Dubai volunteers keep wheels turning

680 youths working at this year's festival

Complete Dubai fest coverage

DUBAI -- The unsung heroes of any film festival are the local teenagers volunteering around the clock to attend to the every whim of industry big shots and wannabes flown in from around the world.

The 680 mostly Emirati, Indian and Pakistani youngsters who help make the Dubai International Film Festival happen are no exception.

"As always, they're enthusiastic and totally important," Nandita Das said at a special volunteers-only news conference where the Indian actress-director was mobbed for autographs and pictures by kids in basic black with "Volunteer" stitched on their backs.

Mayram Usman, 16, is a first-time DIFF volunteer who said that she wants to study business at university but also is mulling a screenplay. "It's not about meeting the stars, it's about making the festival happen. That's what's satisfying," she said.

Bob McCarthy, who has managed the volunteers in Dubai for three years, said he looks for applicants "who can think on their feet and think smart," interviewing them twice before offering them a chance.

"We're trying to find volunteers who could be the staff of the future," said McCarthy, who works for the South Asian arts festival Masala!Mehndi!Masti! in Toronto when he's not in the Gulf.

Making sure the volunteers are fed and have the mobile phone number of the driver of the festival shuttle is a priority for McCarthy. "Letting them ride with the guests they serve is important," McCarthy said, adding "The meal tickets are nearly as popular as the movie tickets."

It's a challenge to schedule the volunteers around the Muslim feast of Eid, which happened just before DIFF began, McCarthy said. "Training can take 30 days, so we needed to ask applicants about family and holiday conflicts," he said.

One volunteer offered a paying job with DIFF turned it down because she was too busy at school. Sara Abdulla, an Emirati with roots in Colorado, said she turned it down "because a job requires a job description."

"I enjoy moving around. The jobs they were offering would have tied me to a computer," said Abdulla, a jurist on the Giffoni children's film festival in Italy in 2007. Abdulla said she's not interested in becoming a filmmaker but really likes independent cinema and loves the buzz of the festival. She plans to come back next year.