Dubai Intl. Film Festival Stands Tall in the Region

With the Middle East in a state of flux, the Dubai Intl. Film Festival is bolstering its status as the region’s top fest by embracing high-end TV plus virtual reality.

But it is also staying true to its role as an Arab cinema platform and its overall drive to develop “a full-fledged film industry in the United Arab Emirates,” says festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma.

Dubai, which will unspool its 14th edition Dec. 6 (it runs through Dec. 13), has gained prominence over the years thanks to a mix of the glitz one expects from the showy futuristic metropolis and the more austere construction of the Dubai Film Market, currently the region’s only full-fledged mart and the fest’s main raison d’être from an international industry standpoint.

Though there is room for improvement, DIFF stands as a solid annual springboard for the Arab film industry. It has persevered amid closures in recent years of the Abu Dhabi and Doha Tribeca fests, and acquired an aura of stability amid shifts in the volatile region’s festival landscape. Under these shifts, Morocco’s Marrakech fest went on hiatus this year, while the Abu Dhabi programming team has partly resurfaced at the helm of Egypt’s ambitious new El Gouna event, which launched in September.

Besides its importance for Arab cinema at large, the Dubai fest is key in creating a “film culture” for Emiratis, as Juma puts it.

Film distributors in the Gulf “tend to be less enthusiastic about Arab films, since they need big audiences to open theaters and make a profit,” Juma points out. “But this culture is developing and hopefully with time we can get there.”

Gianluca Chakra, managing partner of Dubai-based distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment, while praising the fest’s efforts, notes that it still lacks “some sort of Palais venue [like Cannes] and a landmark theater,” rather than the mall multiplex screens where many of the films are shown. He points out that the current popularity of Dubai’s arthouse theater Cinema Akil, a more intimate venue, has proved that seeing indie movies in a mall is “a turn off.” The fest this year, however, will also be showing movies on a mall rooftop.

But Chakra is glad that, in a break with the past, Dubai is promoting Arab TV shows such as Egyptian drama “Sabe3 Gar” (The 7th Neighbor), helmed by three female directors, at the market; the quotient of Middle East TV industry execs, including buyers, is expected to rise this year.

“We’ve always encouraged them to push TV and, now, SVOD,” he says. Execs from Netflix, which is struggling to gain Middle East subs, are also expected to attend.

As for movies, there is no shortage of world premieres (seven out of 18 titles) in the Arab feature competition lineup that programs many pics “inspired by people surviving in war-torn countries,” says artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali. These include Iraqi-Canadian director Bar Shamoun’s doc “73 Degrees Celsius” about three Iraqi children from different ethnic backgrounds whose lives were drastically changed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and Annemarie Jacir’s “Wajib,” which is this year’s Palestinian candidate for the foreign-language Oscar. Both pics are supported by Dubai’s Enjaaz fund.

Prominent Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour will be launching her English-language debut “Mary Shelley,” starring Elle Fanning, into the Middle East from Dubai’s Cinema of the World section, which features standouts from this year’s festival circuit such as “The Square,” “Loveless” and Jonas Carpignano’s “A Ciambra,” which are Sweden, Russia and Italy’s Oscar contenders, respectively.

All told, more than 140 titles, comprising shorts and a showcase of VR works from around the world, will unspool, including plenty of other awards season hopefuls and also “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” launching from the Dubai fest on Dec. 13, one day ahead of the Hollywood juggernaut’s regional release, which is a nice catch.

Morgan Spurlock will be making the trek from the U.S. to promote the regional premiere of his latest doc “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!” and to hold an onstage conversation, while Cate Blanchett will be returning to preside over the jury that will bestow the $100,000 IWC Filmmaker Award to one of four short-listed feature-film projects being developed by directors from the Gulf region.

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