Future of Dubai International Film Festival in Doubt

Credit: Neilson Barnard / Getty
Dubai Film Festival

Rumors that the festival — the highest-profile film event in the Middle East — has been canceled have circled the regional industry.

The future of the Dubai International Film Festival, the biggest and highest-profile film festival in the Middle East, is in serious doubt. 

A series of unconfirmed reports arose earlier this week asserting that the festival, which ran each December and first launched in 2004, had been canceled by the Dubai Creative Clusters Authority, the government agency that oversaw the event, with its entire staff set to depart in the coming weeks.

All attempts to speak to various members of the festival's staff in the proceeding days have been met with unanswered calls, texts and emails, while at the same time a growing number of festival industry partners have become increasingly worried as they too failed to find any clarification.

There had been earlier concerns about the festival following reports that it hadn't yet announced a date regarding the next edition of the event, while many had heard that its ever-present and popular pavilion in Cannes hadn't been booked for this year. According to one Dubai-based exec, they had heard of "major restructuring," and another said that there were issues with the festival's longstanding venue, the Madinat Jumeirah. One insider told THR that he'd been informed that most employees served their last day on April 17, with senior management due to remain until May 1. On Wednesday, an anonymous source sent THR an email saying staff had all been presented with letters informing them that the festival "would be terminated." 

If true, the news – rumors of which have already sent shockwaves around Middle East cinema – will be a major blow to the Arab film world, with DIFF's departure set to leave a gaping hole in the regional industry. 

While DIFF isn't the oldest regional film festival (that honor goes to Carthage, although Cairo has had more editions), it has grown to become, by some distance, the most prominent, thanks to a highly respected team of managers and programmers, an ability to attract major international films alongside the leading Arab titles, and a market that had helped launch some of the most recognizable names in Middle East cinema. 

Highlights from 14 editions of DIFF include the world premiere of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in 2011 (the film was largely shot in Dubai) and the screening of Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour's groundbreaking film Wadjda, which had begun it journey as a script at the festival's since-closed spinoff, The Gulf Film Festival, and was supported by DIFF's own Enjaaz fund. Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad twice opened the festival, with Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013), both of which would go on to be Oscar-nominated, while the list of major Hollywood names who graced its red carpet over the years includes Tom Cruise, Colin Firth, Dev Patel, Cate Blanchett (who attended multiple times), Morgan Freeman, Martin Sheen, Emily Blunt and Patrick Stewart. 

DIFF had hit rough waters before, undergoing drastic downsizing in 2014 that saw it scrap the Dubai Film Connection co-production platform, one of the major elements of its market, alongside its Asia/Africa section. But in recent years it appeared to have bounced back. 

In an ironic twist, the reports of DIFF's demise come on the same day of a major historical cinematic moment in the Middle East. Wednesday will see the first public cinema open in Saudi Arabia since a 35-year ban was lifted in December (an announcement that was actually made during DIFF in 2017).