As the Arab film festival season kicks into gear - Abu Dhabi’s began last week and Dubai’s cinematic extravaganza arrives in December - it’s tempting to conclude that these international events confirm the ever-rising status of the UAE’s film industry. Which of course they do, but look beyond the Middle East and there’s something even more intriguing occurring. There are now Arab film festivals in the UK and Australia, Spain and Bulgaria. But the longest running is based somewhere completely unexpected.
Established in California in 1996, the Arab Film Festival has not only become the largest exhibition of Arab films in the US, it’s grown to become one of the most important outside the Arab world. It maximises its potential to reach audiences by touring to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Oakland and San Diego over a five and a half week period, rather than popping up in one city for a few days and disappearing again. And the mission is to “enhance understanding of Arab culture... contradict stereotypes [and] foster a space for independent Arab filmmakers to screen their work”.
“Each year the themes have been different, and I think that alone says a lot about the diversity in Arab film,” says Laurence Mazouni, the programme co-ordinator. “This year we’ve looked at emerging Arab cinema and showcased young directors and predominantly Arab women filmmakers.”
On Mazouni’s programme there are also films with direct links to the UAE, including Mahdi Fleifel’s A World Not Ours - the Dubai-born director receiving support from Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s SANAD fund. It reflects, thinks Mazouni, the growing importance of the UAE film industry.
“Since the start of Dubai’s Gulf Film Festival in 2008, and with platforms such as Dubai International Film Festival, there’s now a highly acclaimed film programme in the UAE presenting cinema from - and to - the world,” she says.
Of course, given that film’s spiritual home is in Hollywood, California, screening Arab films in Los Angeles offers the kind of potential exposure some of these film-makers could only have dreamed about when they started making films in the Middle East.
“There’s almost a New Wave movement in Arab cinema,” agrees Mazouni. “We see that funding comes from the UAE, European, Qatari, Lebanese and Palestinian producers. And when Joe Bou Eid is coming from Beirut to introduce his film Tannoura Maxi, which had UAE backing, you can see that it’s a dream to get your film spotted here.”