By Matt Mueller | Thompson on Hollywood December 16, 2013 at 2:00PM
There were four strategic objectives in place at the start: give Arab cinema a global platform; attract international productions to Dubai ('Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol' has been the most high-profile visitor to date); develop local filmmakers; and bridge the cultural divide. As DIFF sought to forge its identity, there have been ups and downs, with several programming and industry initiatives coming and going along the way. The most successful, however, which include the Dubai Film Market and the 'Script to Screen' scheme that helped launch 'Wadjda' on its way, are firmly entrenched. The festival also introduced its awards back in 2006. This year's winners include Hany Abu-Assad's 'Omar' as Best Arab Feature (backing up the international acclaim he received for 2005's 'Paradise Now'), 'The Square' as Best Arab Documentary and 'Ilo Ilo' as Best Asia/Africa Feature.
"When this festival was set up, we were so aware of the need for Arab filmmakers to have this platform and for the international community to see what is happening here," says DIFF Artistic Director Masoud Amralla Al Ali. "There's the media image of the Arab world that we always see. If it's this region, it's that we are rich and have tall buildings; if it's other Arab countries, it's that they are terrorists and have wars. But the true image always comes from films more than TV and the news."
The industry side of the festival has increased substantially in recent times, too. Jane Williams established the Dubai Film Connection co-production market in 2007 with the intent of bringing together Arab filmmakers and international producers. In seven years, 75 projects presented in the DFC have gone into production, an incredible success rate. This year, the Dubai Film Market & Forum had its buzziest festival to date, with several hundred filmmakers, producers and buyers in attendance and 30 exhibition booths in the heart of DIFF headquarters in the Madinat Jumeirah complex. "What we offer that's different from any other festival in the region is access to those people," says Williams. "I hope this is the beginning of something new and exciting."
Among 41 industry panels were "Beyond The Oscars," presented by the former president of the Academy for Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Sid Ganis, while DIFF was also officially accepted as one of the qualifying festivals for the Oscar's short film competition. Admittedly, there isn't much of an industry in the Gulf but success is beginning to come with the likes of 'Omar,' which was financed in the United Arab Emirates (of which Dubai is part), and Haifaa al-Mansour's feature debut 'Wadjda,' also U.A.E. financed. 'Wadjda,' a socially relevant tale from Saudi Arabia featuring a spiky teenage heroine, delivered a particular gust of fresh air to perceptions of the region's filmmaking environment. Interestingly, female filmmakers made up 40 percent of DIFF's Arab feature programme this year. Most are making documentaries, but it's an unexpected flowering that DIFF is actively supporting.
But not rocking the boat too much is still a stark reality in this part of the world. Free speech isn't enshrined in law, and while Emirati rulers are less autocratic than their Saudi neighbors, they can still be draconian. The 29-year-old American-born satirist Shezanne Cassim was arrested in April of this year after posting a mockumentary spoofing Dubai youth culture on YouTube (watch it here), and is still languishing in a maximum-security prison in Abu Dhabi.
If uncomfortable topics do get aired, it tends to happen in subtler ways. "Champ Of The Camp" was one of my favorite films at this year's DIFF, a moving, entertaining documentary focusing on an X-Factor-style Bollywood competition that takes place amongst the migrant worker population who come to toil in Dubai from the Indian subcontinent and Asia. Directed by Dubai-based Lebanese filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour, the film focuses on a singing competition as a way to explore a topic he might not have dared to tackle head on. While 'Champ Of The Camps' can't help taking a slightly sanitized approach (and avoids airing Dubai's dirtiest laundry about the treatment of its guest work-force), it also depicts the grim realities for the workers living in these "jail-like" dormitories.
Despite some successes, Juma admits the challenges facing Arab cinema are still daunting. "If 'Wadjda' goes to the Oscars, what does that mean?," he says. "They don't even have movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. I think we are still struggling to define this new Arab cinema. You have to mix passion with professionalism, otherwise you will always struggle."
On the plus side, both Al Ali and Juma think that the new filmmakers coming through are more open to taking risks, encouraged by the Arab Spring and aided by new technologies. Juma points out that there were 103 Arab films playing at DIFF this year, whereas 20 years ago there were fewer than 70 films produced across the entire region. "There is something happening," he says. "Things are moving."
As for DIFF itself, Juma declares that at the age of ten, "we're still a child... We push boundaries, we dream a lot, but at the end of the day, we know our position." For DIFF's chairman, it's all about serving Arab cinema. When the Toronto International Film Festival accepted "Omar," DIFF stepped aside rather than insist on Abu-Assad's film being a world premiere. If "Omar" goes on to find Oscar success, as some pundits predict, it would be a win-win situation for festival and filmmaker.
"Not everyone liked that decision, especially for our 10th year," says Juma. "But this festival is about what's best for Arab cinema. It makes us happy that we made the right choice taking this chance."