Dubai Fest Chair Talks Censorship, Balancing Arab Cinema and Hollywood Glitz

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images For Dubai International Film Festival
Abdulhamid Juma

Abdulhamid Juma tells THR about content warnings that the fest offers for films as he lays out his plans for the next decade.

DUBAI Dubai International Film Festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma has since 2006 steered the Middle Eastern event into the mainstream using Hollywood glitz and glamor to bolster its global profile while putting Arab filmmaking at its heart.


He has navigated the festival through tough times and political upheaval in the region, while facing down questions of interference and outside pressures created by mounting an uncensored event in an Islamic state.


"We are proud we don’t have any censorship at this festival," Juma told The Hollywood Reporter. "You have to make sure you respect the audience and, as long as you don’t surprise them, that is OK."


Juma said the festival introduced a system of content warnings for each film -- a more detailed descriptive version of the MPAA ratings system -- to help people make their own judgment.


"People here don't necessarily understand the age ratings that they have in America," Juma explained. "So we have extra ratings. We have a 15 + category and we will tell the audience that the film contains violence or bad language. Or [films] for [people] over 18 would say 'contains nudity or scenes of a sexual nature.'"


The Emirati national said because he is from the city and he is a father, he is fully conversant in the pressures festivalgoers face and the need to help them make up their own minds with as much information as possible at their fingertips. "If they want to take their children, that has to be their choice," Juma said, adding that "it’s working perfectly well."


There have been rumors that religious leaders in the region have put pressure on the organizers’ financial supporters to rein in "Western" excesses onscreen, but Juma said that he has not once been questioned about what he played at the festival or what he was planning to program for next year's event. 


It is, however, clear that the Hollywood presence in Dubai this year is more muted. While previous events saw A-listers jet in to enjoy the region's high-end hospitality and the unquestionably luxurious service (as well as lucrative appearance fees), the star power this year has been low wattage.


Festivalgoers and insiders say this was not for lack of trying, but a combination of the pressures of awards season, work responsibilities and the proximity to the Thanksgiving holiday made for too many calendar clashes.


Juma said Dubai is also aiming to refocus to put more emphasis on the Middle Eastern film industry while still ensuring the festival remains a platform for U.S. titles.

"When you set out to celebrate Arab cinema and bring in Hollywood stars, you are always at risk of overshadowing your own focus," Juma noted. "(But) Hollywood is always going to be number one in the world."


Juma pointed to titles such as David O. Russell’s American Hustle, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K. and Robert De Niro, and the inclusion of such U.S. movies as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Ben Stiller and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. He said they are indicative of the festival’s desire to continue to be considered a platform for Hollywood movies.


While most of the acting talent from the major U.S. films was unable to travel and add to the media frenzy, Juma pointed to the filmmakers’ commitment to make appearances at the fest, something he says lends the event credibility.


Juma also put Egyptian cinema front and center at the festival in an attempt to go some way to making up for the country’s lack of a major movie shindig as it finds a way forward after the tumultuous events of 2011 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the revolution that dismantled Hosni Mubarak's regime.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, gritty Egyptian revolutionary drama Winter of Discontent, directed by Ibrahim el-Batout and starring Amr Waked (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Farah Youssef and Salah Al Hanafy, was the recipient of Dubai financial backing and is the country’s hopeful for the best foreign-language film race. The movie also played at last year’s festival here.


Said Juma: "I wanted personally to celebrate Arab cinema with a celebration of Egypt and its cinema to fill that gap as a thank you for Egyptian cinema."


Juma and his management team decided two years ago that the 10th edition of the festival should go back to its roots and initial ethos of being an "international filmmaking festival with an Arab heart."


Midway through the 10th edition, Juma said that while he thinks the festival has grown into a more "complete" event that has established itself in the diaries of festival regulars on what has become “a long list” of events to go to, it still has much work to do.


He cited the growth of the event’s market activities, the rise in participating venues and the increased volume of industry panels and discussions as being signals of things going in the right direction.


But Juma also said they are already piecing together a strategy to ensure the next 10 years of the festival will see continuing growth, shoring up its ambitions to be a global gateway for Arab films.


He is aiming to target countries in Asia and Africa, such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Somalia, which he describes as being places in need of the financial boost Dubai could offer. "I think there are big similarities for those countries to when [the Emirates] started out in the industry," Juma said. "And there is a similarity from a religious point of view." (Like Dubai, all of the countries on the list have a majority of Muslims.)


But while expansion and outreach is looking toward Asia and Africa, established territories from those regions, such as China, Japan, South Korea and South Africa, are not on Dubai’s future agenda. "We already have an established relationship with China and those other countries are established," Juma said. "India doesn’t need our help. We want to go on providing them with a platform, but it is the less-established places we want to help and grow."