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This story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In December 2004, a film festival launched in a Middle Eastern city that, while having some rather grand aspirations and a fair amount of money to throw around, wasn’t exactly a known entity on the international scene. Almost a decade on, and with the Dubai International Film Festival (Dec. 6 to 14) about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, this event, much like the growing metropolis around it — in which numerous record-breaking skyscrapers, hotels, shopping malls and man-made islands shaped like palm trees have since sprung — is an entirely different beast.
The inaugural DIFF opened with the screening of Moroccan drama Le Grand Voyage and had one world premiere in its schedule. This year, it has 70 world premieres and will be the first festival to get its hands on David O. Russell‘s hotly anticipated American Hustle. In 2011, the festival opened with the world premiere of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Tom Cruise‘s $695 million-grossing actioner that had been mostly shot in and around the city. It was a defining moment for the city and the festival.
“I think that during the past 10 years we’ve surprised ourselves,” says Shivani Pandya, DIFF’s managing director. “Apart from having a great program of films, we’ve got our film market, in which a fair amount of business is going down. It’s the only one in the region and is very comprehensive.”
The festival kicks off this year with Academy Award nominee Hany Abu-Assad‘s Palestinian thriller Omar, which was made with help from DIFF’s own postproduction fund, Enjaaz.
“DIFF has served as a hugely influential platform for Arab filmmakers and talent, enabling their work to be leveraged on an international scale and spearheading the ever-growing cinema movement within the region,” says Jamal Al Sharif, chairman of the Dubai Film and TV Commission.
With a combined population of around 422 million, of which more than half are under 25, the Arab-speaking world has enormous box-office potential. But issues including funding and distribution, plus a reliance on Hollywood output at the box office, have restricted local cinema. Indeed, for many in the United Arab Emirates city with the largest population, DIFF is the only week of the year when they get to watch local independent films, most of which aren’t affected by the otherwise-prolific censor’s knife.
Despite perhaps having surpassed its own expectations, DIFF is likely to grow further in the next 10 years, especially on the business side. Says Shivani: “We wanted to establish and help the Arab industry, and I think we’ve done a fair amount. But there’s much more that we can continue to do.”
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