The Dubai International Film Festival (Dec 6-14) is celebrating its 10th anniversary by shining a spotlight on Arab cinema.

It is now official that the young, ambitious film festivals in the Gulf region are not quite so young any more.

The oldest among them, the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), is turning 10 this year. Since its first edition in 2004, a new Arab cinema has begun to emerge and make its presence felt at an international level, a transformation that has partly been made possible by festivals such as DIFF.

The festival has introduced many new initiatives and partnerships to celebrate its 10th anniversary — including the launch of the Cinematic Innovation Summit (CIS), a planned annual conference to discuss the impact of technology on the film industry, and a tie-up with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) — both of which highlight DIFF’s links with Hollywood and the wider global film industry. But the anniversary will also be an opportunity for DIFF to celebrate and take stock of the current state of film-making in the Arab world.

“We’ve made the conscious decision that the best way to celebrate is to go back to our roots and push something that we’ve always been behind, which is Arab cinema,” says DIFF chairman Abdulhamid Juma, who has been with the festival since 2004. “Our celebration this year is really focusing on Arab filmmakers and Arab cinema, while continuing the work we do in Dubai Film Market, and bringing in good international films along with stars.”

The Arab focus is reflected on several fronts. DIFF is opening with Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar — the first time an Arab film has opened the festival since Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now kicked off proceedings in 2005. The festival has also compiled a list of the best 100 Arab films of all time, following a survey among 475 leading critics, writers and academics, and published the results in a book, Cinema Of Passion, which also analyses the history of Arab cinema. Egyptian director Chadi Abdel Salem’s The Mummy(1969) tops the list and will screen at the close of DIFF. In addition, leading Egyptian critic Samir Farid will receive one of DIFF’s lifetime achievement awards. 

Arab cinema is also celebrated across the wider programme. DIFF is screening a total of 174 features, documentaries and shorts, of which more than 100 are from the Arab world. In addition to the Muhr Arab competition (see sidebar), the festival will host two red-carpet gala screenings for Arab films — the world premiere of Mohamed Khan’s Factory Girl and Laila Marrakchi’s Rock The Casbah, which premiered at Toronto. DIFF also has more world premieres this year — 70 compared with 49 in 2012 — most of which are for Arabic-language films.

Women in focus

“We’re also seeing the largest number of women film-makers presenting their films at DIFF — about 40% of the filmmakers in the Arab programme are women, which is great to see,” says DIFF managing director Shivani Pandya. “We’ve also seen an increase in world premieres because many people have kept their films for us. They realise that with the combination of press, industry and market, we’ve become a leading destination for Arab films.”

‘We hope in the past 10 years we have proved ourselves and to film-makers how much we respect Arab cinema’

Abdulhamid Juma, DIFF

But the Arab focus will not be taking attention away from international cinema and stars. Two red-carpet screenings will be held each day to celebrate DIFF’s 10th edition — in addition to the Arab films, galas also include Disney animation Frozen and 3D adventure Walking With Dinosaurs, along with acclaimed titles such as Labor Day, 12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom and Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox. David O Russell’s American Hustle will close the festival.

Talents expected to walk the red carpet include Martin Sheen, who will also receive a lifetime achievement award; Cate Blanchett, who returns to Dubai for the second year to head the jury of the IWC Filmmaker Award; and Rooney Mara and Mark Ruffalo, who will attend the annual Oxfam and Dubai Cares charity event.

Elsewhere in the programme, the Muhr AsiaAfrica competition will screen films that have been taking the festival circuit by storm, such as Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo [pictured] and Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, along with world premieres such as Mostofa S Farooki’s Ant Story. The Cinemas of the World line-up includes films such as Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man.

Underpinning all this activity are DIFF’s strong industry programmes under the banner of the Dubai Film Market, which have directly contributed to the development of Arab cinema over the past six years (see page 8). This year’s Film Forum includes two sessions in association with AMPAS: Beyond The Oscars, providing an overview of AMPAS activities, and An Academy Conversation on Directing with Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) and Ava DuVernay (Middle Of Nowhere). “We’re also working on a programme where we will eventually be taking films from the Arab world and, with the assistance of AMPAS, screening them in the US,” says Pandya.

Co-organised with Seattle-based Center for New Cinema and France’s Naseba, the CIS (December 5-6) features speakers such as Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith, Lava Bear Films CEO David Linde and actors Andy Serkis and Stephen Lang. Held at the Atlantis, Palm Jumeirah, the event features interactive demonstrations of new technology in addition to panels and networking sessions.

Looking back over the festival’s past 10 years, Juma says it is achieving its goals of balancing glamour and industry initiatives with support for regional film-makers: “We’ve been talking for a very long time about our sincerity and the way we feel about Arab cinema. We hope that in the past 10 years we’ve proved to ourselves and to film-makers how much we respect this cinema, and look forward to seeing it flourish.”