Fest features awards, stars, announces cash influx from Abu Dhabi

LONDON At times it felt like a tale of two fests at this year’s Dubai international film fest, which unspooled Dec. 9-16.

The fest’s first half was dominated by uncertainty over Dubai’s financial worries, a lack of celebs and, on the middle Sunday, an unprecedented entire day’s rain that saw many of the emirate’s roads flooded and some festgoers reaching for their apocalyptic metaphors.

Then, almost miraculously on the morning of Dec. 14, attendees awoke to read news of Abu Dhabi’s $10 billion bail-out to its ailing neighbour, glorious sunshine broke through the Dubai skyline and the likes of Gerard Butler and Omar Sharif jetted in to give the fest a jolt of star power.

And while this year’s fest may have cut back slightly on the glitzy frills, there was no shortage of business being done.

Fest organizers announced a series of initiatives designed to support the Arab film biz.

One deal with Jordan’s Royal Film Commission will see four screenwriters from the Rawi Middle East Screenwriters Lab in the country, held in partnership with the Sundance Institute, attend the Dubai Film Connection co-production market to develop their projects further and meet potential financiers.

The Dubai film connection also awarded $25,000 in seed money to three projects: “Off Frame” by Mohanad Yaqubi and produced by Ihab Jadallah; “Tilsit” by Hicham Falah and produced by Guillaume de Seille; and “Yasmeen” by Amin Matalqa and produced by Fadi Sarraf.

Previous Dubai Film Connection recipient “Amreeka” by director Cherien Dabis had its gulf preem during the fest.

Dubai fest chairman Abdulhamid Juma also announced they would be launching a home entertainment distribution arm for some pics selected at the fest across the U.A.E. to ensure as wide an audience as possible.

Saudi billionaire Prince Waleed bin Talal used the fest to announce his media shingle Rotana had inked a multi-million dollar output deal with Disney for the next four years. Prince Waleed, who also closed a deal with Rupert Murdoch for News Corp to announce a stake in Rotana, is pursuing a vigorous expansion to help secure his company’s position as one of the region’s leading media players.

Palestinian helmer Michel Khleifi found himself the recipient of two awards at the fest for his latest pic “Zindeeq.” Khleifi won Desert Door Productions’ Work-in-progress award, and a check for $25,000, for his pic about an exiled Palestinian filmmaker documenting memories of the 1948 partition of Palestine and creation of the state of Israel. Khleifi also won the fest’s main Muhr prize for best Arab feature for the same pic.

Other big winners at the fest’s Muhr competish — which saw 28 prizes and over $575,000 in prize money handed out — included Algerian helmer Merzak Allouache pick up the special jury prize for “Harragas,” Philippino director Brillante Mendooza win the best AsiaAfrica feature prize for “Lola” and Egyptian scribe Mariam Naoum win best Arab screenplay for “One-Zero.” Latter pic has been a cultural and critical smash in Egypt with its multi-character portrayal of contemporary Cairo society.

Dubai’s film market, in place for the second year, enjoyed brisk business with buyers from across the world — including execs from Shoreline Entertainment, Disney and NBC Universal — utilizing its state-of-the-art touchscreen tech. The market screened 323 pics this year, a substantial rise from last year’s total of 211. Deals were expected to be announced in the new year.

Gerard Butler received Variety’s intl. star of the year award from Variety editor Tim Gray, while Omar Sharif showed he comfortably remains Arab cinema’s biggest draw, even at the age of 77.

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