Arab fest calendar jammed with events

While the world watches the political developments in the Middle East, artistic developments in the region are set to unfold in the coming months. A plethora of film fests — Haifa, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Antalya, Marrakech, Damascus, Cairo and Dubai — are all skedded to unspool by year’s end.

The marketplace has become so congested that in July, three of the leading Arab fests — Dubai, Cairo and Rabat — decided to launch the Arab Film Fest Guild.

“This guild will establish an alliance to ensure the rapid development of Arab film and to help it gain international prestige,” says Abdulhamid Juma, Dubai Intl. film fest’s chairman. “We need to talk and communicate.”

The need to talk and communicate was, of course, the basis for the launch of Dubai’s film fest in 2004.

Operating under the banner “Bridging Cultures, Meeting Minds,” the fest has matured in its fourth year from the celeb-hungry jamboree to become arguably the premier showcase of Arab cinema. The Muhr Awards, introduced in 2006 to celebrate excellence in Arab filmmaking, are the richest prize on the Arab film fest calendar, with a total kitty of more than $300,000.

While promoting local cinema is a stated aim for many of the region’s fests, equally important for the newer kids on the block is promoting their cities on the world stage.

That is particularly true for Abu Dhabi’s inaugural Middle East Intl. Film Festival, which unspools Oct. 14-19. With the intention of becoming the Davos of the film world, Abu Dhabi fest officials have been investing money into a series of measures that may revolutionize the Arab film industry.

Its three-day Film Finance Circle not only hosts a pitching program for aspiring filmmakers but also an international competish for debut and sophomore helmers that will pledge significant coin to their next project. The Middle East fest could become the location for all aspiring producers and film execs in the region and beyond.

“We’re not going to set parameters. I think you’ll see from the commitment of the festival in terms of its scope and budget that they have plenty of resources,” says fest director Jon Fitzgerald. “There aren’t going to be any limitations. It’s a great opportunity to really take that support of independent filmmakers to a whole new level.”

While Dubai and Abu Dhabi officials deny any sibling rivalry, the sheer number of fests in the region has made it ever harder for fest directors to carve a niche for themselves.

Egyptian cinema, which celebrates its 100-year anniversary this year, has long been the center of the Arab film biz. Cairo, whose 31st edition unspools Nov. 27-Dec. 7, is the Arab world’s only A-list fest and as such the only one to host an international competition. Film execs from the bustling city, dubbed “the mother of the world” in Arabic, can sometimes look on in bemusement at the goings-on in the Gulf.

“We welcome all festivals, but they need to be well-organized and have the intention of opening doors for filmmakers. You shouldn’t just hold a festival because you have some money,” Cairo fest veepee Suheir Abdelkader says.

With events in the Middle East hitting an especially volatile level since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, some fest directors are finding they have bigger problems to contend with than fighting their rivals for prints and preems.

At the Haifa fest, which unspools Sept. 27-Oct. 4, officials found themselves on the receiving end of a cultural boycott last year following last summer’s war with Lebanon when Ken Loach refused an invitation to attend. That is on top of an ongoing boycott of the fest by the majority of Arab countries excluding Morocco, Tunisia and, ironically, Palestine.

“Haifa is a city of Jews and Arabs. Every year we have a day of Palestinian cinema and we have a dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers,” Haifa director Pnina Blayer says. “As for Ken Loach, I always said that if he has something to say, he should come here and say it and see how people answer. On the other hand, I’m not boycotting good films. We still screened his film.”

While Blayer is confident that this year’s fest is set to run smoothly, the situation across the border in Beirut remains precarious. The fallout from the political deadlock between pro- and antigovernment factions has brought much of the cultural activity in the country to a standstill.

Such is the uncertainty that organizers at the Beirut Intl. Film Fest, set to unspool Oct. 3-10, don’t even know if it will go ahead.

“I’m preparing as if it’s going ahead but we will make our final decision on Sept. 10. There is talk of war in the country connected to the presidential elections on Sept. 25,” says Beirut fest director Colette Naufal. “The show must go on, but if there’s a physical war, we won’t be able to stage it.

“If we do hold the festival, at least we won’t have to spend too much on flying guests over,” she quips. “No one wants to come to Beirut now.”

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