Dubai’s film festival offers world window onto Arab cinema

As the 12th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival comes to an end, Vision compiles highlights from this year's event and explains why its contribution to Arab cinema cannot be ignored   

The red carpet has been rolled up for another year and the A-list stars have gone home but for the filmmakers, producers and organisers behind Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), the real work is just beginning.

The festival, which has just closed its 12th year, not only aims to give film lovers a taste of the best cinema from the Middle East and beyond but acts as a platform showcasing Arab cinema to the rest of the world.

The next few months will be a frenzy of activity as deals are done and meetings held to secure widespread distribution and screenings for the 134 films from 60 countries - including 55 world premieres - around the globe.

"DIFF strives to nurture and foster growth in the industry and the festival has come to be recognised as a pillar for Arab cinema in the region," says festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma.

"To be celebrating the 12th edition is an incredible achievement and a testament to how much the festival has progressed on a global scale since its inception."

That achievement has seen DIFF heralded by Conde Nast Traveller magazine as one of the 15 most significant film festivals around the world, a shortlist that includes the longer-established Venice, Cannes and Telluride festivals.

The eight-day event, which ran from December 9 to 16, saw a host of A-list stars attend a series of gala screenings, charity events, award ceremonies and lavish after-parties, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Eva Longoria, Catherine Deneuve, Dev Patel, Hend Sabry, Naseeruddin Shah and director Hany Abu-Assad.

Gyllenhaal gave an hour-long retrospective of his career when he was named Variety magazine's international star of the year. Deneuve, one of four recipients of lifetime achievement awards alongside Shah, Egyptian actor Ezzat al Alayli and French-Tunisian actor Sami Bouajila, said: "I have been lucky enough to work all over the world, and to have my work recognised here in the Middle East as well is testament to the cross-cultural and universal appeal of film."

'DIFF strives to nurture and foster growth in the industry and the festival has come to be recognised as a pillar for Arab cinema in the region'

Abdulhamid Juma, DIFF Chairman

While the number of films has shrunk from a peak of 174 in the festival's 10th year, the focus has been refined with quality in mind rather than quantity. This year's selection included thought-provoking, heavyweight films which bypassed easy viewing in favour of movies which linger long after the credits roll.

Among them was Room, Lenny Abrahamson's heartwrenching drama based on the book by Emma Donoghue and bearing echoes of incarcerations carried out by the likes of Josef Fritzl and Ariel Castro, but told from a child's perspective. Its nine-year-old star Jacob Tremblay was the youngest to walk the red carpet in Dubai just hours after he was nominated for a Screen Actors' Guild award for best supporting actor.

Then there was The Man Who Knew Infinity, which cast Patel in a very different light from his roles in Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. As the genius mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, his struggle with differences in religion, culture and race while stranded in England was an internal one. Meanwhile, the star-studded festival closer The Big Short, while featuring the likes of Brad Pitt, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling, made for anything but light viewing, tackling the mortgage crisis, which led to the 2008 global recession.

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Palestinian actor Ali Suliman and Saudi actress Ahd at the Red Carpet evening for Zinzana, the UAE's' first psychological thrillerImage: DIFF

If there was one thing that distinguished this year's festival, it was that the film selection pulled no punches. The Pakistani film Song of Lahore, screened on Dubai's beachfront with a performance by some of its stars, was a moving tribute to the folk musicians practising a dying art, who suddenly found themselves catapulted into the limelight as they were plucked from obscurity to play alongside American jazz maestro Wynton Marsalis.

And a strong contingent of Emirati feature and short films showed a maturity and growth in movie-making in the UAE. With Abu Dhabi Film Festival closing in May this year, Dubai now hosts the country's only international film festival and much of the responsibility for encouraging filmmaking in the nation and providing a platform for work by Emirati directors falls on DIFF.

The Dubai Film Connection has been resurrected after a year-long hiatus, providing an $80,000 pot for six Arab filmmakers, while the Muhr awards, presented by Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, saw a host of Emirati and Gulf filmmakers rewarded for their efforts. A $100,000 Ministry of Interior prize, once a regular feature of the Abu Dhabi festival, was given to Abdullah Hassan Ahmad for his screenplay for the film Sunrise.

Increasingly sophisticated filmmaking was evident in Zinzana, the Emirates' first psychological thriller, which premiered at Fantastic Fest in Texas in September and features the Palestinian actor Ali Suliman as a psychopathic killer hellbent on toying with his victims.

Juma said: "The work of a stellar collection of bright, innovative and extremely talented filmmakers, that we have been proud to showcase at DIFF, has crossed boundaries and expanded cultural horizons. That is the true power of cinema."

The next DIFF runs from December 7-14. See dubaifilmfest.com for more details.