Muhr Awards spotlight Arab cinema


EXPANDING HORIZONS: Dubai fest builds UAE into major film player
MAN ON A MISSION: DIFF's Masoud Amralla Al Ali
DIALOGUE: DIFF managing director Shivani Pandy
LOCAL HEROES: Muhr Awards spotlight Arab cinema
SEEN AND HEARD: UAE filmmakers shine in Emirati Voices

The Muhr Awards for Excellence in Arab Cinema has become a major focus for festival organizers since it was launched at the 2006 festival. Though modern Arab cinema has often been overwhelmingly political, focusing on war and conflict, entries this year have reflected an interest in culture and society.

Named "Muhr" -- Arabic for "young horse" -- the awards honor Arab filmmakers in feature, documentary and short-film categories. The awards are also seen as a key way of exposing cinemagoers to Arab film.

"In our second year, the response from filmmakers has been overwhelmingly positive," says DIFF managing director Masoud Amralla Al Ali of the entries received for the 2007 edition, which is screening entries from across the Arab world, including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia.

"Over 300 films have been submitted, and a number of those selected are world premieres," he adds. "The high caliber of films demanded that we increase the number of films in each category from 10 to 12. And it is an indicator of the trust between filmmakers and DIFF that they chose to show their films here."

Judging the entries will be an illustrious panel comprised of prominent filmmakers and critics, including Egyptian novelist Miral al-Tahawi and American director Michael Cimino.

The Arab film section includes a feature competition with productions from all over the Arab world. This year the competition has added several new categories, including best actor, actress and scriptwriter as well as best Emirati filmmaker, best Emirati female filmmaker and best Emirati talent. These categories carry cash prizes of $20,000.

In the best feature category -- which was won last year by Algeria's Djamila Sahraoui for her feature "Barakat!" -- a cash prize of $50,000 will be awarded to the winner. The best short will take home $30,000.

Entries must be directed by a person of Arab origin and focus on Arab history or culture.

While the reality of war "is always in the background," according to Al Ali, a number of entries focus on family life and community: "Balad el Banat" (Girls) follows four roommates beginning their adult lives; "Shoft al Nojoum fe al Gayleh" (And I Saw Stars) traces the history of boxing in Tunisia; and Amin Matalqa's "Captain Abu Raed" tells the story of a janitor who befriends a group of children who believe he is an airline pilot. It was recently announced that "Captain Abu" has also been selected for the Sundance Film Festival.