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Local pix soar with Arabian Nights

16-pic lineup is heart of DIFF's inaugural edition

Unlike Scheherazade, the curator of the Dubai Intl. Film Festival’s Arabian Nights section, Masoud Amralla, will not lose his head if the stories he presents fail to grip the audience.

Nonetheless, pulling it together was a difficult task, says the United Arab Emirates writer and filmmaker.

“I found myself wondering how it was possible to prepare a program entitled Arabian Nights within an Arab festival that has chosen Bridging Cultures as its theme.”

The 16-pic lineup is at the heart of DIFF’s inaugural edition, running Dec. 6-11. Fest opener, Moroccan Ismael Ferroukhi’s Mecca-bound road movie “Le Grand Voyage,” is drawn from the sidebar’s titles.

The tale of an elderly Moroccan who forces his secular, French-born son to drive him to Mecca from the South of France, it won the Luigi De Laurentiis award for first film at Venice earlier this year.

Other pics in Arabian Nights range from lighthearted “I Love Cinema,” Egypt’s Oscar submission, to Lebanese Bahij Hojeij’s intense “Ring of Fire,” capturing life in wartorn Beirut, to U.S.-Egyptian Jehane Noujaim’s doc “Control Room” on Arab newsie Al Jazeera.

“The films in this segment are diverse. . .They have an edge and go in many different directions, without any prior intention of identifying a particular geography or agenda,” says Amralla.

Tellingly, there are no pics from the UAE or Persian Gulf countries in general. “We don’t have any feature films yet in the UAE. There was one film but it’s not ready,” says Amralla. He notes, however, that five Emirati shorts feature elsewhere in the fest.

In a bid to foster local filmmaking, Amralla launched the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Film Competition in 2002. It unspools every March.

“The EFC receives annually about 75 shorts. We’ve been around many international and Arab film festivals so there is light at the end of the tunnel, but I don’t foresee any real development taking place without a film school or government backing.”

In a bold move, Arabian Nights includes pics by Western helmers on Arab topics:

  • Italian Saverio Costanzo’s hard-hitting “Private” revolves around a Palestinian family whose house is commandeered by Israeli soldiers.

  • Dutch Albert ter Heerdt’s social comedy “Hush, Hush, Baby!” follows the ups and downs of a Moroccan family living in the Netherlands.

  • Former Newsweek journalist Michael A. Lerner and Dutch docmaker Ludi Boeken’s action pic “Deadlines” revolves around war reporters covering the Lebanon War.

“Arabian Nights as a title gave me the opportunity to feature films that tell both sides of the story, be they by Arabs, Western directors or beyond,” says Amralla.

Many of the Arab helmers also straddle both worlds. New York-based Noujaim cut her directing teeth at MTV. Moroccan Mohammed Asli forged a career as a producer in Italy before heading home to shoot “In Casablanca Angels Don’t Fly.” Hakim Belabbes hails from the Moroccan village of Bejjaad, the setting of his homecoming tale “Threads,” but is now based in Chicago.

Tunisian Nawfel Saheb-Ettaba (“The Bookshop”) studied and worked in film production in Montreal, where he even set up a casting agency specializing in ethnic actors. Compatriot Nacer Khemir (“Bab Aziz”) spends much of his time in France.

All the titles have already traveled the Euro fest circuit, some garnering prizes along the way. But for most, it will be their first outing in the Gulf. Cinema attendance in the UAE has shot up over the past decade, but there is little appetite for Arab fare. Local audiences, laments Amralla, are stuck among Hollywood, Bollywood and Arabic commercial films.

A spot study by Dodona of Dubai screens on June 16 found that just two Arab-lingo films were playing that day against 42 English-language, 11 Bollywood and three French titles. Dubai is home to 42% of the UAE’s screens.

“Our Arab audiences are mainly interested in Hollywood blockbuster movies, but they also like Arabic titles that have done well in Egypt,” says Carly Ramia, of Gulf Film, the UAE’s biggest distributor.

She cites action movie “Tito” and the “Meet the Parents”-style family comedy “Arees,” starring popular actor Adel Imam as an over-protective father, as Egyptian titles that recently have done well.

Noujaim is eager to see how “Control Room” goes down in Dubai. It also will screen at the Cairo Film Festival (Nov. 30-Dec.10). “These will be the Arab premieres of the film in the Middle East. … So far, Arabs in the United States have loved the film because it shows a perspective they often find themselves explaining to their friends in the U.S.”

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