Thesecond Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) wrapped on an optimistic notein the Gulf state on Saturday, with a palpable buzz surrounding the DubaiStudio City project and several high-profile expressions of interest in filmingthere following on from Warner Bros' recent shoot for Syriana.
Apartfrom producer Barrie Osborne (The Lord of The Rings) scouting the Emirate for his upcoming $100m Alchemist shoot with Laurence Fishburne, Palestinian directorHany Abu Assad, whose suicide bomber drama Paradise Now opened the festival, confirmed he would also shoot afilm in Dubai.
While Dubai lacks a physical studio as yet, it is part of thestate's intensive drive towards a "knowledge-based economy", alongside animminent film commission whose finer points are still under discussion.
HanyAbu Assad, who will next shoot a film in America about the Arab experience inthe US, will return to Dubai to film a story which very much features "a viewof this hyper-modern city in the middle of the desert, the drive to conquernature," said the director, whose treatment for the un-named project iscomplete.
TheDubai festival's director, Neil Stephenson, whose concept of "building bridges"in and to the Arab world was underlined by a bold selection which also includedthe world premiere of Albert Brooks' Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, pledged to continue growing the festival "slowly,carefully, but surely". "The festival can play an important role in bringingpeople together, connecting first-time film-makers with producers, financiers -and that's something we'll refine next year," he said.
Duringtwo days of DIFF panels staged in conjunction with Screen International, local industry representatives spoke of thedifficulties of producing and distributing in the Middle East region - whichcomprises 22 territories and 1bn people, but where commercial, censorship andreligious pressures can severely restrict the marketplace. In 2004, the UnitedArab Emirates accounted for 65 percent of all takings in the Middle East - withThe Passion Of The Christ thetop-grosser at $1.4m, the UAE's second-highest of all time, and releasedcompletely without cuts. Some US studios have seen year-on-year growth ofup to 80 percent in recent years in the Emirate states, but other countries inthe Middle East struggle to release anything (Saudi Arabia has no theatres;Yemen has five).
Andalthough distributors in Dubai bought four films which showed in last year'sfestival, none were released - not due to censorship, but exhibitors"reluctance to take a chance with anything non-commercial. Film-makers toostruggle to get projects off the ground in a nascent market, although last year'sDIFF hosted the first-ever Dubai feature film, and the only film from the Yemenbowed at this year's edition (A New Day In Old Sana'a, directed by 37-year-old UK-born Bader Ben Hirsi).
Butthere is excitement in the region as countries, led by Jordan, which has theregion's only film commission, Dubai, and of course Egypt with itslong-established film industry (and highly-protected marketplace) take stepsinto the market, led by, amongstother things, a desire to portray their culture onscreen in anincreasingly-polarised world.
Witha bigger, more diversified programme this year, Stephenson said: "Dubai canhave a positive, trickle-down effect. It exposes people here to new things, newideas. It can influence local authorities to take the approach that's takenduring the festival when there's no censorship - the fact that the festival cansuccessfully bring these films here helps push the envelope."
The festival comes under thebanner of the Dubai Technology And Media Free Zone Authority, an initiative ledby the country's Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, also thefestival's patron. The mooted Dubai Film Commission also comes under thisumbrella, and may include a fund for local film-makers, confirmed Stephenson.