Arabs, 'Avatar' highlight Middle East film fest

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this year’s Dubai Intl. Film Festival is that it is happening at all. Despite being the first international film fest in the Gulf after launching amid much fanfare in 2004, Dubai has found its position as the region’s foremost movie event challenged in recent times by the emergence of other sprocket operas in neighboring Abu Dhabi as well as Doha.

Organizers have had to contend with the continuing fallout from the impact of the global economic downturn. Once held up as shining example of an emerging market, Dubai and its then-booming real estate market have taken a hefty hit, with concerns over their long-term financial stability and liquidity.

Despite all the challenges, the fest is gearing up for its sixth edition with a strong lineup of Arab and international films as well as the usual array of celebs from around the world, not to mention a touch of 3D magic thanks to James Cameron’s much-anticipated “Avatar,” which closes the fest.

One of the highlights of this edition is the world preem of Emirati filmmaker Ali Mostafa’s debut feature, “City of Life.” The multilingual, multistranded, character-driven drama follows the intersecting lives of a privileged young Emirati, an Indian taxi driver and Romanian flight attendant. With its $3 million-$5 million budget, Mostafa and producer Tim Smythe persuaded governmental investment arm the Dubai Intl. Financial Center to put up the majority of the project’s budget. Organizers are rolling out the red carpet for Mostafa, who has previously won the fest’s Emirati Filmmaker prize and has long been seen as the local helmer most likely to break out internationally.

Fest’s Muhr prize for Arab cinema was originally launched, in 2006, with aspirations to become the premier showcase in the world for the region’s filmmakers. Since then, it has managed to bring together a stellar lineup despite missing out on a number of big Arab titles thanks to Abu Dhabi’s policy of ensuring at least half of its program would come from the Middle East.

Among the competish’s early contenders are Egyptian helmer Kamla Abu Zekry’s “One-Zero,” Arab-American filmmaker Cherien Dabis’ “Amreeka” and French-Arab director Nassim Amaouche’s “Adieu Gary.”

Pics receiving their world preems at Dubai include Palestinian helmer Michel Khleifi’s “Zindeeq” and “Qarantina,” directed by Oday Rasheed, who made the first post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi feature film, “Under Exposure,” in 2004.

Indian thesp Amitabh Bachchan will receive a lifetime achievement award.

“No one from Indian cinema has made a bigger impact on the world,” says fest chairman Abdulhamid Juma. “Honoring Amitabh Bachchan is akin to celebrating an institution with an everlasting impact on generations spanning across the Middle East and the rest of the world.”

Fest is also hosting a sidebar of French pics in its In Focus section. Among the pics selected are helmer Laurent Vinas-Raymond’s “I Forgot to Tell You,” starring Omar Sharif, and Francois Ozon’s “Le Refuge.” And animated pic “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” has been selected as one of the fest’s galas.

Gerard Butler will fly in to Dubai to receive Variety‘s international star of the year award, and Variety will also host a day of panels spotlighting Arab film talent.

TIP SHEET: Dubai Intl. Film Festival

When: Dec. 9-16
Where: Dubai, UAE
Web: dubaifilmfest.com

THE LINEUP: Muhr Arab Feature Competish

Kamla Abu Zekry: “One-Zero”
Cherien Dabis: “Amreeka”
Shawkat Amin Korki: “Kick Off”
Oday Rasheed: “Qarantina”
Dima El-Horr: “Every Day is a Holiday”
Fatma-Zohra Zamoum: “Unlucky”
Merzak Allouache: “Harragas”
Michael Khleifi: “Zindeeq”
Magdy Ahmed Aly: “Nile Birds”
Nassim Amaouche: “Farewell Gary”
Swell Noury and Imad Noury: “The Man Who Sold the World”

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