Dubai ends on high note

'Under the Bombs' wins top prize

Cultures were bridged, minds met. As the fourth edition of the Dubai International Film Festival drew to a close Sunday, organizers looked back on a mission accomplished.

"I feel we had really a nice year," DIFF artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali said. "This is the best, I think, of the four years. We had a good selection of films. I've been receiving comments all the time that this year films were great."

The festival's climax came Saturday, when Philippe Aractingi's timely relationship drama "Under the Bombs" took the top prize at a gala ceremony to present the Muhr Awards for Excellence in Arab Cinema. The Franco-Lebanese co-production, which chronicles an unexpected love affair between a Christian cab driver and a Shiite woman from Dubai, won the gold award in the narrative feature category.

In the documentary category, Franco-Egyptian director Karim Goury's "Made in Egypt" claimed gold. The film chronicles the director's attempts to learn more about a father he never knew.

"This year, our jury had difficulty choosing winners because of the superlative quality of most of the submissions, both from a story and production value standpoint," Al Ali said. "We intend for the Muhr Awards to instigate the production of more Arabic films in the region. The Middle East is full of creativity, and our roster of winners proves that unequivocally."

So how far has DIFF lived up to its motto of bridging cultures and meeting minds? "This is a long-term goal. But mixing all these nationalities with the films, the different ideas and backgrounds, creates a platform for people to discuss openly. This is the achievement," Al Ali said. "(The festival guests) will learn more about us, about the Arab world, and the Arabs will learn more. Through the medium of film, which I think is a powerful medium, you can achieve something."

Al Ali said 90% of the Dubai screenings had sold out. "It makes us very happy to know that the audience is accepting the type of films we are showing," he said.

Jury members praised the quality of movies put before them.

"We've seen some very good films. I think (this festival) is very important for this region, because they are just coming to cinema," German director Margarethe Von Trotta said. "Before, it was all business, but they've realized you can't live solely on business, and they are looking to introduce some culture."

On the industry side, the new initiatives, such as the Dubai Film Connection and industry panels and consultations, found a receptive audience. "The filmmakers and producers found it very active and very useful; there were really productive meetings," Al Ali said.

Added Chris McDonald of Toronto's Hot Docs documentary festival and market: "The infrastructure has grown, which has created more opportunities to meet with the local film community, which was lacking before."

With the event's ambitions to emerge as shopping place for Arab cinema, the question is: Do you buy in Dubai? Inevitably, the festival's appeal remains largely niche, with programmers from other festivals and local distributors the main source of activity.

A trio of Dubai movies are in advanced negotiations for Middle East distribution: the Jordanian picture "Captain Abu Raed," directed by Amin Matalqa; Nabil Ayouch's tale of a New Yorker who becomes a belly dancer "Whatever Lola Wants"; and the Algerian War epic "Intimate Enemies."

Other award winners Saturday included Nada Abou Farhat, who was named best actress for her turn in "Bombs," while the actor nod went to Nadim Sawalha for "Captain Abu Raed," and who also had a small roll in the Arabian Nights Gala entry "Lola."

Belgian filmmaker Borhane Alaouie, who was born in Lebanon, took the screenplay prize for the Franco-Belgian-Lebanese co-production "Khalass." The film looks at three friends struggling to find direction in postwar Beirut.

Ali Mostafa was named best Emirati filmmaker. Based in Dubai, his credits include "Under the Sun," which won best Emirates film at the annual Emirates Film Competition.

The best Emirati female filmmaker award went to the United Arab Emirates' Nayla Al Khaja, who at age 25 already is an established poet and journalist.

The Emirati talent award went to Mohammed Saeed Harib, creator of the hugely popular animated TV series "Freej."

A complete list of winners can be found at THR.com.
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