushi and oyster bar offered at Tuesday night's party hosted by jeweler Harry Winston stood out.

Hollywood executives such as Hal Sadoff of ICM and Alexi Boltho of Paramount mingled with the likes of Kuwaiti exhibition mogul Hisham Alghanim, head of Cinemascape, and Antoine Zeind, chairman of Egyptian movie giant United Motion Pictures.

Montreal-based creative agency Circo De Bakuza was, for the first time, behind the planning for DIFF's biggest parties, beginning with the opening night, when a dancing horse, an acrobat and clips of past DIFF films entertained 2,000 guests on hand to see Oliver Stone's "W."

Founded by Vincent Drolet in the spirit of the ancient god of wine, Circo De Bakuza promised an unforgettable closing-night party for 3,000 guests Thursday at an amphitheater at the Dubai desert resort of Bab Al Shams, an hour from the Jumeirah.

"We are going to leave Dubai's guest with a story, an experience they will never forget, highlighting the celebration of film," Circo De Bakuza GM Roshan Soomarchun said.
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