Star power fueling Dubai fest's growth



DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The Dubai International Film Festival plugged into George Clooney's star wattage Sunday, powering the event into the global media spotlight.

A packed and animated morning news conference and the evening's gala screening of the legal thriller "Michael Clayton," followed by a glitzy beach party, may be just the start the event was looking for. It also underlines how the event, now in its fourth edition, can draw stars on the scale of Clooney and Sharon Stone. Gloria Estefan, Michelle Yeoh and Danny Glover are among the other international talents due in Dubai.

"It's becoming easier and easier to bring stars to Dubai," DIFF chairman Abdulhamid Juma said. "To be honest, the first year, we approached a lot of them; this year, they approached us. I think celebrities are important people not only for the DIFF and for Arab cinema, they are important in their own right. Those celebrities have star power, and star power pulls media attention, and they are models. I personally think a festival without stars is a dull festival, because that's what the audience wants, and that's what the media wants."

Juma said that bringing Arab celebrities together with Western stars could be good for the fest's ideal of bridging cultures and could foster future co-productions or collaborations.

For his part, Clooney said there were a couple of reasons he wanted to participate in DIFF. "One is that I said I'd come back when we were working on 'Syriana,' and they were kind enough to let us shoot the film here," the actor-writer-director said. "The other good reason was that I thought this was an up-and-coming, very interesting film festival that gives us the ability -- as I think everyone is attempting to do here -- to cross culture a little bit. We have to get to the point where we start to understand each other a little more, and film and music have always been great ways of doing that."

The Clooney charm coupled with his politically engaged position on certain issues -- notably Darfur -- has certainly cast its spell during this trip. "I used to like George Clooney as an actor. Now I respect him as a human being, because I spent some time with him (Saturday) night talking about a lot of subjects," Juma said. "We are so fortunate to have somebody like him, not only with star power but also mind power. The guy is knowledgeable about the area, and he really wants to make a difference, and he understands the responsibility on his shoulders."

Fest organizers agree that it is important for DIFF to focus on other stars from other parts of the world, such as the bevy of Bollywood bigwigs due in town including Shiney Ahuja, Raima Sen, Sameera Reddy and Irrfan Khan, and South India star Padma Priya.

"It's also good to remind people there are other galaxies in which stars move. The Western system only tends to recognize one set of stars," said Simon Field, artistic director of international programming at DIFF. "Indian cinema is becoming much more global, and gains significant audiences now in the U.K. and the U.S."

This city of superlatives is no doubt basking in the reflected glow from the visiting A-list talent from both East and West. But is there a risk that the celebrities take the spotlight away from the films themselves? "It can over-balance," Field said. "That's part of the whole celebrity culture. But we recognize that stars are really important in the whole machinery of the Dubai film festival, like they are at Cannes.

"We want to get George Clooney and Sharon Stone. We need them. But at the same time it's a matter of using them to make the festival happen, which allows us to introduce films that don't have stars.