Dubai fest: Desert storm

The festival continues unhindered by the emirate's economic woes

The Dubai International Film Festival kicks off Wednesday on the heels of some of the worst news the emirate has had in years. After all, it has been just weeks since the emirate's chief investment vehicle, Dubai World, had to ask lenders for a six-month delay on its debt repayments.

How will that impact the festival?

It won't, says festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma: "We had a great festival last year, despite the global recession. Our festival remains strong and unaffected."

While he acknowledges that the worldwide financial downturn has compelled the DIFF to work more efficiently, he adds, "Our fundamentals are well in place and we are expanding on our areas of strength."

Still, that's a somewhat more somber note than the festival struck when it launched in 2004. While Middle Eastern cities like Cairo already had film festivals, DIFF filled a void for Arab filmmakers by presenting their works to a large international audience -- a strategy it plans to continue this year.

"We've always stuck to what we initially set out to do," festival managing director Shivani Pandya says. "We identified our key objectives, goals and supported it with in-depth market studies of the region's needs."

To forward its goals in the face of newcomers that might be stealing some of its thunder -- like the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi and the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar -- DIFF has put together an Industry Office focused on training and talent development initiatives, including workshops on screenwriting, producing and co-productions, in collaboration with such established international experts as TorinoFilmLab, EAVE and ARTE. This is all part of DIFF's aim to nurture the indigenous industry.

Festival artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali, a filmmaker, understands how important that is and how much difference it can make to the international presence of Arab filmmakers who have already benefited from such initiatives.

"Cannes is no longer a dream for Arab talent," he says. "Our directors have some amazing stories to share and they are adapting to the film medium with complete ease."

Among Arab films that have become festival darlings, he cites "One Man Village," "Amreeka" and "Every Day is a Holiday."

Equally important to furthering awareness of Arab film has been the market that accompanies the festival, which was launched last year.

"The Dubai Film Market in its first edition introduced Cinetech, a digital library with facilities to screen videos, leave comments for sales agents and request DVD screeners," market director Ziad Yaghi says. "It's the first of its kind in the region."

In the inaugural edition, the library featured 211 films from 64 countries -- predominantly from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Access to those titles helped result in about 50 sales, Yaghi says.

Reps from 20th Century Fox International, Hot Docs, ARTE France, Fortissimo Films, Paramount Vantage, Rotana, NBC Universal and ZDF were among those attending the market, which has grown in size and stature.

But these are first steps and fledgling efforts that have yet to show their long-term sustainability.

"There is an absence of a system for cinema in the Arab world, with a lot of aspects such as presales or distribution not in place," Al Ali says. "A film festival can only kindle an interest in cinema; it needs the support of external institutions and agencies to facilitate all-round development of a cinema industry."

That's a process Al Ali admits will take many years to fructify. "The success of Arab filmmakers internationally draws attention to the need for a system. These efforts will not be in vain, but we have to be patient."

Still, he says, there are promising signs of change.

"That's the six-year advantage," he notes, referring to the time period since the festival was created. "We've established a relationship of trust with the filmmaking community from the Middle East, Asia and Africa."

The proof: For the 2009 edition, DIFF received 1,700 submissions from around the world, of which more than 165 films from 55 countries will be screened during the eight days of the fest that opens with "Nine" and closes with "Avatar."

One of those submissions will receive a gala screening and stands as perhaps the best proof of what DIFF has achieved.

"City of Life," one of 31 movies receiving world premieres, is the first multilingual feature written, produced and directed by the Emirati filmmaker Ali F Mostafa. The film was shot in Dubai.

Aimed at both local and international release, it revolves around three characters: A privileged Emirati male, a disillusioned Indian taxi driver and a Western woman whose lives are about to collide.

"It's gratifying to see films come full circle, from the point they come in to the Dubai Film Connection as a script or work in progress to go on and premiere at DIFF," Al Ali says. "It clearly means we're on the right track."
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