Diversifying Arab cinema enlivens fest lineup

Muhr competition lineup reveals selection filled with taboo-busting, genre-defying pics

For Arab cinema, 2006 has been a bumper year. Production is up, the level of coin invested by shingles is at an all-time high and most importantly, auds are flocking back to cinemas.

Even Saudi Arabia, that bastion of conservatism where cinemas are still banned, has produced its first feature film, “Keif Al Hal.” Pic shot in next-door Dubai, and it is there that one of the most positive developments in the Arab film biz emerged this year: the creation of the Dubai Intl. Film Festival’s Muhr Awards, at $325,000 the richest film prize in the Middle East.

A quick glance through the Muhr competish lineup reveals a selection filled with taboo-busting and genre-defying pics. The front-runner is arguably Rachid Bouchareb’s “Days of Glory.” The epic war pic, which recounts the story of soldiers from France’s North African colonies who helped liberate Gaul from the Nazis during WWII, has been a sensation at the French box office.

“Glory” has been seen by nearly 2 million people, grossed more than $16 million and convinced French President Jacques Chirac to raise the pensions of war vets from France’s former colonies to the same level as those of French vets. The film, Algeria’s entry for the foreign-language Oscar, has been picked up by the Weinstein Co. for Stateside release.

Elsewhere, beleaguered Lebanon has promising entries in Michel Kammoun’s “Falafel” and Ghassan Salhab’s “The Last Man.” Kammoun’s pic, about one night in the life of a Lebanese student, had its world preem at September’s Cinema Days fest in Beirut only weeks after the war between Lebanon and Israel ended.

Salhab’s “Last Man” features the specter of war prominently, with its tale of a modern-day vampire in the Lebanese capital, set against the backdrop of escalating tensions between Hezbollah and Israel.

The rest of the Arab world is well-represented with offerings from Algeria (Djamila Sahraoui’s “Barakat!”), Egypt (Hala Khalil’s “Cut and Paste”) and Tunisia (Salma Baccar’s “Flower of Forgetfulness”).

Best of all, though, may be Moroccan helmer Faouzi Bensaidi’s “WWW, What a Wonderful World.” A dizzyingly inventive and witty take on life in modern-day Casablanca, Bensaidi’s follow-up to 2004’s award-winning “A Thousand Months” is an irresistibly wry, whisky-sour study of falling in love, its fleeting glory and eternal futility.

Docus and shorts also make a strong showing in what is set to become the Arab world’s premier annual film showcase.

Real question now for DIFF execs is what impact the Muhr Awards can have on Arab film biz in the long run.

“It’s important for Arabs, and the Gulf in particular, to have a festival that devotes itself to their cinema,” says DIFF artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali. “The Arab world is living through one of the most difficult periods in its history with all these wars going on. We need something to rectify and change the perception of Arabs outside.”

Ultimately, DIFF competish’s best chance to make a lasting impression on local filmmaking is within the arena of Emirati helmers. The fest has launched a short-film scriptwriting contest for UAE locals, with the winner given coin to produce his or her feature.

“We aim to acknowledge and encourage emerging UAE scriptwriters and filmmakers, paving the way for an upcoming generation of national filmmaking talent,” says Abdulhamid Al Juma, deputy director general of the Dubai Technology & Media Free Zone Authority and overall DIFF supremo.

If everything goes to plan, it might not be too long before UAE helmers themselves are vying for Dubai’s Muhr Award.