Dubai fest transforming UAE into major film player

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MORE DUBAI COVERAGE:
EXPANDING HORIZONS: Dubai fest builds UAE into major film player
MAN ON A MISSION: DIFF's Masoud Amralla Al Ali
DIALOGUE: DIFF managing director Shivani Pandy
LOCAL HEROES: Muhr Awards spotlight Arab cinema
SEEN AND HEARD: UAE filmmakers shine in Emirati Voices

Conceived in 2004 as an event that would promote cultural understanding between the Arab and non-Arab worlds, the fourth edition of the Dubai International Film Festival has a mandate of "Bridging Cultures. Meeting Minds." It is an ambition that can be taken almost literally: Geographically and culturally, Dubai stands at a strategic meeting point between the markets of the Indian subcontinent and those of the rest of the world.

Since its inception, the festival has mushroomed from a modest 74-film event into one that will screen 141 films between Dec. 9-16, including several world and regional premieres. Now established as a young but credible newcomer to the film festival circuit, this year DIFF organizers want the festival to become much more than just an exotic location in which to screen films. Organizers are keen to cement the festival's reputation as an international arena for doing business, while bolstering its mission to help develop regional film with a series of industry-friendly initiatives.

"We set up the Industry Office last year to identify the needs of the Arab world, Arab filmmakers and the guests coming in," says DIFF managing director Shivani Pandya. "When people come in from overseas looking at projects, you want to give them a selection that they will be happy with. You want to make sure they tap into the right resources."

Pandya explains that the approach has two goals: on the one hand, to offer emerging cinema an international platform for expression, and on the other, to connect new filmmakers with established producers, distributors and financiers.

"USA Today called us part of the top 20 festivals in the world, which is extremely encouraging because we know not only is the audience interested in us, the industry folks also know we're serious," Pandya says, pointing to 100% growth in audience numbers from 2004 to 2006. Also, "With respect to industry participation, we had over 1,000 delegates last year, a 100% increase over 2005."

The 2007 lineup is certainly indicative of DIFF's international ambitions. The festival opens with the Middle East premiere of Tony Gilroy's legal thriller "Michael Clayton," and the film's George Clooney will grace the red carpet along with Sharon Stone and other, as-yet-unconfirmed A-listers.

"This conspiracy thriller will be an exciting and memorable way to start off DIFF 2007," says artistic director of international programming Simon Field. "Mr. Clooney's return to the region means we have come full circle, from Dubai as a backdrop for the film 'Syriana' (2005) to DIFF as a platform to showcase his latest venture."

The festival is subdivided into nine programs, with films selected from an original pool of more than 600 entries. Of the nine, DIFF's Cultural Bridge program is a key element, a section designed to highlight issues of conflict and cultural misunderstanding. The gala screening is Fatih Akin's displacement drama "The Edge of Heaven," which took the best screenplay award at the Festival de Cannes earlier this year.

"The Cultural Bridge segment incorporates films from all corners of the world, from both famous directors and new names in cinema," Field says. "It includes some of the best films of the year and ones that explore the urgent issues of our time, optimistically celebrating the bridges people can make across national and cultural divides."

Other sections include the Cinema of the World (which will feature the Middle East premiere of Andrew Dominik's Brad Pitt starrer "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"), the Cinema of Asia, the Cinema of Africa and Children's Cinema. A Destination Documentary section presents nonfiction works dealing with social and political issues. There is also a considerable selection of independent films from India and Bollywood. "Indian cinema is rich and diverse, and we thought it deserved its own section in the festival because of the large and enthusiastic Indian public here in Dubai," Field says.

In addition to these, several new initiatives have been announced for 2007. Rhythm and Reels is a three-day celebration of music in cinema that kicks off Dec. 13 with the world premiere of "90 Millas," directed by Emilio Estefan and starring five-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan. Following the screening, Estefan will perform her first-ever show in the Middle East.

"This film brings the Cuban experience to life at DIFF," Pandya says. "It fits perfectly with our mandate of 'Building Bridges, Meeting Minds' and underscores the international nature of DIFF, which brings together great artists from around the world."

Though this is an international festival through and through, Arabic-language films, and those dealing with Arabic issues, are reassuringly prominent. DIFF's second key aim is to nurture and develop the UAE's very nascent film industry. The Arabian Nights section features films with a link to the region, while Emirati Voices (formerly called Emerging Emiratis) celebrates up-and-coming talent.

Says Masoud Amralla Al Ali, DIFF's artistic director: "This year we expanded the selection (for Emirati Voices) from five to nine films because the choice was difficult to make, and the films were so diverse thematically."

Al Ali has been a key figure in the development of the festival. Along with Pandya, he has been involved with DIFF since its inception.

DIFF was the brainchild of a small group of people that are still with the festival today: Al Ali, Pandya and festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma. It falls under the auspices of the Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority, a government-owned company that also backs the emerging Dubai Studio City.

While the DIFF is funded by a mixture of government support and public sector partners, by Pandya's own admission, the fest is not a profitable endeavor.

"We don't make money, we're a not-for-profit cultural event," she says.

Juma concedes that the festival is heavily reliant on sponsorship. "It is the strength of our relationships with our public sector partners that provides the foundation for hosting the event," he says.

DIFF has become something of a driving force for the local industry. It helped foster the explosion in local filmmaking that occurred after the Emirates Film Competition was launched in Abu Dhabi in 2001. Then, Al Ali bemoaned the lack of entries and all but gave up his own filmmaking. Today, he is hopeful for the future of the Emirati film industry.

"We want to keep delivering a unique festival and experience in this part of the world, and to promote Arab, international and alternative cinema," he says. "(On) the organizing side, we are doing much better because we know the 'secrets behind the stage': how to promote, how to deliver, how to reach. These are all things that make us confident of having a good festival."

This year, more than 300 entries were received for the Arab Film Competition, or Muhr Awards for Excellence in Arab Cinema, which features projects focusing on the Arab world. Last year filmmakers from the UAE and surrounding countries were given cash prizes for their projects, reflecting the aim of the festival to promote indigenous filmmaking.

Dubai's ability to market itself has always been intended to ensure that the focus falls on Dubai not only as an emerging player in the film industry, but as a destination in itself. It's a post-oil strategy that is serving the Emirate well. The petrol dollars have poured in, turning Dubai into a massive construction project, with new skyscrapers and hotels seemingly opening every week. One charge leveled against the Emirate has always been that its cultural side has been marginalized by a frantically expanding economy. In a typically bold retort to naysayers, the Dubai machine has rolled on regardless, and created one from scratch.

Despite all the progress, Pandya is circumspect in her appraisal of DIFF. "I think it is at a very nascent stage," she says. "It's starting out, but what is really exciting is the rate of growth. I don't think any other city is really seeing that. So everything is happening simultaneously -- the festival's positioning was to put Dubai on the map of the industry, and that has happened to a certain extent. We've got the infrastructure, we've got Dubai Studio City coming up. The idea is to get all the different aspects in place, and then, before you know it, we'll have a really flourishing film industry."
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