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Widely respected in the region as a leading expert on Arab cinema, Dubai International Film Festival artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali has been instrumental in shaping the cultural strategy of the event since its debut four years ago. A veteran UAE filmmaker in his own right, and the festival’s original programmer, Al Ali recently spoke with THR about his creative vision and hopes for the DIFF, and how he sees its role in shaping and promoting a fledgling film industry gearing up to make its presence felt in the international arena.
The Hollywood Reporter:: What is your vision for the Dubai International Film Festival?
Masoud Amralla Al Ali: I’ve always looked at cinema as something necessary in our lives, and I want to deliver this love of cinema to the audience here, to introduce them to film and filmmakers previously not known in this part of the world. I also want to introduce the idea that you go to the cinema not just because you want entertaining but also to learn. My second aim is to make DIFF a key destination for producers, distributors and critics — to create a space for anyone who is interested in Arabic cinema where they can watch, select and write about film. This year, I want to focus on films that have never been screened and to kick-start their journey into the international arena.
THR: How has Arabic film culture changed since DIFF was created?
Al Ali: I remember in the early years of the Emirates Film Competition, we were receiving copycat entries of Hollywood films; this is all filmmakers got to see here. I feel now that they are finding their own voice, they are digging into their past, their customs, language, folklore and music. One thing I see now is they are very concerned about “who we are” because their environment is changing so quickly.
THR: What themes have you seen this year?
Al Ali: The reality of war is always in the background. I see 2007 as the year of Lebanon, maybe because the war saw filmmakers wanting to speak. Most of the productions are coming out of Lebanon, which is an indicator for us as to which territories are making films. In the past three years, Morocco was top. War is the main subject, and then we come to other issues, like women, society.
THR: How is DIFF encouraging local film talent?
Al Ali: This year we have the Dubai Film Connection for scripts from the Arab world. Ten projects will be selected and supported from initial script to finished film. We also do “hunting and funding” — searching for producers who are interested in these stories. We also have the Muhr Awards, a program dedicated to Arab filmmakers.
THR: What impact has this had on cinema in the region?
Al Ali: DIFF is helping to serve as a window for the region. People think the Middle East is dangerous and full of war. But when they come here, they change their mind totally about the region and about the people. We’ve been portrayed, especially in the Western media, as first simple Bedouin, then rich sheikhs, drinking oil and spending money, and we ended up with a new image after Sept. 11, which was as terrorists.
THR: What other obstacles do you experience?
Al Ali: There are some concerns that the Arab world is not productive, that we don’t have that much film, but if you think in the past five years how many wars there have been in the region — Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan — this reflects on production.
THR: Is censorship an issue for DIFF?
Al Ali: We don’t censor in the festival, at all, but at the same time we have to respect the society here. A film should be shown as the filmmaker intended it, but if the audience is not ready, we have to respect that. We may not select the film, but we won’t edit a film that we do choose.
THR: Do you not feel it’s part of your role to push the boundaries?
Al Ali: This is what we are doing by not censoring. In the past, if a film was not, to a certain extent, acceptable for society but acceptable for us, we screened it, and we have encountered adversity. Also, most people here reject sexuality in films, not the political. With the political side, we are a little bit freer. With violence, it goes through the censor easily, the issue always comes down to sexuality.
THR: Is that the biggest stumbling block?
Al Ali: I feel that, yes. With the society here, this is the thing they reject directly. But on the other side, we also respect religion. We have a cultural section, and we want to build bridges — we don’t want to offend any religion. In general, we believe in freedom of expression and believe filmmakers should screen their films as is. We receive films with nudity, and during the three years we’ve screened them, and little by little we push the boundaries.
THR: What strategies do you hope to implement in the longer term?
Al Ali: I don’t want the festival to just be one single annual event and that’s it. I’d like to have a series of functions or events to keep the momentum, repeating films, introducing events like, say, 100 Years of Egyptian Cinema, so we have a chance to get these films and see them, to air silent films — during the year, events like this should be taking place in Dubai.
THR: What is your assessment for the future development of the region’s film industry?
Al Ali: In 1994, I did my first short film and couldn’t find a single place to screen it in the UAE. Now we have the film festival, and today, in Media City alone, we have 100-plus production companies. I can really see the UAE will be one of the important players in the region. The region is now the focus. Everyone is interested in the Arabs. Last year, we had 58 entries from the Arab world and films dealing with the Arab world done by non-Arab filmmakers. With the growth and interest in Arab world since Sept. 11 we will see more and more.
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