Dubai film fest builds a niche

In only its 5th year, event is the top Arab cinema showcase

Related: Dubai weathering rough economy.  Read story here

Barely a day after the main Dubai International Film Festival press conference to announce the details of the fifth edition, which runs from Dec. 11-18, neighboring Gulf state Qatar made headlines with its announcement of the Tribeca Film Festival Doha, launching in November 2009.

With the addition of the Qatar event, the region now has a number of respected film fests that are drawing more and more global attention, including the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi (which means the tiny United Arab Emirates now has two major film events within months of one another) and Egypt's Cairo International Film Festival.

If the Qatar/Tribeca alliance is further proof that the Mideast is serious about carving out a sizable niche for itself in an increasingly global film sector, DIFF is leading the charge. Following a successful fourth edition that saw the well-oiled event reach new levels of both style and substance -- George Clooney immediately raised Dubai's global profile when he made an extended appearance last year -- the latest edition looks to capitalize on its newfound and well-earned buzz.

Indeed, in just the short time it's been around, DIFF has become the envy of burgeoning festivals everywhere by attracting A-list star power; creating a consistently diverse, provocative program; and demonstrating a tireless conviction to an Arab filmmaking world virtually ignored by the West.

"Most festivals take 10-15 years to mature, to perfect their vision and to gain the respect of the industry," says Masoud Amralla Al Ali, DIFF's artistic director and director general of the Muhr Awards. "We're proud of what we've been able to achieve at DIFF in five years. We have focused on providing a valuable experience to industry guests on the one hand, and being innovative in our cinema programming for the cinema lover on the other hand."

"I think we've seen a tremendous growth in the scope of the festival, in the quality of films and filmmakers," adds Hal Sadoff, head of ICM's international and indie film department, who will be making his third trip to DIFF. "It's turned into a festival to rival Cannes or Toronto and all of the others in the short period of time that it has been in existence, and the city continues to grow."

In an effort to commemorate DIFF's five-year milestone, the festival has commissioned three projects: Focus 2008, an industry booklet in collaboration with the Marche du Film/Festival de Cannes, with a special report by the Nielsen Co., including a dedicated segment on emerging trends in the Arab world; a collectors' DVD of eight Emirati films screened at DIFF during the previous festivals; and a limited-edition book celebrating the golden years of Egyptian cinema.

"We have integrated new elements to make our initiatives stronger and further our mandate of promoting Arab cinema," says Shivani Pandya, DIFF's managing director.

One new element that edges DIFF even closer to a Gulf's version of Cannes' Marche du Film is the launch this year of the Dubai Film Market. The market's objective is to raise the visibility of world cinema, with a specific focus on Arab, Asian and African filmmakers. The Dubai Film Market is expected to facilitate the exchange of rights, services or product ownership and simplify the transaction of content trading.

The main highlight of the market is the introduction of a "revolutionary" process to acquire audiovisual content, through Cinetech -- a digitized film library that will include feature films, documentaries, short films and TV content. Initially, the library will contain about 200 titles. Cinetech will also categorize the listed content under different labels and provide the opportunity for interested professionals to interact with the sales agents and rights holders.

"Dubai Film Market is a concept that resulted from the absence of an international content market in the region," says market director Ziad Yaghi. "Dubai is already the region's hub for media and technology and has established itself as a source of incomparable infrastructure for filmmaking and production. The Dubai Film Market is a natural progression as it is designed to gradually establish Dubai as the regional center for discovery and trade of content that will benefit the rapidly evolving film media and technology industry at large."

A thriving market could very well be the final piece of the puzzle for DIFF. So where does it go from here?

"The festival's commitment to Arab cinema and filmmakers is holistic," Al Ali says. "We believe that Arab cinema is best served by doing the best job of the festival overall. So we are continually working to make DIFF an internationally well-known festival. We offer a platform for the Arab world to show off what it can do. When that platform is shared with the best in film from countries as diverse as the U.S., South Africa, Russia, Korea and many others, it is a powerful message that Arab cinema can stand beside the best in the world as a peer."