Dubai fest faces competition for the few Arab films

Film boom looming? | Fests spur production, build new partnerships | Pro scouts emirate’s highways, byways

There are two main challenges facing us,” says Dubai Intl. Film Festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma. “The first is the small number of films produced in the Arab world. The second is that there are more festivals that want to screen these films.”

Nowadays, DIFF is implementing a restructuring plan designed to address these challenges, though it’s too soon to disclose the details.

When DIFF burst onto the film festival landscape of Middle East and North Africa in 2004, it was a hot ticket. Set in the city’s then-brand new Jumeirah hotel complex, it was staffed by A-list professionals — from its programmers to its theater management team to its projectionists.

Even before launching the Muhr Awards competition in 2007, DIFF set out to be a hub for Arabic-language cinema. In the last couple of years, though, a pair of unrelated developments appears to have surprised Dubai.

The first is the competition. In 2007, Dubai’s sister city of Abu Dhabi launched its Middle East Intl. Film Festival (MEIFF). After a couple of indecisive years, MEIFF put veteran festival director Peter Scarlet at the helm in 2009. With him, a team of talented, well-connected programmers and a good deal of will and solvency (Abu Dhabi controls the United Arab Emirates’ petroleum economy), MEIFF began to compete with DIFF for Arabic-language film premieres.

After screening a competition program with several distinguished regional features, MEIFF rebranded itself the Abu Dhabi Intl. Film Festival.

That same year, the Gulf principality of Qatar (home of one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world) unveiled the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival. The latter had no adjudicated competition in 2009 and, running less than a week, it seemed miniature compared to DIFF and MEIFF/ABIFF. The combination of energy wealth under the ground and Tribeca’s brand weight, however, immediately made Doha-Tribeca a regional powerhouse.

“I think every city has the right to create its own film festival,” Juma mused. “They push us to be more innovative.”

The international financial crisis delivered DIFF a second blow. Unlike its neighbors, Dubai doesn’t sit on a lake of hydrocarbon to fuel its film festival, and Juma told Variety that, between 2008 and 2009, the festival’s real budget shrank by 17%.

“The festival has had to look at reallocating resources,” he said. “These challenges presented us with an opportunity to look back at the organization and our mission … Consequently, in the last two years, DIFF has felt like a more serious festival.”

“Between the financial crisis and the competition (with Abu Dhabi and Doha), we’ve had to think clearly about DIFF’s value — in the Arab world and internationally,” said DIFF’s industry office head, Jane Williams.

A festival veteran with years of experience at Rotterdam’s Cinemart and Hubert Bals Fund among others, Williams has been an architect of the patchwork of industry services, including Dubai Film Connection, DIFF’s co-production market, established in 2007.

DFC matches short-listed directors of Arab origin and their producers with specialists in film production, sales, distribution and funding to further their projects. In collaboration with Desert Door Prods. and, this year, Film Clinic Egypt, DFC also offers project submissions more than $120,000 in prize money.

“The challenges have only encouraged us to continue … to reinforce the strong business basis of the festival’s industry activities,” Williams said. “We have had to think hard about how best to use the funds available, to not simply duplicate already existing services. That’s one of the reasons we’ve set out to create several strategic alliances with existing institutions.”

In late 2009, DIFF announced the first of these partnerships, signing an agreement with Jordan’s Royal Film Commission. Earlier this year, on the sidelines of Cannes, DIFF announced that it will provide an incubating fund for a training course conducted by Lebanon-based independent filmmaking organization Beirut Development and Cinema. Selected Beirut DC projects will be presented at DFC.

In July, DIFF announced DFC would partner with the Cairo Intl. Film Festival’s new co-production market, Cairo Film Connection, which will mirror DFC’s networking and development role.

The DFC-CFC partnership will allow filmmakers to submit their projects to both markets, and DIFF will award a selected CFC project and invite its director to attend DIFF’s co-production market.

“Either you compete with everybody,” Juma says of the DFC-CFC partnership, “or you cooperate to see that more films are available for them and us.”

Launching regional film development networks may be commendable, but it won’t necessarily ensure that impoverished Arab filmmakers will be loyal to a given festival, especially when other, quite solvent, festivals fall earlier in calendar.

Juma is confident that filmmakers who receive DIFF’s financial support can remain loyal to their backers.

“There’s trust between the filmmaker and the festival’s artistic team,” he said. “Filmmakers do their homework, and they choose to come to Dubai because they benefit from the international exposure.

“Then there are legal means. The festival can provide seed funding for film development in return for a contractual commitment to give DIFF first screening rights. So DIFF is exploring a new funding organ, the Dubai Entertainment and Media Organization.”

The fund is the first sign of DIFF’s plan to reorganize and consolidate its patchwork of industry services into a more coherent film development program.

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