The fourth edition of the Dubai International Film Festival, which showcases 141 films from 52 countries, kicked off with a glamorous gala presentation of legal thriller Michael Clayton.

Speaking at the opening press conference, the film's star George Clooney highlighted the role of the lavishly-funded festival in acting as a bridge betwen the Arab world and the West: 'We have to get to the point where we understand each other a bit more, and art is a great way of doing that'.

Other gala screenings include the world premiere of Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch's cross-cultural belly-dancing drama Whatever Lola Wants, plus Middle East premieres of Fatih Akin's Cannes contender The Edge Of Heaven, and AIDS-themed Indian omnibus film Aids Jaago, produced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But it's away from the starpower red carpet galas that DIFF expresses its true nature, said Simon Field, the artistic director responsible for international programming: 'Dubai has become an important tool for supporting and nurturing Arab film-makers'.

Field sees the festival programme as having developed a 'clearer shape' this year, with a series of satellite sections orbiting around the main competition Muhr Awards for Arab cinema - whose jury includes directors Michael Cimino and Margarethe Von Trotta.

The 24-strong line-up, divided equally between features and documentaries, mixes picks from other fests like Abdellatif Kechiche's Venice Special Jury Prize winner The Secret Of The Grain, with world premieres, including Jordan's first commercial feature, Captain Abu Raed.

The films presented under the Cultural Bridge banner - which include such disparate titles as It'sA Free World and A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers - act, says Field, as the 'editorial voice' of the festival, 'stressing Dubai's role as a cultural gateway and meeting place', while the Celebration of Indian Cinema section and the small Cinema of Asia sidebar, reflect the UAE city's diverse ehnic makeup.

Field admits the festival is still on a learning curve, but believes that once areas like guest reception are wrinkle-free, 'DIFF can sell itself as a key port of call for producers, filmmakers, curators and journalists who are interested in the region and looking for an alternative to the Hollywood model'.

One of the main novelties at this year's DIFF is the increased muscle of the industry office - reflected also in the fact that this year's 501 registered delegates represent nearly double last year's number.

Industry office head Jane Williams describes her remit as 'bringing professionals from the Arab and international industries together so they can meet and exchange expertise'.

Fifteen part-funded projects by directors of Arab nationality or origin were selected to participate in the Dubai Film Connection; among those looking to complete funding are Amreeka, the much-awaited first feature by US-based Palestianian director Cherien Dabis, and Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri's third film Man in the Middle, a political thriller about the brokering of an Arab-Israeli peace deal.

DIFF has also launched a Professional Coaching for Producers scheme in association with European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs (EAVE) - the aim being, says Williams, to groom young producers from countries like Syria or Jordan 'where the figure of the producer, in the Western sense of the word, hardly exists'.

Dubai's whatever-it-takes determination to rank with the big festival players is revealed by the fact that even the projectionists have been specially flown in - mostly from Sundance or Toronto.