The 11th edition of Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) combines a host of award season contenders with a fresh crop of Arab fare.

Oscar-tipped Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory Of Everything will open the 11th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival tonight (December 9).

The gala screening follows hot on the heels of the film’s UK premiere in London on Tuesday, amid rave reviews and predictions that actor Eddie Redmayne, who plays the physicist, is on route for an academy award.

The Theory Of Everything is among a slew of award season contenders playing at DIFF this year, including St. Vincent and Birdman as well as foreign-language submissions Dukhtar (Pakistan), Mommy (Canada) and Wild Tales (Argentina).

Other international titles include Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild and Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar: Paradise Lost. Rob Marshall’s musical fantasy film Into The Woods is the closing film.

“A fabulous collection of films are going to be showcased in the international programme, many of which look set to be awards-season contenders,” says DIFF managing director Shivani Pandya.

The real talking point at this year’s festival, however, is the strong line-up of Arab films. In keeping with DIFF’s rebooted commitment to Arab cinema, the programme features one of the strongest selections of regional cinema since the festival’s creation.

This year sees a record number of films competing for the Best Muhr Fiction Feature award, including Emirati director Waleed Al Shehhi’s Dolphins; veteran Egyptian director Daoud Abdel Sayed’s paranormal drama Out Of The Ordinary; and Palestinian film-maker Khalil Al Mozian’s Gaza-set Sara 2014, revolving around an honour killing.

There is considerable local excitement over Al Shehhi’s Dolphins, the tale of a young boy coping with his parents’ separation, which won the IWC Filmmaker Award last year and was also supported by Enjaaz.

A number of other up-and-coming local film-makers will have their work showcased in the Gulf Voices sidebar including Saleh Nass’s Central Market from Bahrain, revolving around a delivery boy at a local market, and Iraqi director Ali Kareem Obaid’s Hassan In Wonderland, chronicling the impact of war on a group of boys whose playground is a car cemetery in Baghdad.

“Our goal with Gulf Voices is to provide an unapologetic, insightful portrayal of life in the region while supporting exciting young artists,” says DIFF artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali.

The popular Arabian Nights programme will screen Jan-Willem van Ewijk’s Atlantic, about a Moroccan man who tries to windsurf to Europe, and Emirati director Ali F Mostafa’s pan-Arab road movie, From A To B, which proved a hit at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

“We generally don’t show films that have been showcased at other festivals but it’s an Emirati film and we thought it would be great to support Ali and give him visibility in his home town of Dubai,” says Pandya.

A total of 118 features, shorts and documentaries are set to screen at this year’s edition, including 55 world and international premieres from 48 countries and 34 languages.