Dubai International Film Festival Chairman Reflects on the the Event's Growth and Progress (Q&A)

 Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images For Dubai International Film Festival

As chairman of the Dubai International Film Festival Abdulhamid Juma has played a leading role in creating from scratch a regional film event that now has a global profile. That profile was raised even higher this year with the premiere of Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol. The opening night gala brought Tom Cruise back to the UAE after shooting portions of the film in Dubai earlier this year, making DIFF the envy of upstart film festivals everywhere. In just eight years the event has become a force in the Mid East film industry, and appears poised to become even bigger as the region’s film market continues to mature. Juma recently took time out from a very busy schedule to discuss Cruise’s impact on the festival, the future of the Mid East film sector in the wake of the Arab Spring and the biggest challenges DIFF faces going forward.

The Hollywood Reporter: How would you say the festival is going this year? Are you pleased?

Abdulhamid Juma: The festival usually has three sections: The opening, whatever happens in the middle, and then the closing. But this year we have four: We have the first Tom Cruise festival [laughs].

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THR: How important was the premiere of Ghost Protocol to the evolution of the festival?

Juma: It’s not just about opening with a big bang, which many festivals can do. It’s also about the relationship to what we’ve been doing the last eight years in terms of really creating a festival and an industry andattracting people to come shoot their films in Dubai. That’s the business side of what it means. They came here and shot the film and a lot of business went into it, a lot of UAE [United Arab Emirates] talent was used on the film. But once it was shot everyone thought ‘that’s it, they’re gone’ and kind of forgot about it. There was a gap. So when we brought the film here everyone thought ‘oh yes there’s a festival there. This is very good for the city.’ So that’s from a business perspective. From the festival point of view we really reached a new gear this year by bringing Ghost Protocol back. As a result we have more interest from international media and regional media. And we have more interest from the audience – from people living in Dubai who want to go see the film because they might recognize something they’re familiar with. We see a lot of films set in Los Angeles or New York but to see a film set in Dubai is veryexciting for the people who live here.

THR: I found it interesting that the movie is set in Dubai, Russia and India. The three global film markets that have tremendous potential and are growing at a very rapid rate. It’s as if the film was intentionally targeting those markets.

Juma: If you look at what’s been happing in the last five or six years the biggest box office has come from international markets. So that is a very interesting question. Hollywood is closing that gap between East and West but keeping the Hollywood brand intact.

THR: And the Dubai Film Festival can play a role in that growth process?

Juma: That was built into the strategy and our objectives from the start.  What is happening now was part of the dream. It’s becoming reality. But what’s happening now is interesting because it opens doors for the business of filmmaking in this part of the world.

THR: Is there something about this year’s festival that you are particularly proud of?

Juma: We are proud of what we call the engine, or the kitchen of the festival: The Dubai Film Connection, where a lot of films are financed or helped to complete their financing. We’ve been doing that for four years now and the cycle is completing because a lot of those films are coming back or going to other festivals. Another thing I’m happy about this year is that we are getting closer to Indian cinema. We had a world premiere of an Indian film [Ladies Vs. Ricky Bahl] which is difficult because they usually open in India and Dubai at the same time. We also have 70 Arab films which is great because we never thought we would get that many since the festival comes at the end of the cycle. We’re also excited about the 20 workshops on everything from script writing to financing and acting.

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THR: Can the UAE or the Middle East in general create an indigenous film industry that’s on the same level as India?

Juma: We do have that in the region but it’s mostly confined to Egypt, which has a very rich film history. But I also think that Egypt went too commercial in the late 90s. What’s happening now in Egypt [with the Arab Spring] is creating a new mindset and in terms of filmmaking we don’t know what is going to happen. We are optimistic that it will be great for the film industry and the Gulf. But no one knows what will happen. Also, in the future more films might come out of the UAE because there may be more funding available here than anywhere else. But we’re talking maybe ten years from now. There is an Arab film industry coming but I think it will take a different direction than what has happened from the 70s until now.

THR: What is the biggest challenge facing the festival?

Juma: It is really a competition with ourselves to get better. I’m already thinking about what we can do next year. Next year will be our ninth year so I’m starting to think about where we will be at in our tenth year. That will be a good way to judge if we have delivered. The other challenge is that I don’t want this festival to go too commercial because I think we are here to help independent film and find new talents in the Arab world and from Asia and Africa. It’s fine to open with a Mission Impossible but I don’t want us to like it so much that we forget why we exist in the first place.

THR: Are you pleased with where the festival is at now in its evolution?

Juma: To be very honest, yes and no. We have started strong, but we always had a ten-year time frame and it’s happening the way we planned it, but at the same time we have to be very humble about it because this reallystill just the beginning.

THR: Speaking as a film fan, what is your favorite movie? What inspires you?

Juma: The movie I try to find when I’m really depressed, when I’m really negative is Gandhi. When I want to just be nasty to somebody I just put that movie on and somehow it calms me down. It makes me think ‘you know what? Is it really worth it?’ And then I just let it go. This has been happening for years, even before I became the chairman of this festival.

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