Dubai Film Festival: Cate Blanchett, Martin Sheen Hit the Red Carpet on Opening Night

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The glitzy 10th edition of the Middle Eastern fest kicked off with Hany Abu-Assad’s tense Palestinian thriller, "Omar."

DUBAI – Cate Blanchett and Martin Sheen set the flash bulbs popping on the red carpet as this year's Dubai International Film Festival kicked off on Dec. 6 in the Middle Eastern metropolis with a screening of Omar, Hany Abu-Assad’s tense Palestinian thriller.

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The festival, which has grown dramatically since it first began in 2004, celebrates its 10th edition this year with 70 world premieres (compared to just one in its first year) and opened with Abu-Assad's movie, which bowed in Cannes and was also partially financed from Dubai’s own Enjaaz postproduction fund.

The Dubai cash pool has so far supported 240 films from the region. "DIFF is the house of Arab cinema and Arab filmmakers," said Abu-Assad, who opened the festival in 2006 with his drama Paradise Now, which went on to receive a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination.

With Omar, the Nazareth-based director’s second Palestinian entry for the Academy Award’s best foreign language film, Abu-Assad said he believed his chances this time around for a nomination were slimmer.

"It’s difficult to say, but we have strong competition from the Chilean film Gloria, and there’s a strong Polish entry, plus Wadjda from Saudi Arabia. When Paradise Now was in the competition it wasn’t as tight as it is now."

Sheen, who was the recipient of the festival’s lifetime achievement award, likened the accolade to a flower in the park. "They make you stop, pause and be grateful. You just hope you live long enough to get awards like this. It’s very gratifying and deeply personal. You really can’t anticipate picking one up," Sheen said.

Despite such tributes, he said the "most rewarding experience" of his career was working with his son Emilio Estevez on The Way in 2010. He is scheduled to give an ‘In Conversation With’ Q&A session before departing Dubai.

Saturday evening will be dominated by the IWC Filmmaker Awards, a collaboration between the festival and Swiss watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen that will award one Arab film from four nominations $100,000 toward its production. Now in its second year, the award again welcomed back Blanchett as its jury head.

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Offering the DIFF crowds her usual silent glide down the red carpet, Blanchett only broke from her poses after seeing Michael B. Jordan – at the festival with Fruitvale Station – whom she gave an animated familiar embrace.

"It’s been a crazy time with the film," said the actor on Ryan Coogler’s Cannes-winning drama. "It’s been surprising that it’s kept going like this. But it means a lot to me that it's touching people."

Other figures at the festival’s glitzy opening night included Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan and Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour, both jury members for the Arab Feature section.

Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female director and the country’s first-ever entry to the Oscars, was also named Esquire Middle East’s Woman of the Year.

Later in the week, Naomie Harris remains scheduled to arrive for the screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom following the death of Nelson Mandela, while Rooney Mara and Mark Ruffalo will be landing for the event’s annual charity gala dinner, One Night To Change Lives, which this year will be raising money for Syria in partnership with Oxfam.

Among the items up for auction on the night will be a James Bond-themed Aston Martin Vanquish.

The festival runs through December 14, with 174 films, more than 100 of which are from the Arab world. Major international titles include The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Saving Mr Banks and Bollywood smash hit The Lunchbox.

Among the big name Arab films are May in the Summer, Cherien Dabis’ follow-up to her acclaimed debut, Amreeka, and Rock The Casbah by Laila Marrakchi, which stars Omar Sharif and Nadine Labaki.

The 10th anniversary edition closes with the screening of American Hustle, becoming the first festival to show David O. Russell’s 1970s FBI drama awards season contender.