Dubai fest’s focus stays on Arab films

Event building a strong platform for locals

When Dubai launched its film fest five years ago, the startup event had the lofty stated aim of bridging cultures and meeting minds. While the fest continues to operate under that mandate, the subsequent years have seen it gradually shift from a purely glitz-filled showcase for Dubai’s ever-expanding skyline into a genuine platform for Arab cinema.

Initiatives — such as the Muhr Awards, introduced in 2006 to celebrate Arab filmmakers; co-production forum Dubai Film Connection, which launched last year; and this year’s inaugural Dubai Film Market — have added cultural and commercial substance to the event.

The larger question, however, of what impact the fest has had on the film industry in the region, and Dubai in particular, remains unclear.

“There are more film productions in the Gulf now than there were five years ago, but I don’t know if that’s related to the Dubai Film Festival,” says leading Dubai-based distrib Salim Ramia. “This year there are three films from Kuwait and a film from Saudi Arabia, but I don’t see that much coming out of Dubai itself. Arabic cinema is still dominated by Egypt. I don’t see that big a jump in local productions in Dubai yet.”

While it may be years before the Dubai fest can claim to have helped create a sustainable film industry in the emirate, it has undoubtedly succeeded so far in providing a spotlight for Arab cinema in which to shine. The Muhr Awards have become the most comprehensive competish for Arab cinema in the Middle East, with filmmakers from the region increasingly seeing the fest as the perfect launchpad for their projects.

Last year, for example, Jordanian helmer Amin Matalqa world-preemed his debut feature, “Captain Abu Raed,” ahead of its North American bow at Sundance, where it would go on to win the world cinema audience award. This year, Palestinian helmer Najwa Najjar is world-preeming her debut, “Pomegranates and Myrrh,” in Dubai.

And while fest organizers prepare to mark their fifth edition, several challenges remain. Dubai’s meteoric rate of growth, and the extent to which it has leveraged itself with debt to achieve it, has left some speculators claiming that the emirate’s economy is more vulnerable than others in the Gulf, including oil-rich Abu Dhabi down the road and Qatar, the world’s leading liquefied natural gas producer.

If Dubai’s economy were to slow down, that may affect the level of initiatives at the fest. Dubai’s film industry initiatives are already dwarfed financially by those of Abu Dhabi, which in September launched $1 billion production banner Imagenation.

“While investors are growing cautious, we maintain that caution does not equate to a downturn in investment,” says Dubai fest chairman Abdulhamid Juma. “The festival will proceed as planned for our landmark fifth edition, and we anticipate a high number of executives and industry figures from around the world.”

Ironically, one of the Dubai fest’s greatest legacies might have been to spur Abu Dhabi’s own film endeavors, launching its Middle East Intl. Film Festival last year and a host of other film biz activities.

The rivalry between the two Emirates has led to competition over who can develop a film industry the quickest. Ultimately, that celluloid race may well end up benefiting both Emirati and Arab filmmakers in general.

“When you have the first film festival in the Gulf, such as Dubai, then this is a big plus,” says Middle East Intl. Film Festival exec director Nashwa Al Ruwaini. “Dubai has contributed a lot to exposing local audiences to cinema culture, and it has one of the few programs targeted at Arab cinema. No one can deny Dubai has become a must-see film festival in the Arab world.”

And while Dubai has enjoyed a steadily increasing number of attendees from the U.S., Europe and Asia, the question of how much local buy-in there is for the fest remains a concern for some.

“I actually think the Gulf Film Festival in April has done a better job of getting filmmakers together,” says Dubai-based distrib Gianluca Chacra. “I don’t see any workshops, the festival being promoted in schools, enough educational programs (in Dubai).”

There’s also the dance around freedom of speech. “The festival also doesn’t do enough to tackle censorship in Dubai,” Chacra says. When Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s “Babel” was released theatrically in Dubai, for example, the entire plot strand involving a deaf Japanese girl was excised because of its nudity.

“A film like ‘Babel’ can play uncut at the festival in front of 2,000 people, but when it gets released theatrically, it gets censored. What’s the difference between showing it publicly at the festival and showing it in a normal cinema?” he asks.

That double standard certainly doesn’t exist in Dubai only, but rather across the United Arab Emirates. “Persepolis” won the audience award at Abu Dhabi’s Middle East Film Fest in 2007 but found its release hampered by the U.A.E.’s censor watchdog the National Media Council.

Those contradictions may be natural in a part of the world that had little to no cinema heritage until recently.

“The Emirati population stands at close to 1 million people, and in only six to seven years, we have already seen more than 700 Emiratis contribute to the film industry,” says Dubai artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali says, although “a decade is not nearly enough to achieve what we want in the industry.”

One of those is local helmer Ali Mostafa, who is prepping his debut feature, “City of Life.” The drama, set in Dubai, is to become the first privately funded Emirati film shot in English, a feat that would have been unimaginable five years ago, before the advent of the Dubai fest.

“The festival has been helpful in getting Ali’s project off the ground, because it’s created a public awareness and support for emerging Emirati filmmakers,” says “City of Life” producer Tim Smythe. “Without the festival, we wouldn’t have been able to sit down with the investors and sponsors of the project and gotten them to put their money in.”

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