Dubai film initiative aims for cooperation


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Arab filmmakers are looking to get connected at this year's DIFF. That is the objective of the inaugural Dubai Film Connection, a first-time initiative in the Middle East that aims to encourage and facilitate broader cooperation between the Arab and international film industries.

"The aim is to strengthen the festival as a showcase for the breadth, range and quality of filmmaking talent among directors of both Arab nationalities and Arab origin," said Jane Williams, head of Dubai's Industry Office, which itself became part of the festival structure in 2006.

The heart of the Film Connection is a lineup of projects from the wider Arab world, which are seeking partners and finance from international industry players. The projects must all be in a relatively advanced state of development, with a full script, a producer attached, certain artistic qualities and the potential to cross over to international audiences.

An international panel of 45 advisers received more than 100 submissions and selected 15 projects, four of them documentaries, to participate. "We originally planned to take 10 projects, but in view of the quality, we decided to up this," Williams said.

The selected filmmakers hail from across the Arab world, including Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Many already have partners in France, Germany, Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere. There are four projects each from directors of Palestinian and Lebanese origin. "Both Lebanon and Palestine seem to have very active filmmaking communities, where the quality of work is high," Williams observed.

The large majority are budgeted at under $2 million, but there are a couple of more ambitious titles including "Man in the Middle" directed by Ziad Doueiri ("Lila Says"), a political thriller about an American diplomat's efforts to advance a Middle East peace deal in the early 1990s. Produced by Paris-based 3B Prods. ("Days of Glory"), the movie is seeking $10 million in financing.

The sole homegrown project is "The City That Cares" from U.A.E. director Ali Mostafa, described as a thought-provoking urban drama of tragedy, heartbreak and hope set in Dubai. The film is told through parallel stories of a failed Romanian ballerina, an Indian taxi driver with designs on Bollywood stardom, and a wealthy Arab youth who disguises his background to taste the dangers of the street. With a planned budget of $6 million, producer AFM Films claims this to be the first film of this level of ambition from a local production house entirely shot in the Emirates.

In addition to having the chance to find international partners, participating projects are in the running for three awards discerned by an international jury, each bringing a grant of $15,000, plus free registration at the Cannes Producers' Network, which has lended its support to the Dubai initiative. The Franco-German public broadcaster Arte also is a partner to the event, having donated one of the prizes.

The Film Connection runs Wednesday-Sunday in the Madinat Jumeirah Conference Center. The program includes a session on coaching for producers, case studies on several relevant past projects and panel discussions under the titles Models of Production and Arab Broadcasters in Film. Two speed-dating sessions will aim to put participants in touch with film funds and partners for shooting in the Middle East. To smooth the relationship-building process, participants are invited for daily lunches at the Wharf restaurant and evening cocktails in the Koubba Bar.

In between times, the event is built around face-to-face meetings. "We decided not to go for the open pitch form, which is often a painful process. Instead we've opted for individual meetings," Williams said. On the other side of the table will be about 60 potential partners invited by the festival, including sales agents, representatives of the BBC, Channel Four, Focus Features, HBO and a number of Arab broadcasters.

"The range of projects is quite wide, from introspective documentary to quite ambitious international drama," said Francois Yon of Paris-based sales agent Films Distribution, who will be perusing the Film Connection projects for potential. "We get relatively few projects that come from this part of the world, so it gives a good panorama. It's sure that filmmakers from the Middle East don't shine on the international stage like their counterparts from the Far East, Latin American and Europe, which is no doubt partly due to an image problem," Yon added.

A problem which is central to the aims of DIFF in inviting international industry figures. "I've never been to the region before, and as a filmmaker I think it's definitely good to come. I'm as curious as anyone about this, but it's never a mistake to go there and see how people respond," said Christoph Hahnheiser of Berlin-based Black Forest Films, which is producing DFC project "Man Without a Cell Phone" directed by Palestinian-Israeli Sameh Zoabi.

"I always try to be open to other possible partners, so it's important to be there and meet new faces. I think the trip is definitely worth it, even if we don't come away with any concrete offers. If it's not for this film, it's maybe for a future project," added Hahnheiser, who already has a series of meetings lined up with sales agents and broadcasters. "Man Without a Cell Phone" is a sociopolitical satire about a Palestinian-Israeli youth whose pursuit of girls leads him to discover some realities about the divided community he inhabits. Hahnheiser is looking for 30%-40% of the planned $1.5 million budget.

In a global market with too many films chasing too little cash, the primary need for most Arab-origin filmmakers is money. "There's lots of filmmaking experience across the region, but sourcing financing is very complex," notes the Industry Office's William. "In reality, what we're looking for (with the DFC) is for people to build relationships and partnerships that will bear fruit either now, or in the near future," she concluded.