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Film fans across the United Arab Emirates had a tricky decision to make Wednesday evening, with both the closing party of the Dubai International Film Festival and the Middle East premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Abu Dhabi happening simultaneously and just an hour’s drive away from each other.
The film’s desert scenes set on the planet of Jakku were filmed in Abu Dhabi early this year over a 10-day shoot, and to celebrate its involvement in the biggest cinematic event of the year, the U.A.E. capital hosted the regional premiere.
As DIFF’s closing party kicked off nearby and much of the Force Awaken‘s cast and crew walked the red carpet in London for the European premiere, Stormtroopers took over Abu Dhabi’s vast Emirates Palace hotel while outside various props and set pieces, including an AT-AT foot and a landspeeder, were displayed.
Meanwhile, the Dubai festival drew to a close with a screening of Adam McKay’s awards-tipped The Big Short after eight days of activity in the Madinat Jumeirah, the event’s central hub.
Earlier in the day, Leyla Bouzid’s As I Open My Eyes, a French-Tunisian drama set during the Arab Spring, took the fest’s top prize for best fiction feature; Mahmood Soliman won both best director and best non-fiction feature honors for We Have Never Been Kids, which looks at the lives of a group of Egyptians 10 years on from his 2003 documentary Living Among Us; and Lofti Abdelli won the best actor award for Borders of Heaven, while the best actress prize went to Menna Shalabi for her performance in Nawara.
The 12th edition of the event welcomed the return of its co-production platform, the Dubai Film Connection, after a year’s absence, and with it $80,000 worth of grants to regional film projects. Annemarie Jacir’s Palestinian satire Wajib was the main winner, taking the $25,000 DIFF award the same week it won the Asian Pacific Screen Awards film grant and the Tribeca Institute’s development award. Jacir’s previous feature, When I Saw You, was the Palestinian foreign-language Oscar entry in 2013.
Among the guests in attendance over the week were Catherine Deneuve, who received the festival’s lifestyle achievement honor, as well as Dev Patel, Richard Dreyfuss, Jacob Tremblay, Eva Longoria, Hany Abu Assad, Terrence Howard and Michael B. Jordan.
Tremblay, the young star of the drama Room, which opened the festival, was in Dubai when he discovered he had received a SAG Award nomination for best supporting actor and told The Hollywood Reporter that he celebrated with a “banana split and a chocolate fondue.”
Another visitor receiving good news in town was director Steve Martino, who first heard The Peanuts Movie was nominated for a Golden Globe while in the desert on a camel.
Arguably the most buzzed-about film of the week was local production Zinzana, an accomplished Tarantino-esque thriller directed by first-time Emirati helmer and recent UTA signing Majid Al Ansari and backed by Abu Dhabi-based banner Image Nation. The film was one of 11 Emirati features in the lineup, a record for the Dubai event.
Speaking to THR, Al Ansari explained how he first picked up the script on the Black List while an intern at Image Nation and pitched himself to direct. “Part of my job was to read scripts and recommend them,” he said. “I read Zinzana and loved it. But I was actually on holiday in Spain and saw this article saying that all Emiratis under 30 would have to do National Service. So I thought: I’ve got nine months. And if I do National Service, that means it’s going to take me two to three years to make a film, and I’ll die if it takes me that long!”
Although Al Ansari is due to begin his military service in January, Zinzana, which launched across U.A.E. cinemas during the festival, has already attracted international attention, with a source telling THR that a major announcement would come soon.
With its Middle East launch scheduled for 2016, Netflix made its DIFF debut, with chief content officer Ted Sarandos outlining his plans during an “In Conversation With” The Hollywood Reporter. The streaming video giant’s arrival was the talk of the entire festival, which has long tried to solve issues of distribution and ensure that its Arabic films enjoy a life beyond the event’s own scheduling.
Sarandos explained that he was looking to find a “really great scripted series about contemporary life in the Middle East,” with sources saying that Netflix would be returning to Dubai in March to run pitch sessions with local filmmakers.
Among the most excited by Netflix’s imminent arrival was Jamal Al Sharif, head of Dubai Studio City, who met with Sarandos twice this year to discuss opportunities and is hoping to boost Dubai’s financial appeal to attract the company’s regional productions.
“We really want regional filmmakers, storytellers, scriptwriters to come to us,” Al Sharif told THR, shortly after revealing a behind-the-scene sizzle reel for Star Trek Beyond, which was partially shot in Dubai earlier this year. “Netflix wants to hear the best stories and best scripts. And whatever they pick, they’ll develop and bring back to Dubai, which by then will help them with the rebate, soft incentives, hard incentives, maybe even investment into some of these projects that potentially will be for the global market.”
While Dubai hopes to draw Netflix’s production dollars, the big-budget project that landed just down the road has already cemented the U.A.E.’s position in entertainment history.
Whether Star Wars returns to Abu Dhabi remains to be seen. But even if Disney does make another Middle East pit stop for a few intergalactic desert scenes, it’s clear that in terms of U.A.E. cinema, 2015 — with The Force Awakens, Furious 7 (which also shot in Abu Dhabi) and now Star Trek Beyond — is going to be hard to beat.
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