Arab festival calendar is filling up

Newcomers join old lions in creating true season for film

Complete Dubai fest coverage

DUBAI -- While arguably the hottest ticket in the region, the Dubai International Film Festival is hardly alone these days. Five years after its launch, DIFF is now part of an entire season of Arab film festivals, running from October to December each year.

The latest addition to the scene is a spinoff of Robert De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival, which will launch in November in Doha, capital of the oil-rich Saudi state of Qatar. Other newcomers include Abu Dhabi's two-year-old Middle East International Film Festival, which offers filmmakers a shot at several millions of dollars in prize money.

In November, the International Film Festival of Marrakech turned eight years old. Highlights for attendees included a spotlight on British film and dinner with the king.

These upstart players join the oldest film festival in the Middle East, the Cairo International Film Festival, which for much of its 32-year history was the only game in town.

Although Cairo has its work cut out for it as it competes with the oil dollars of its new rival events, it has the advantage of remaining a magnet for filmmakers in the region thanks to its position as the oldest and most successful film industry in the Middle East.

"We welcome there being more film festivals here because it provides more opportunity for Arab films to be known about," said Ezzat Abou-Ouf, president of the Cairo International Film Festival, which this year included a section dubbed Islam in International Cinema. "But it all comes down to who has the most money," he added. "Our festival didn't even have sponsorship money three years ago, let alone oil money."

Indeed, while oil prices have recently hit their lowest levels in four-years, Arab filmmakers have reaped the benefits as a recent run of record prices, combined with the business savvy of booming Gulf states like Dubai, have presented a plethora of new platforms for their films.

In a mark of both the business savvy and deep pockets behind these new Arabian Knights, Dubai's organizers employ a system usually reserved for blue-chip companies to ensure the smooth running of the eight-day event.

DIFF's current concerns include ensuring that guests have a smooth experience from the second they land on the buzzing Gulf-state's tarmac to the moment they leave, and making sure the opening ceremony is not too long.

That's good news for guests at this year's festival, which include Goldie Hawn, Brendan Fraser and Nicolas Cage.

Salma Hayek also will be on hand to lead more stars to the desert for a Dubai amfAR auction to raise money for AIDS research, and top agents from CAA and beyond are expected in town for conferences and the first Dubai film market.

Oliver Stone's "W.," which opened the festival Thursday, plays into the original idea behind the Dubai event of building a bridge through culture, rather than politics, in a post-Sept. 11 world.

"From the Arab and Muslim point of view, we wanted to have an opportunity to tell who we were, not have people say who we are," DIFF chairman Abdulhamid Juma said. "With its 200 nationalities, we thought Dubai was the best place to do this."

Among the 12 Arab films contending for a Muhr Award this year are the world premiere of Palestinian director Najwar Najja's "Pomegranates and Myrrh"; "Thalathoun," a Tunisian epic from director Fadhel Jaziri; "Mostefa ben Boulaid," by Algeria's Ahmed Rachidy; and Abdellatif Abdelhamid's "Ayyam el Dhajar," which is set in the Golan Heights in 1958 as Egypt and Syria attempt to establish the United Arab Republic.

Cairo's heavy focus on films from the region included such titles as "Ramchand Pakistani," a Pakistani film about a local boy and his father who inadvertently stray across the border into India, and the Palestinian feature "Salt of This Sea."

While each country has its own reasons for launching these festivals (DIFF also saw its festival as an opportunity to bridge cultures post-Sept. 11 through the medium of film), other have focused on building or rebuilding local film industries in conjunction with their events.

The rapid growth of the location business for big shoots in Marrakech is seen as one good example. While Morocco is now focusing on taking its industry to the next level through the creation of a film school in Casablanca (It is in talks with the American Film Institute about this).

Cairo, meanwhile, is hoping to circle back and attract film shoots of its own, which has not been a major part of its industry thus far. (It has previously lost out on such big shoots as the Egypt-set "English Patient" to Morocco.)

At the center of its initiative is the new Cairo-based Media City facilities, which were very well received during this year's festival.

Said Ezzat Abou-Ouf: "We are doing everything we can to attract the international industry."