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Film festivals bloom in Middle East

Events have sprung up over the last decade


Dates: Oct. 3-10

Fest topper: Pnina Blayer


Haifa continues to grow in stature as Israel’s premier film festival — which is also its oldest — with a selection that combines local cinema as well as pics from the Mediterranean region and the rest of the world.

The fest, now approaching its 25th edition, has been helped in no small part by the rising success of Israeli cinema in recent years. “It’s been a very good year for Israeli cinema,” says fest director Pnina Blayer. “This year alone we had three films at Cannes, a film in competition at Venice and a program dedicated to Israeli cinema at Toronto. What more can I say?”

The fest will open with Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock,” although the helmer is not expected to attend due to scheduling difficulties. Haifa will also bow six new Israeli features in addition to a retrospective of Elliot Gould films from the 1970s and a special spotlight on Russian cinema. The fest continues to benefit from its location in one of Israel’s most cosmopolitan cities.


Dates: Oct. 8-17

Fest topper: Peter Scarlet


It’s all about change this year at Abu Dhabi’s Middle East Intl. Film Festival, prompted by the arrival of former Tribeca exec director Peter Scarlet, who take on the duties of fest topper.

With the experienced Scarlet now at the helm, hopes are high that the oil-rich emirate’s fest will be able to fulfill its potential in its third year. Scarlet’s appointment follows the tapping of David Shepheard as film commissioner of the new Abu Dhabi Film Commission. The ADFC has taken the reins of film financing confab the Circle and brought it back into the fold of the festival. Last year, the Circle, which boasted guests such as Fox co-topper Jim Gianopulos, producer Kathleen Kennedy and helmer McG, preceded the fest.

This year, the three-day event will take place during the fest itself, allowing industry professionals to mix with festgoers. While Abu Dhabi’s deep pockets have attracted high-profile U.S. and European film execs, Scarlet is hoping to emphasize the fest as a cultural meeting place for East and West.


Dates: Nov. 10-20

Fest topper: Ezzat Abo Auf


As the Middle East’s only FIAPF-sanctioned festival, and being situated in the heart of the Arab world’s oldest and most prolific film industry, Cairo carries prestige so it means something when this year’s edition will pay tribute to cinema from both India and Algeria. Fest organizers are also planning a major human rights symposium.

After years of anodyne local fare dominated by saccharine laffers aimed at family auds, Egyptian cinema is enjoying a renaissance, with the likes of Ahmed Maher’s “Al mosafer” (The Traveller), starring Omar Sharif, Kamla Abu Zekry’s “Wahed-Sefr” (One-Zero) and Ahmad Abdalla’s “Heliopolis” receiving recognition at international film fests. That in turn is boosting the Cairo fest with a renewed sense of confidence even in the face of ever-growing competition from events in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and now Doha. “We have a film industry. What do they have in the Gulf? Only money,” says fest veepee Suheir Abdelkader. “They need to offer money and attractions to get people to come, but we don’t have to do that because we’re Egypt and we have a film industry. But I welcome all Arab film festivals. The more the merrier.”


Dates: Oct. 29-Nov. 1

Fest topper: Amanda Palmer

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The newest entrant to the Middle East festival circuit, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival has managed the feat of being both high-profile and modest in its first edition. The participation of Robert de Niro’s Tribeca org in Qatar’s inaugural international film fest has ensured anticipation is high, while fest organizers have also been savvy in keeping the event’s duration to a manageable four days and a program of some 30 titles. The fest is the brainchild of Sheikha Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, chair of the Qatar Museums Authority Board of Trustees and daughter of the emir of Qatar, and is being led by Amanda Palmer, head of entertainment at Al-Jazeera English, and will have a mandate on education and nurturing film culture in Qatar.


Dates: Dec. 9-16

Fest topper: Abdulhamid Juma


This year’s sixth edition unspools following a particularly challenging one for the emirate. Having been hit hard by the global economic recession, particularly in its once-bustling real estate sector, Dubai has lost a little of the sparkle that made it such an attractive desert-based oasis for much of the last decade.

Ironically, however, the fiscal belt-tightening comes as the Dubai fest has successfully established itself as one of the Arab world’s most important cinematic events, particularly with the Muhr Awards for best Arab films. The fifth edition was the most successful yet in both cultural and industry terms with the establishment of the Dubai Film Market and the continued success of its co-production forum, the Dubai Film Connection.

One project to emerge from the DFC was Cherien Dabis’ “Amreeka,” which subsequently earned invitations from both Sundance and Cannes and picked up U.S. distribution with National Geographic. Fest organizers are promising that this year’s event will have the same scale and ambition as previous years despite the rocky Dubai economy.


Dates: Dec. 4-12

Fest topper: Melita Toscan Du Plantier

With a reputation as one of the most picturesque of all Middle East film festivals, Marrakech has benefitted from the strong support of ruling King Mohammed, who also doubles as fest president. This year’s edition boasts a strong Asian flavor as Korean cinema will be given a spotlight with films from the likes of Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk and Bong Joon-ho all featured in the program. Fest organizers are also planning a special section on Thai cinema to complete the Asian ADD:focus//. Expect the requisite sprinkling of Hollywood figures – Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese are Marrakech alumni – to mix freely with French and North African film talent.

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