Elia Suleiman

Arab Fest Preview: Film festival landscape undergoing changes, partly due to the disruptive impact of post-Arab Spring turmoil in such countries as Egypt

The Arab world’s film festival landscape is undergoing changes, partly due to the disruptive impact of post-Arab Spring turmoil in such countries as Egypt but mostly prompted by a concerted effort across the Gulf region to ensure that sprocket operas there serve as effective drivers for a large part of the Middle-East film industry.

The desire for young and large petrodollar-fueled fests such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha to reconceive themselves as better building blocks for the region’s budding moviemaking efforts was clearly visible at Cannes in May. That’s when the Doha Film Institute, having severed its ties with Tribeca, announced it had tapped Palestinian director Elia Suleiman (pictured) as artistic adviser and transformed the 5-year-old fest from a globally focused event to one dedicated solely to first and second-time directors in a completely new structure, which now comprises two separate events — one for emerging helmers, the other for kid pics — supported by grants and a year-round film lab.

“We can bring so many young talents into our fold and help them by really nurturing them; not just giving them grants,” says Suleiman, whose works, which include “Divine Intervention” and “The Time That Remains,” have often touched on Isreali-Palestinian tensions, sometimes with surreal comic tones.

“DFI’s mandate is to develop filmmaking in the Middle East,” says CEO Abdulaziz Al Khater. “To that end, we asked, what is the best way to use the festival to help maintain that goal? Since we are about creating a new generation of filmmakers, let’s make the festival for emerging filmmakers.”

The DFI’s bold move follows the Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s surprise removal in 2012 of former Tribeca topper Peter Scarlet; he has been succeeded by Ali Al Jabri, a programmer at the 8-year-old fest.

“When they started Doha, Abu Dhabi and so on, they didn’t have the expertise to create festivals and markets, so they needed professionals from the West,” says Dubai Film Market topper Pascal Diot. “But they knew from the beginning that it would be short term, since the goal is to form and train locals to take over.”

Diot points out that after an initial competitive phase there is now greater collaboration and synergy in place among the high-profile fests founded rather recently in the Gulf region. Abu Dhabi and Dubai, for example, shared a pavilion at Cannes this year for the first time. It’s also clear that both Abu Dhabi, with its Sanad film fund, and Doha have taken on a more active role as Arab filmmaking facilitators in terms of creative and production aspects, while Dubai is taking over the industry side of the market as the region’s main sales bazaar.

The emergence of more effective major movie shindigs in the Gulf is all the more significant for Arab cinema at large, coming at a time when tensions following the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, are holding back the post-revolutionary creative burst bubbling under the surface.

In June, Egypt’s revived Ismailia Intl. Film Festival launched its first co-production mart dedicated exclusively to documentaries in the Middle East and North Africa. Its new topper, Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy, aimed to relaunch the docus and shorts event, now in its 16th edition, as an important incubator for cinematic renewal in the region. Docus are the most common genre used to depict the changes under way due to political turbulence in the region.

But August’s violent and continuing bloodshed that erupted in Egypt between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and secularists after the July ouster of President Muhammad Morsi is putting both the Ismailia fest and the revived prestigious Cairo Film Festival in jeopardy, just as the tendency towards increased movie censorship by Muslims in Tunisia and Lebanon has also been hindering the expansion of fests and the film industries in those countries.

Main Film Fests in the Middle East

Marrakech Intl. Film Festival
Dec. 6-14 (tentative)

Marrakech celebrated its 12th edition late in 2012 with a major tribute to Bollywood packed with Indian stars and a showcase comprising international entries, along with Arab, African and Asian titles.

Abu Dhabi Film Festival
Oct. 24-Nov. 2

Now at its seventh edition, Abu Dhabi kicks off the post-summer Gulf fest season and is home to the Sanad Fund for features and docus from the region in various stages. Overseen by government media and entertainment development entity Twofour54, the prestigious fest is preceded by the high-profile Abu Dhabi Media Summit, Oct. 22-24. Last year, Bill Gates gave a chat.

Doha Film Institute Film Festivals Ajyal
Nov. 26-30

The first edition of the Ajyal Film Festival for the Young (“ajyal” is Arabic for “generations”) is modeled on Italy’s Giffoni Film Festival, known for having thousands of youths as jurors from all over the world and programming on family and youth-centered films. Ajyal is partners with Giffoni, sharing programming and knowledge.

Dubai Intl. Film Festival
Dec. 6-14

Dubai, launched in 2004, has the distinction of having a bona-fide market running beside a solid and wide-ranging selection of entries from all over the world with sections dedicated to Emirati, Arab and Asian/African works. More than 150 films screened at Dubai in 2012, including 50 world premieres from 56 countries.

Doha Film Institute Film Festivals Qumra
March TBD

The Qumra Film Festival, Doha, is dedicated to first and second works. Qumra has partnered with the Sarajevo Film Festival and its CineLink co-production mart.

Ismailia Intl. Film Festival

Located in a port city on the west bank of the Suez Canal in Egypt, this well-established incubator launched its first co-production mart dedicated exclusively to documentaries in the Middle East and North Africa during its 16th edition held June 4-9 this year. The next edition, however, is up in the air.

Cairo Intl. Film Festival

The oldest and most venerable Arab festival is suffering from the impact of turbulence in the region. Fest held its 35th edition in late 2012, after being put on post-revolutionary hiatus in 2011. It is unclear at this stage whether it will be held in 2013.

(Pictured: Helmer Elia Suleiman was tapped by Doha Film Institute as artistic adviser who will concentrate on nuturing the local film biz.)

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