Dubai Film Festival Founders on Its Success: "We Started With the Idea to Bridge East and West"

THR_Masoud Amralla Al Ali and Abdulhamid Juma_111A7121 - THR - P 2018
Celia Peterson

Abdulhamid Juma and Masoud Amralla Al Ali are set to receive THR's inaugural Arab Cinema Personalities of the Year award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The Hollywood Reporter’s inaugural Arab Cinema Personalities of the Year Award, presented in cooperation with the Arab Cinema Center, goes to two names behind arguably the Middle East’s biggest cinematic success story.

Since launching in 2004, the Dubai International Film Festival has become the most important date on the regional calendar, not just by bringing international filmmakers to the United Arab Emirates, but also providing a growing and supportive platform for Arab talent, helping launch a number of careers along the way.

Twice Oscar-nominated Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad has opened the festival on two occasions (2013’s Omar also was backed by DIFF’s postproduction fund), while Saudi helmer Haifaa Al-Mansour (Mary Shelley, Netflix’s upcoming Nappily Ever After) began her journey at the event with her acclaimed 2012 debut Wadjda. Then there’s the multitude of major Hollywood names who have been lured to DIFF over the years, not least Tom Cruise, who in 2011 brought Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol for its world premiere (he famously performed his most preposterous stunts hanging off the side of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure in the world).

Along the way, other regional film festivals have come and gone, but DIFF has sailed through choppy waters and emerged more influential than ever (thanks in great part to its film market, launched in 2007). At the helm of DIFF are chairman Abdulhamid Juma and artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali, a man known as the “godfather of Emirati film,” having launched its first-ever festival, the Emirates Film Competition, back in 2001.

Ahead of receiving THR’s award in Berlin, the pair discussed the secret behind the ongoing triumph of what Juma bills “an international film festival with an Arab heart.”

When the Dubai Film Festival started 15 years ago, did you have any idea how big it would grow and how important it would become for regional filmmaking?

ABULHAMID JUMA We knew we were starting something that would have an effect somehow on how we look at the world and how the world looks at us. Nobody knew at the time how big it was going to grow or what shape it would take. We started with the idea to bridge East and West, especially after the terrible events of 9/11. On top of that, there really was another view to start a film business in the gulf. We wanted to be a magnet for young people who wanted to tell their stories from this part of the world. Given all that Dubai had already done in terms of being a hub for so many things, why couldn’t we be a hub for exporting Arab stories and Arab cinema to the Arabs themselves and to the rest of the world?

MASOUD AMRALLA AL ALI Well, let me go before that, specifically, to 1997. A journalist asked, “What are the obstacles of having a cinema movement or a cinema industry in the UAE?” At that time I told him it was wrong to even ask that question because I didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. Today I think we are talking about something totally different. And I didn’t expect it!

In that time, other regional film festivals have come and gone, with DIFF being the only one to have remained a steady force. What do you attribute that to?

JUMA I think it’s because we’re proud to be the opener of that gate. Of course, a lot of festivals also tried to do the same. I think they added a lot of value, and I am personally really disappointed that some of them aren’t there anymore, because they helped us create that industry. Not one city can do all of that. We started alone, everybody joined, and then suddenly we were alone again! But things are starting again, there is a new film festival in Egypt, there is a film festival in Jordan this year, so the hope and the dream is still there. How long they will survive, how long we will survive, nobody knows.

Have you ever had any fears about DIFF’s own future?

JUMA We were hit by the economic crisis and everybody was asking if Dubai could sustain itself as a festival, is it really important? We overcame that. We were hit when major festivals landed in other cities, and we survived that. And remember: We’re always coming at the end of the year. But it’s not about just surviving, it’s about surviving and staying at the top. But I think that, as we speak today, we were blessed that those challenges came our way because that’s really what made us stronger and stronger.

How has the Arab industry changed as you’ve grown? Have you noticed the quantity and quality of regional films to choose from each year increasing?

AMRALLA AL ALI Everything changed — not just the Arab industry. We started screening on film, which requires a hell of a budget. The number of films we now receive is reflective of the digital world. To pick 15 short Arab films for DIFF, we watch almost 900 submissions. But the quality also changed and there’s so much new blood coming in. You hardly had a new name enter the industry before. But now the new blood outnumbers the established names.

What’s next for DIFF?

JUMA It’s really about doing the things you are strong at: helping produce more films and making sure the right films come to the [United Arab Emirates]. At the same time, you want to venture in new directions, because when festivals keep doing the same thing, somehow they fade away without them knowing. And we don’t want to be in that situation. We need to keep bringing people back again and again. Sometimes it’s necessary to rock the boat. We don’t want to wake up and say, “We should have changed three years ago, but now it’s too late.”

Any personal highlights over the years?

JUMA The Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol year was very special for us, because it was shot in Dubai and we had the world premiere as our opening film. So it was a sign that what we were doing was probably right.

AMRALLA AL ALI One of the highest moments for me was the first IWC Schaffhausen Award [a $100,000 prize presented to a feature-length fiction film project in development by directors from the Gulf countries]. We had Cate Blanchett and so many people from the industry coming to give an award for a script from this part of the world. That was a very touching moment, because I felt like we’d been watching all these people on our screens but never thought they’d come here to read our own scripts. At the same festival, the next night was the screening of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film Wadjda. And we’d been with Mansour for a long time, showing her first short and watching how she’d grown. You witness every single thing happening. That was a great moment.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 17 daily issue at the Berlin International Film Festival.