Female-Centric Films at Core of 13th Dubai Film Fest Lineup

layla m. tiff
Courtesy of TIFF

The Dubai Intl. Film Festival, which is one of the world’s top Arabic cinema showcases, is dominated by women this year, whether it be behind camera or on screen as is the case with the fest’s tense thriller opener “Miss Sloane,” starring Jessica Chastain as a ruthless political lobbyist in Washington.

The 13th edition of the year-end event, which runs Dec. 7-14, boasts world premieres, and mixes the cream of the Arabic crop with the best that’s surfaced on the international circuit, including movies poised to vie for upcoming U.S. awards.

This year’s fest has assembled a rich, well-rounded roster with a fresh batch of female-centric films at its core, starting with the Arabian Nights section, which combines films from Arab and non-Arab directors depicting the Arab world.

“In Arabian Nights, for starters, there are quite a few women directors,” says its programmer Delphine Garde-Mroueh. “But there is also a thematic dominance of women, and not necessarily in a feminist way. They are just very dominant in the storylines of almost all the films.”

Several of the films premiering in this section portray Arab women from fresh, nuanced angles. French director Henri Barges’ dark comedy “Nuts,” for example, takes a look at two bored, upper-crust Beirut housewives who become addicted to gambling and descend into the city’s sex, drugs, and gaming underbelly.

In another different type of dark comedy, “Solitaire,” by Lebanese director Sophie Boutros, the protagonist is haunted by the memory of her dead brother, killed by a Syrian bomb during the Lebanese civil war, just as she is being pursued by a Syrian suitor for an arranged marriage.

Islamic terrorism, fast becoming a cinematic trope, is present in Dutch director Mijke De Jong’s timely “Layla M,” about the radicalization of a young Muslim woman from a Moroccan family in Amsterdam. She moves to Syria to fight with ISIS only to realize she has no place in the new, male-dominated world for which she gave up her former life. After the film received a positive reaction in Toronto, it will be interesting to see how “Layla” sits with Arab audiences.

As is customary, Dubai has a significant Bollywood component which is particularly prominent this year due to the world premiere of Paris-set Hindi romancer “Befikre,” directed by Aditya Chopra. Yash Raj Films is touting the film as a very “progressive” Indian take on modern love. Dubai fest chairman Abdulhamid Juma has predicted the racy pic will appeal not just to Dubai’s large Indian expat community, “but also to Arabs who have a strong affinity for Bollywood films.”

The fest is “very excited to get this a world premiere,” says DIFF general manager Shivani Pandya. “Generally Bollywood movies premiere in India before going anywhere else.”

Hollywood will also have a substantial presence in Dubai, not only in terms of movies and talent, but also high-caliber industry representatives. The most significant of these will be Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, scheduled to make the trek for an In Conversation event. Samuel L. Jackson is being feted with a Lifetime Achievement Award, along with Bollywood star the mono-monikered Rekha, and Oscar-winning French-Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”).

U.S. titles unspooling include “La La Land,” “Nocturnal Animals,” “Manchester by the Sea,” Will Smith-starrer “Collateral Beauty,” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which will launch into the Middle East from Dubai, as the fest’s closer, on Dec. 14.

Riding the current virtual reality craze, Dubai is launching an entire section this year called DIFFerent Reality in a specially equipped, state-of-the-art venue where 10 VR films will screen. Films to screen include “Lake Baikal: The Science and Spirituality of Extreme Water,” a Russia/U.S. collaboration co-directed by Georgy Molodtsov and Michael Owen. The immersive piece about the earth’s most ancient and deepest lake, Lake Baikal in Siberia, is touted as making audiences shiver with cold, which could provide welcome relief to Dubai audiences subjected to sweltering heat for most of the year.

Additionally, a panel titled “Is the Future Really Virtual?,” moderated by USC School of Cinematic Arts dean Elizabeth M. Daley, will thrash out some of the main issues faced by the budding VR industry forecast to become worth more than $100 billion by 2020.

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