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Dubai fest makes local talent a priority

With new awards, DIFF programmer Al Ali puts focus on regional film

The announcement in August that the third edition of the Dubai Intl. Film Festival would be launching its inaugural competitive prize, the Muhr Awards, was greeted as a welcome addition to the young festival. That the prize — the region’s richest film award, with a total kitty of $325,000 — would be devoted to celebrating Arab films can be pegged to Masoud Amralla Al Ali’s promotion in May as artistic director of Arab programming at the fest.

A native Emirati, Al Ali has been integral in focusing this year’s fest spotlight on helmers from the region. While photo opportunities with the likes of Morgan Freeman, Orlando Bloom and Sarah Michelle Gellar dominated media coverage of DIFF’s first two editions, the creation of the Muhr Awards signals a shift in fest priorities.

Although still retaining its East-meet-West metier under the slogan “Bridging Cultures, Meeting Minds,” this year’s DIFF is arguably the first to wear its Arab face as proudly as its international one.

“In our first year, we wanted to raise our profile so there was an emphasis on celebrities, but if you actually go back and look at the program, there were a lot of Arab films,” says Al Ali. “What has changed is the fact that we now have a spotlight.

“It might seem different from the outside, but for me, I’ve been working for the past three years and feel that the level of Arab cinema has always been well-represented. Look at Toronto. It doesn’t have a competition, but Canadian cinema is still very present in the program.”

Al Ali was previously in charge of programming the Arabian Nights and Emerging Emiratis sections of DIFF. Now that he is also the coordinator general of the Muhr Awards, he is in prime position to point up the current trends in Arab filmmaking.

“Documentaries have been very strong,” Al Ali notes. “It’s been one of the strongest years I can remember, especially for films from Lebanon and Palestine. This is the year for documentaries in the Arab world.”

In fact, 2006 appears to have been a strong year for Arab cinema across the board. DIFF execs were so overwhelmed by the response from Arab helmers submitting their pics for consideration to the Muhr Awards that the deadline was extended. Whereas 2005 was indisputably the year of “Paradise Now” with its victory at the Golden Globes and Oscar nom, 2006 has witnessed a number of breakout Arab films.

Marwan Hamed’s “The Yacoubian Building” picked up the new director award at Tribeca, and Rachid Bouchareb’s “Days of Glory” took home the actor prize at Cannes. Other pics such as Faouzi Bensaidi’s “WWW, What A Wonderful World,” which dazzled auds at its U.K. preem in the London Film Festival, and Lebanese helmer Ghassan Salhab’s modern-day vampire noir “The Last Man,” have pushed Arab cinema into exciting new directions.

” ‘Paradise Now’ was in the right place at the right time,” says Al Ali. “It had a great impact with all the media coverage and was able to say a lot about the Palestinian experience, which is often just dismissed as terrorist. This film was able to explain why people act the way they do.

“Arab cinema is an important part of world cinema. We have our own directors, our own thoughts and styles. Faouzi Bensaidi’s film is so different from any other Arab film. Ghassan Salhab’s film, with the idea of the vampire, is not a common one in Arab cinema, so there is a great diversity this year. There are new ideas appearing in Arab films now. It shows how Arab cinema is moving and changing with the times.”

As for DIFF’s long-term future, emphasis has been placed on nurturing a thriving film industry and culture within Dubai and the UAE as a whole, not so easy a task when only five years ago it barely existed.

Nevertheless, Al Ali, who studied helming at the New York Film Academy and has completed three docus of his own with a further one in post, is positive about the role the festival can play in bringing through young talent.

“We’re doing very well in short films. There is a movement now of young Emirati directors making their short films independently and without support,” Al Ali says.

“I hope that DIFF can play a role in creating a fund to facilitate filmmaking. That’s why, for example, we have established the screenwriting competition for Emirati filmmakers that will provide some funds so they can make their film. Maybe then we can reach a point of making a film or two each year. It would be a good start.”