Q&A: Shivani Pandya

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As the managing director of the Dubai International Film Festival, Shivani Pandya directs both the strategic and operational aspects of the event as a whole. Shivani has been with DIFF since its beginnings in 2004 and contributed to the successful management of the project plan while overseeing the marketing and operations departments. Prior to her current role, Shivani was the executive director of the festival. Here she speaks to the Gulf News' Kellie Whitehead about the logistics involved in the planning and operation of such a huge event in the Dubai calendar.

Q: How many people are required to execute an event such as this?

A: As you can imagine, we start planning each festival at least a year in advance, this is in regard to the programming and artistic direction. We operate throughout the event duration with approximately 250 staff. I don't think people would realize the sheer numbers involved in something of this magnitude. We recruit from other countries also for the festival. It is difficult to retain staff within Dubai as we offer a lot of temporary contracts and this isn't always conducive to those already in the country as they will have permanent jobs. I would say at least 120 to 150 extra staff are recruited as the festival commences. These people then need training, so it's fair to say that the actual HR aspect is fairly big on its own. The key to the planning is to structure and prioritize any initiative well.

Q: Can you define the target audience for DIFF?

A: We cater to so many people artistically. We need to appeal to film lovers in Dubai, the UAE and across the Gulf as well as industry insiders of fellow festival programrs and those who travel to the festivals around the globe picking up content for their own audiences back home. The response we get is fabulous. The Dubai International Film Festival enjoys an audience as receptive as one would expect from a more mature festival. We are very audience-centric and not afraid to take risks. We try to be as interactive as possible and hopefully challenge the minds of those who attend our screenings. Our whole mission of a "cultural bridge" is so diverse, and essential to what Dubai really is, and this is truly what DIFF brings to the table. We have a real crossover in nationalities attending films from different nations. It's as if we have become a trusted brand to our attendees, we have a lot of return customers, if you like, who are ready to take on more and more each year.

Q: The festival has grown from strength to strength -- do you have any stand out moments?

A: It would be very hard to choose a particular thing or moment, but I think I find the sheer growth of DIFF particularly memorable and what the festival and its team have achieved in such a short space of time. We are very lucky amongst organizations in that we get to see the fruits of our labor every year. We are also very lucky to have seen this immense growth so quickly, from the introduction of the festival office to the festival that you will see this year. We started purely as a public festival, and now we also cater to the industry. We are now a launch pad for Arab filmmakers, and whilst there are other festivals in the region, none focus as much on Arab content and filmmakers as we do at DIFF. We launched the Film Connection in 2007 to take a look at projects that people from the region were working on and providing again, a platform to offer the chance to present these projects in order to achieve funding to get started, sales or even distribution for finished projects -- an opportunity, basically, for filmmakers to expose themselves to the industry that was previously lacking. Out of five previous projects presented, three are now in production.

Q: Which DIFF achievement are you most proud of?

A: I think I am most proud of setting a trend amongst the Arab world. The Gulf has never been a recognized region for homegrown cinema until now. This festival and its initiatives has really changed this perspective. A lot of regionally produced films now get shown at other international festivals. People from across the globe are now calling us to help them with their own film-based endeavors. We have really put Dubai on the film map, in the first year that we set up, it was a very different story -- people weren't so quick to return our calls. We have shown that we are serious about this, we have a solid festival and have gained a lot of respect.

Q: Do you think Arab cinema can gain the international following of other regionally based work -- Bollywood for example?'

A: Firstly, much of the Bollywood audience outside of India are actually Indian expats living overseas. These films tell stories very typical to their region, but are expanding their scope. Due to their popularity, large studios from overseas are looking toward Asia and China to expand their scope. With Arab cinema, further international appeal is definitely possible. This could be in no small part due to the European funding that is coming in. Many Arabic filmmakers have strong ties with France, Spain and Italy, for example. These creative's are bringing ideas back into the Gulf with them. Their work is in turn showcasing local stories and heritage elements of their culture in a way that is very internationally appealing.
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