Starting with its smart opener, Ang Lee’s 3D epic “Life of Pi,” the Dubai Intl. Film Festival has assembled a classy cross-cultural mix of pics for its ninth edition, certain to enrich Emirati auds and also bolster the status of the Gulf’s foremost film event as the region’s leading industry driver.

“Hollywood this year has shown that it can do something other than the obvious,” says Sheila Whitaker, topper of Dubai’s international program, who also cites Jim Cameron’s 3D “Cirque du Soliel: World’s Away” and “The Master,” which will be launching from Dubai into the Middle East.

What makes “Life of Pi,” a pic by a Taiwanese director starring an unknown Indian actor, such a perfect fit is the fact that Dubai has a largely non-indigenous population, Indians being its largest expat contingent.

“It’s clearly a community that we want to be able to serve, and this film does that very well,” Whitaker says. “Without excluding all the other communities.”

But besides cherry-picking hot titles from the international fest circuit — many of which don’t have Gulf region distribution — Whitaker is proud that she’s landed several world preems in her Cinema of the World section.

These include yank indie thriller “Officer Down” toplining Stephen Dorff and helmed by Brian A. Miller, Argentinian first-timer Dario Nardi’s drama “Sadourni’s Butterflies,” produced by Donald Ranvaud’s Buena Onda, and docu “Death Metal Angola” by New York-based Jeremy Xido.

As for the Muhr Arab Feature section, the fest’s crucial cinematic core, Kurdish helmer Karzan Kader’s “Bekas,” about two homeless boys in Iraqi Kurdistan, who during Saddam Hussein’s regime sneak off to see “Superman” and decide to go to America on a donkey, and Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s well-received “Wadjda” about a young girl whose desire to ride a bicycle pushes the boundaries of a woman’s place in Saudi society, will both get gala screenings.

Other entries in the Arab competition include Moroccan helmer Nour-Eddine Lakhmari’s hotly anticipated Casablanca-set “Zero,” which blends film noir with a redemptive love story and follows his hit urban drama “Casanegra”; “Lover” by prolific Syrian actor-director Abdellatif Abdelhamid; “Yema,” a drama about the battle between the government and Islamic insurgents in Algeria by Algerian director Djamila Sahraoui; and romantic comedy “When Monaliza Smiled,” by Jordanian director Fadi Haddad.

Dubai’s artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali boasts that the number of pics submitted by Emirati filmmakers to the fest this year rose 30%. There are 17 films unspooling at the fest supported by Enjaaz, Dubai’s post-production arm for Arab cinema.

That said, most new works unspooling from the Gulf are shorts, with the notable exception of Omani director Khalid Zadjali’s feature “Aseel,” about the struggles of a 9-year-old boy to preserve his heritage and village, and his relationship with his camel. “Aseel,” which marks the second feature-film ever to come out of Oman, will unspool in the non-competitive Gulf Voices section.

As Nasheen Moodley, who heads DIFF’s Asia/Africa program, points out, the Middle East has a developing film culture and a large group of people who want to become filmmakers.

“I don’t think they should just have Hollywood or Bollywood as their model,” he says, noting that these two cinematographies dominate the region.

The parallel Muhr Asia/Africa competition selected by Moodley includes the world preems of Malaysian helmer U-Wei Haji Shaari’s ambitious epic “Hanyut,” based on Joseph Conrad’s novel “Almayer’s Folly,” and Iranian femme helmer Bani Khoshnoudi’s “Ziba,” about an alienated a contempo upper-class Tehran housewife.

Singaporean helmers James Leong and Lynn Lee will bow “The Great North Korean Picture Show,” touted as the first docu about the film industry in the secretive dictatorship, in the Muhr/Asia Africa docu section.

The best Arab and Asia/Africa feature competitions both carry a $50,000 cash prize, a crucial aspect of Dubai’s important role in fostering emerging cinematographies. Total Arab/Asia/Africa and Emirati Muhr coin amounts to $575,000 spread across 25 categories.

Says Moodley: “Over the years we have found that the prize money has had a real impact on these filmmakers’ future.”


Lifetime Achievement Awards
Egyptian thesp Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, who has starred in more than 100 pics and in hit TV spy series “Raafat El Haggan,” and British director Michael Apted will collect kudos.

Rhythm and Reels
Jonathan Demme’s docu “Enzo Avitabile Music Life,” “Shut Up and Play the Hits” by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, “Soundbreaker,” by Finland’s Kimmo Koskela, “Death Metal Angola” by Jeremy Xido will unspool, with Wayne Blair’s “The Sapphires,” the fest closer.

Chinese Gala
Chinese helmer Feng Xiaogang’s “Back to 1942” will launch as the gala screening for the fest’s Cinema of Asia/Africa section.

Celebration of Indian Cinema
Dubai will celebrate the centennial of Indian cinema with a rich selection sprinkled throughout the fest. Lineup includes Ashim Ahluwalia’s “Miss Lovely,” Rajan Khosa’s “Gattu,” Sourav Sarangi’s “Char … The No-Man’s Island,” Anand Gandhi’s “Ship of Theseus” and Nishtha Jain’s “Gulabi Gang.”

Oxfam Gala
Gala Dec. 14 benefit for Oxfam and Dubai Cares will be hosted by Colin and Livia Firth. Rooney Mara, Kristin Davis and Amr Waked expected.

IWC Schaffhausen New Filmmaker Award Gala
Brian Ferry will perform at a gala event following a ceremony for the fest’s new prize, given to the best script submitted by a Gulf filmmaker. Cate Blanchett, who heads the jury for this prize, will also present the award.

Dubai souk seeks out European crowd