Film hub: DIFF

The 8th Dubai International Film Festival was a star-studded affair with Cate Blanchett heading the jury this year. rounds up the ones to watch

The stars parading down the red carpet grabbed the headlines - as is always likely when Freida Pinto, Cate Blanchett and Colin Firth are in town. But when the dust settled on another successful Dubai International Film Festival last weekend, there was the sense that something more lasting and meaningful was at play in Dubai. DIFF has always encouraged the notion of the region as a genuine film-making hub and 2012 more than lived up to the reputation – thanks in no small part to one film: Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda.

Al Mansour’s movie, which charts a young girl’s dream of owning a bicycle despite the conservative Saudi society in which she lives, deservedly won the Muhr Arab award, and is notable for reasons far beyond its status as the first feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia - and by the first female Saudi director at that. Wadjda came to light at a script workshop during the 2007 Gulf Film Festival. Once filmed, post-production was financed by DIFF’s Enjaaz programme – which exists purely to provide Arab or Arab-origin filmmakers “with the resources to create the atmosphere, look and feel they envisioned for their films”.

Al Mansour’s success will encourage widespread international distribution for Wadjda - another pleasing by-product of DIFF’s growing reputation. The International Federation Of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Arab prize, for example, went to Djamila Sahraoui’s Yema, a film she calls “a Greek tragedy in an Algeria at war with itself”. Sahraoui is Algerian and has lived in France since 1975, but this international production once again had Enjaaz support.

Wadjda and Yema were films quietly talked about in previous festivals which made good on their early promise. It will be interesting to see if people are talking about Maysoon Pachachi’s Nothing Doing In Baghdad in years to come – she was the first winner of the IWC Filmmaker Award, and was presented with US$100,000 by Cate Blanchett to develop her idea. Elsewhere, film-makers from Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan and Palestine all won funding from a US$100,000 pot of Dubai Film Connection money to bring their scripts to screen.

So while it was great to see western films like Life Of Pi, Amour, Rust And Bone and Cloud Atlas all wow audiences in Dubai - and the Dubai Expo 2020 People’s Choice award go to Swedish and French films Bekas and Ernest & Celestine - DIFF felt like a generous, motivational festival rather than a passive exercise in Hollywood star-spotting.

All of which was perfectly underlined by DIFF’s chairman, Abdulhamid Juma, who announced his support for the UAE bid to host the 2020 World Expo. On the evidence of this year’s DIFF, by 2020 cinema will be another industry Dubai can show off to the world.