rock the casbah Dubai

Arab films are backbone of festival with strong int’l ties

A decade after its launch, the Dubai Intl. Film Festival has firmly earned its leadership role among Middle East film events thanks to its unwavering drive to be international, but with an Arab core.

“We are the only festival that, aside from presenting films from around the world, has always focused on having an Arab competition,” says fest managing director Shivani Pandya, who has been with DIFF since its inception.

The other key aspect, as Pandya points out, is that DIFF runs the only film market in the Arab world.

To celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, DIFF organizers have added a pre-fest Cinematic Innovation Summit, aiming to put people who are exploring filmmaking’s new frontiers in contact with each other and with the Arab media industry.

DIFF has also partnered with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to bring a showcase of Arab films to U.S. audiences, among other joint initiatives.

The inaugural two-day (Dec. 5-6) innovation summit is set to include Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith; Gallic vidgame guru Guillaume de Fondaumiere, co-CEO of Quantic Dream; “Avatar” actor Stephen Lang; f/x wizard Paul Debevec; motion-capture maestro and thesp Andy Serkis; Weinstein Co. chief operating officer David Glasser; Perfect Storm Entertainment topper Troy Craig Poon; Lava Bear’s David Linde; and Hollywood producer Walter F. Parkes.

The fest boasts an especially strong Arab cinema selection this year, starting with its Muhr Arab feature film competition .

Syrian auteur Mohamed Malas will be in Dubai with “Ladder to Damascus,” a meditation on his country’s destruction, shot in the midst of armed conflict with bombs exploding near the set; Algerian-born helmer Amor Hakkar will world preem “The Proof,” which delves into relationships, marriage and gender roles in a changing Algerian society; Morocco’s Laila Marrakchi will be unspooling “Rock the Casbah” (pictured), featuring an all-star ensemble cast that includes Hiam Abbas, Nadine Labaki and Omar Sharif.

About 65 of the roughly 170 pics screening this year are world preems, most of these from Arab filmmakers which, as always, account for about half the lineup. There is, also as always, a strong Asian and African presence.

The rest of the lineup are high-profile titles from the rest of the world.

Case in point is this year’s gala closer, David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” making its fest bow and perhaps shoring up Pandya’s claim that Dubai has become “one of the festivals studios are looking at when they plan their launch strategies.”

This makes sense if you consider the double-digit box office growth in the region over the past decade. The Gulf now accounts for more than half the total theatrical intake in the Arab world, with grosses expected to reach at least $140 million this year, according to film analyst Alaa Karkouti.

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