Dubai fest hands out first Muhr awards

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The third Dubai International Film Festival ended Sunday with a ceremony for the inaugural Muhr awards.

Oliver Stone, on hand to receive the DIFF Salute for his contribution to cinema and present a screening of his "World Trade Center," gave away the prizes to young Arab filmmakers. "It is hard to make films in the Middle East, but cinema can help bridge those divisions (within society)," Stone said. "This is a good attempt to reach out."

Actors Richard Gere, Robin Tunney, Adriana Barraza, Terrence Howard and Mos Def, Arab film personalities and Dubai royalty also were in attendance. The entertainment highlight was "Jumana" -- a multimedia play projected onto towering sand dunes and water screens.

Algerian feature "Barakat!" (dir: Djamila Sahraoui) took the festival's $50,000 first prize, while Lebanese film "Falafel" (dir: Michel Kammoun) earned silver and Moroccan entry "Why? O'Sea" (dir: Hakim Belabbes) took third place.

Said DIFF chairman Abdulhamid Juma: "Although a film festival's job is to showcase and not fund films -- as it causes a conflict of interest -- we are supporting regional cinema because there is no state financing available. These awards are not in cash, but through support to the filmmakers for their next projects."

Other DIFF Salute winners included Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan and Syrian director Nabil Maleh. Maleh condemned the state sanctions and censorship currently "suffocating" Arab cinema.

"Seeing the liberal values and attitudes in this city, Dubai can possibly be that one place in this vast (Arab) region where a filmmaker is given full freedom of expression," he said.

Among the 115 films screened during the eight-day event was "Kabul Express," the first feature film shot in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The crew completed a two-month shooting schedule in Kabul, under heavy security provided by the Afghan government in the face of Taliban death threats aimed at its Bollywood leads.

Festival officials believe the Dubai festival will help in positioning the city as a serious center for Arab cinema, with a catchment area that includes Hollywood, the Indian subcontinent and the entire Arab region. As Juma said, "We will parallel Dubai's economic achievements in the arena of culture as well."
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