Volunteers report for festival duty in Dubai



DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- It's not quite the crack of dawn when the first volunteers at the Dubai International Film Festival arrive, but at 8:30 a.m., it's still a good hour and a half before a lot of the paid workers will make it to the site.

Considered by many to be the backbone of the festival, the volunteers, mostly unpaid students, take up various positions at DIFF -- working in the movie theaters, helping out with industry figures, running for the VIPs -- fueled by nothing more than enthusiasm and a love of film.

"I think most of (the volunteers) are at the age where they want to take risks, and that they want a challenge, and so they come with this crazy drive in them that we just can't resist," said Souad Saleem, a volunteer "HQ Captain" at the festival and a media student at Zayed University.

Volunteer manager Bob McCarthy agrees.

"We have a great understanding with Zayed University, Dubai Men's College and Dubai Women's College," McCarthy said. "And so they hear from returning volunteers who come back all fired up from working at DIFF who tell them, 'Go do it -- you'll really love it.' "

An army of about 630 workers, volunteers at DIFF are primarily attracted by the chance to see movies and an opportunity to gain a priceless insight into the world of film, according to a survey conducted by McCarthy.

"We're trying to create a film culture here at DIFF, and we do everything we can to try and get volunteers next to filmmakers, in an educational way," McCarthy said. "Volunteers also know that there's a really big chance that they're going to see a lot of the movies -- everyone who volunteers gets vouchers to see as many films as possible."

Volunteer Ali Alghas, a 19-year-old media student at Dubai Men's College, works as a "floater" at the festival.

"If they need somebody at the information desk, I go and help there," Alghas said in explaining his role. "If they need it at registration, I go there -- I fill up the gaps. It's hard work, but at the end of the day I feel happy, and I feel as if I've achieved some valuable experience, which is something I can't get at college."

Working at a star-studded film festival also has other fringe benefits, of course.

"I've seen lots of celebrities up close," Alghar said. "Miss Sharon Stone -- I'm one of her big fans, and Gloria Estefan and George Clooney -- I was really close to them, it was great fun."

Up close to Gloria Estefan? Now there's something worth getting to work early for.