Dubai International Film Festival (Dec 9-16) is welcoming international stars alongside up-and-coming local talent in its mission to boost cinema and film-making in the region.

As the oldest film festival in the Gulf, celebrating its ninth edition this year, the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) has hit its stride in terms of its programming and industry initiatives, as well as making its mark on the global film festival map.

With a stable management team in place and a wide range of international partners and consultants, DIFF has had the time and opportunity to develop on all fronts: as an incubator for Arab films; as a global launchpad for those films once they have been completed; and as a world-class event to bring the best international films to local audiences. It has also managed to consistently attract some of the world’s biggest stars.

“The watchword for us is balance,” says DIFF chairman Abdulhamid Juma. “A film festival with good films and no stars is more for the industry. I want to change the cinema culture in the UAE by attracting the local audience to come and watch films.

“But at the same time I want that audience to watch films from directors and featuring actors they’ve never heard of. Our mandate as a film festival is to create stars and not only bring them when they’re already well known.”

This year the festival has plenty to offer on the star front. Colin Firth, Kristin Davis, Rooney Mara and Egyptian actor-film-maker Amr Waked will attend the annual Oxfam and Dubai Cares charity event. In addition, Freida Pinto will serve on the shorts jury, and Cate Blanchett has joined the jury of a new DIFF award, the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Award, and will present the winning writer-director with a $100,000 cheque to help his or her script into a film.

Last year the festival offered star wattage at the brightest end of the spectrum: Tom Cruise jetted into town for opening film Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, while Shah Rukh Khan whipped up similar levels of hysteria the following day while promoting Bollywood blockbuster Don 2.

As Juma points out, “a film festival is also about what happens in the kitchen,” and this year DIFF has selected an opening film that is breaking boundaries in cinematic artistry, rather than one with huge stars. Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi [pictured], which kicks off the festival on Dec 9, brings together Western and Eastern talent and neatly encapsulates DIFF’s mandate of bridging cultures.

Red carpet gala screenings have been reserved for Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda, fresh from its Venice success, Kurdish drama Bekas, Feng Xiaogang’s Back To 1942, as well as Hitchcock, Amour, Cirque Du Soleil: Worlds Away and the world premiere of Norwegian children’s film Journey To The Christmas Star. Wayne Blair’s riotous musical drama The Sapphires will close the festival on Dec 15.

At the core of DIFF’s programming are its three competition sections: the Muhr Arab, Muhr Asia/Africa and Muhr Emirati, which will hand out more than 36 awards with a combined $600,000 in prize money. Jury members for the three strands include UK film-maker Michael Apted, who will also pick up a lifetime achievement award, UK-based actress Kerry Fox, Brazilian director Bruno Barreto and Korea’s Lee Chang-dong.

Elsewhere in the programme, the Cinemas Of The World line-up will screen titles such as Jacques Audiard’s Rust And Bone, the Wachowskis’ and Tom Tykwer’s Cloud Atlas and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. The festival will also feature a special section marking the centennial of Indian cinema, including titles from India’s new wave of indie film-makers, including Miss Lovely, Ship Of Theseus and the world premiere of Kaushik Ganguly’s Sound.

Running alongside the screenings and red carpets will be DIFF’s film market and further industry initiatives, which have grown substantially since the festival’s first edition in 2004. Under the banner of the Dubai Film Market (DFM), the festival runs co-production market Dubai Film Connection, post-production fund Enjaaz and trading platform Filmmart, along with a slew of additional initiatives.

Several titles from last year’s DIFF line-up found local distribution through DFM, including Daniel Joseph’s drama Taxi Ballad and Danielle Arbid’s Beirut Hotel, both acquired by Circuit Empire for the Middle East. “There are also a lot of deals under negotiation, so there is a fair bit of business being done,” says DIFF managing director Shivani Pandya. “What’s happening is that not only are Arab films getting picked up, but we’re also finding that people are really interested in some of the Asian and African films being screened.”

Films to have passed through DIFF’s projects market, Dubai Film Connection, at the beginning of their production cycle include Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka, Annemarie Jacir’s When I Saw You, Mohamed Al Daradji’s Son Of Babylon and Al Mansour’s Wadjda. Not all of these film-makers chose DIFF for the first screening of their completed films — Wadjda had its world premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival, while Jacir’s When I Saw You first screened in Toronto.

But DIFF can claim an increase in world premieres this year — 52 compared to 46 in 2011. World premieres this year also include films from outside the Arab world, such as US thriller Officer Down, starring Stephen Dorff, and Sadourni’s Butterflies from Argentina’s Dario Nardi.

“Film-makers realise we are a great launchpad, but we’re happy for them to go ahead if they get an opportunity to showcase their films at festivals like Cannes or Venice,” Pandya says.

“Of course there are other opportunities because, when you’re launching in Dubai, all the people attending the festival are interested in films from this region. When you’re putting a film in any of the bigger festivals, you are competing with a large international selection, so it really depends on how confident the film-maker is with that film.”

While it supports film across the whole of the Arab world, DIFF has also been striving to develop film-making in the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which historically have not had much of a film industry. It was with this in mind that the festival launched the IWC award, which focuses on Gulf film-makers. DIFF also supports local talent through the five-year-old Gulf Film Festival, which takes place in April.

“We run a script workshop and mentorship programme at the Gulf Film Festival and this year we received 124 scripts, whereas in the initial days it was less than 20,” says Pandya. “So it’s early days but we are seeing films getting made.”

Feature-length films from the Gulf are still thin on the ground, but this year’s DIFF line-up includes at least one — Aseel from Oman’s Khalid Zidjali, about a young tribal boy protecting his heritage — which is screening in the festival’s Gulf Voices section.

Features for film-makers

Dubai has developed the Gulf’s biggest festival industry programme. Liz Shackleton reports

Running alongside the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) are the festival’s film market and other industry programmes, which have been steadily expanding over the past few years to become the biggest industry platform in the region.

Last year, more than 1,500 professionals from more than 80 countries attended Dubai Film Market (DFM), which has five separate programmes supporting film-makers from script to screen. These initiatives include co-production market Dubai Film Connection (DFC); post-production fund Enjaaz; completed content market Filmmart; DIFF’s training and partnership activities Exchange; and the Film Forum’s panel discussions and workshops.

More than 30 DFC projects have been completed since its launch in 2007, eight of which will screen at this year’s DIFF including Algerian film-maker Djamila Sahraoui’s Yema and documentary Sleepless Nights, about a dark chapter in Lebanon’s civil war.

This year, DFC is presenting 15 projects, including From A To B, by City Of Life director Ali Mostafa, and Ghost Hunting from Palestinian film-maker Raed Andoni (Fix Me). Further projects will be presented through Interchange and the Exchange initiative, from DIFF partners including Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, San Sebastian, India’s Film Bazaar and New York’s IFP.

Jane Williams, who heads DFC, says the quality of the submissions is constantly improving. “There is also much more consideration about the teams that are applying. When we started we had a lot of one-man bands, but now we tend to see a separate writer, director and producer.”

Williams adds this is partly because there is much more funding available in the region, and more initiatives and networking opportunities, like DFC, through which film-makers gain the knowledge to present their films.

The diversity of submissions is also expanding. “This year we received a lot of genre stories — mostly horror and comedy — which we were really pleased to see because it’s such a new departure. We didn’t select them because they weren’t quite developed enough, but it was exciting to see projects addressing a younger audience.”

Trading platform Filmmart, headed by veteran sales executive Pascal Diot, is expanding this year with new exhibition booths and international partnerships. At the centre of Filmmart is digital video library the Cinetech, which enables buyers to view films, contact sales agents and check available territories. Around 130 of the 161 films in this year’s DIFF selection are screening in the Cinetech, along with titles from the Gulf Film Festival and sales companies with films at DIFF.

Filmmart has also signed up several partners to screen films in the Cinetech, including the Venice Film Festival, where Diot also heads the new market, the Annecy animation festival and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC).

Several documentaries that screened in Filmmart last year managed to secure distribution, including Simon El Habre’s Gate No 5, which was picked up by Germany’s MEC Film, and Uncle Nashaat, which was acquired by broadcaster Al Arabiya. Lebanon’s MC Distribution acquired both Gate No 5 and Sector Zero, while Circuit Empire bought two feature films — Taxi Ballad and Beirut Hotel — for all Middle East rights.

However, many Arab films are still not connecting with distributors. Recognising this, DIFF is exploring other avenues for boosting distribution. Last year DFM announced a distribution award to support buyers who pick up Arab films, although this is now being rolled into a larger initiative, details of which are being worked out. DIFF is also hosting a meeting of a new south Mediterranean distribution network organised by Euromed during the festival.

“The problem is that distributors in the region hardly know each other,” says Diot. “This network aims to exchange information and gather distributors in the Middle East to lobby governments to support the distribution of films.”