Fall is festival season in the Middle East

Abu Dhabi event rolls first with October bow

The Middle East’s film festival season runs from October through December, and while none has announced its competition lineup, what is new is money, in the form of competitions and film development initiatives.

In calendar terms, the first of the Middle East majors is the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (Oct. 14-23), debuting its name change. The fest launched in 2007 as the Middle East Intl. Film Festival — a moniker that reflected the organizers’ ambition.

The festival’s elaborate competition structure will be augmented in 2010 with the Afaq Jadida (New Horizons) Competition, dedicated to first and second feature-length narrative and documentary films.

Echoing the premises of the Rotterdam festival’s competition, New Horizons will focus on the work of the Arab world’s younger filmmakers. Afaq Jadida will see young helmers compete alongside their international counterparts. Up for grabs will be awards for new narrative film, new narrative film from the Arab world, new documentary and new documentary from the Arab world, each with a $100,000 cash prize.

The fest will also unveil two additional competitive sections, one devoted to short films, another focused on work by filmmakers from the UAE or Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

Abu Dhabi already had the most lucrative competition in the region, disbursing prize monies totalling $1 million. The prizes were disbursed across feature film, documentary and short film competitions (the last encompassing narrative, documentary and student films), with juries instructed to select a winning international film and a winning “Middle Eastern” (i.e., Arab, Turkish or Iranian) film.

In late April, festival director Peter Scarlet announced the launch of Sanad (Support), a new funding program meant to aid outstanding productions from the Arab region through grants totaling $500,000 each year. The grants will be allotted to feature-length narrative and documentary films for film development (maximum $20,000) and post-production (maximum $60,000).

Sanad can be seen as a strong supplement to Abu Dhabi’s $1 billion international and regional film-finance body, Imagenation.

The other heavy-hitting Gulf-based film platform is the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival (Oct. 26-30). The big news for DTFF’s second edition is the addition of a new Arab Film Competition, headed by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad. It will award prizes for best Arab film and best Arab filmmaker ($100,000 apiece). Also new for 2010 is an Arab short film award ($10,000). These competitions augment audience awards (for narrative film and documentary film, each worth $100,000) that DTFF launched in its first edition.

The relatively compact DTFF has added an extra day to its schedule, and the festival will see a venue change, from Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art to the city’s Qatara Cultural Village.

These changes reflect institutional shifts in Qatar’s cultural landscape. DTFF grew out of an agreement signed between Tribeca’s three founders (Robert DeNiro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff) and Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Qatari emir’s daughter and head of the Qatar Museums Authority.

This year, Sheikha al-Mayassa launched the Doha Film Institute (DFI), which she administers. This umbrella organization has been created to oversee initiatives related to film education, production, financing as well as the DTFF.

Mayassa announced that DFI aims to invest in some 10 new films a year from filmmakers in Qatar and around the Arab world. Funds will also be available for international productions. Though the main aim of DFI is said to be educational, it effectively supplements the $200 million film fund established by the Qatari media group Al-Noor Holdings during the 2009 edition of DTFF.

The oldest in the Middle East region, the Cairo Intl. Film Festival will hold its 34th edition Nov. 30-Dec. 9. Nestled amid one of the region’s most-frequented tourist destinations and the Arab world’s best-developed film industry, CIFF has been rather left behind by the development of the turbo-charged film festivals in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha.

Lucrative competition purses in the Gulf film festivals has drawn cash-strapped Arab filmmakers to premiere their films there, denuding CIFF’s Arabic-language film completion of much of its weight. Cairo has also lagged behind industry initiatives in film development, co-production and film marketing. Significantly, CIFF’s big news for 2010 is the launch of the first edition of the Cairo Film Connection. A co-production platform held in partnership with Dubai Film Connections, Misr Intl. Films and the Egyptian Film Center, CFC aims to maximize networking to cultivate feature film production in the Arab world.

The Intl. Film Festival of Marrakech will hold its 10th edition Dec. 3-11, which may explain why organizers have yet to release any information about what to expect from this edition. The public can expect that, as with previous installments, IFFM 2010 will complement competition screenings with a non-competition program of new international features, an in-focus program and a non-competitive panorama section focusing on the cinema of one or several countries or with various sets of themes.

The proliferation of competitions earlier in the year may well be making it difficult for IFFM organizers to finalize its competition roster. Declaring itself dedicated to new talent, this competition usually places Moroccan features alongside international entries. Abu Dhabi’s New Horizons competition may tempt Moroccan filmmakers to debut their work there rather than at home.

The first of the high-octane film festivals to emerge in the Gulf, the Dubai Intl. Film Festival (which holds its 7th edition Dec. 12-19) didn’t rise from a petroleum economy, and its budget took a body blow with the financial meltdown.

Consequently, DIFF has focused its energies on lateral film development and distribution initiatives with other film organizations around the region, efforts that will be less visible during the fest than lucrative competition and film-development prizes would be.

The most recent of these saw Dubai Film Connection, DIFF’s successful co-production market, sign a partnership with the newly formed Cairo Film Connection. DFC offers Arab directors more than $120,000 in prize money and industry connections. The co-production market also matches the short-listed director/producer teams with specialists in film production, sales, distribution and funding. The new partnership with CFC seeks to replicate this successful model in Cairo.

In May, DIFF signed a strategic partnership with Beirut DC (a Lebanon-based organization that promotes independent filmmaking) that will provide a financial incubating fund of $10,000 to strengthen local documentary filmmaking skills. Earlier in the year, DIFF signed a partnership with Royal Film Commission — Jordan (RFC) to promote filmmaking links between the two organizations.

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