Fest takes lead in Arab cinema

At 4, Dubai event shows signs of growth, potential to teach

Just about everything in Dubai seems to be under construction and the Dubai International Film Festival is no exception. The event, which wrapped its fourth edition Dec. 16, has grown rapidly into what most agree is the premiere showcase for Arab World cinema. The fest attracted more world premieres than ever, pulled in its biggest star haul, and saw the nascent Industry Office cement a reputation as a valuable workplace for those interested in the region's output. And a dazzling closing-night party out in the desert amid the ruins of an old fort provided a fitting climax to rival anything in Cannes.

The latest block in the DIFF edifice is the announcement of an expanded array of awards for 2008, with the addition of an Asia/Africa competition for best feature, short and documentary, plus a separate section for animated film.

"This is probably the best exposure that we can have. This festival is really putting the spotlight on Arab cinema," said Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch, whose romantic comedy "Whatever Lola Wants" had its world premiere here.

"Dubai has really propelled itself into the top division of film festivals. It's very well organized with good films and good talent," said David Thompson, outgoing head of BBC Films and soon-to-be independent producer. "They've got the money, and they've got the networking abilities to bring people together. They've selected some great projects and created a talent campus atmosphere that is very vibrant."

Thompson said he's particularly interested in exploring cinema from the region. "The Middle East is such an extraordinary focus of attention in the rest of the world, and yet we know very little about the cinema there, and very little about that part of the world from filmmakers within it. There have been dozens of films about Iraq, Palestine and so on (made by outsiders). I'm really interested in exploring the voices of people from within," said Thompson, who is tracking two or three projects he came across here.

The Industry Office assembled a strong lineup of projects from the wider Arab world for the inaugural Dubai Film Connection, a matchmaking initiative between filmmakers and potential partners. Thompson highlighted some of the gripping personal stories he heard from participating filmmakers. Director Mohamed al Daradji, who brought his project "Mother Hussein," a journey through strife-torn Iraq, recounted his experiences shooting in that country. During filming, he said he was kidnapped by one side, beaten up and taken to hospital, kidnapped from hospital by another side, then kidnapped by the Americans. "Talk about dedication, it puts the rest of our experiences to shame," Thompson said.

The event's guiding principal this year was "Bridging cultures, meeting minds." Dubai, with its melting pot of ex-pats from across the globe, is well placed to offer challenging cross-cultural juxtapositions. The fest's headquarters is located opposite a "winter wonderland" where kids can skate on an ice rink by a huge Christmas tree under a blazing sun. Arabs in traditional dress stroll blithely past, while workers from the Indian subcontinent scurry about.

The festival's programmers also provided some challenging visions, such as Nick Broomfield's Iraqi massacre reconstruction "Battle for Haditha," one of several programming choices that no doubt pushed the envelope for local audiences. "You can criticize it here, but it's paradise here in terms of openness for this region," said one European journalist based in the Gulf.

That openness extends only so far. There are still constraints on free speech that Western journalists find hard to swallow.

The festival also has at least one area that is off-limits: It has yet to screen an Israeli film, and there doesn't seem much chance of that happening any time soon. "That's one bridge not yet ready to be built," an insider said.