The 6th Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) launched in usual style last night (December 9) with a star-studded screening of Rob Marshall’s musical feature Nine (pictured), despite the debt crisis that is looming over the city.

Singer and actress Mandy Moore joined Indian screen legend Amitabh Bachchan, in town to receive a lifetime achievement awawr, and Arab stars including Khaled Taja and Nelly Kareem on the red carpet. Marshall and the cast of Nine, including Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz and Nicole Kidman, were in Los Angeles for the film’s premiere but spoke to the festival via video message. Marshall said he was “thrilled” the film was opening the festival.

The festival, which is the largest in the region, opens as the city faces a severe financial crisis. It has been revealed that its biggest conglomerate, Dubai World, is unable to make debt payments causing shares in the United Arab Emirates to tumble.

However, DIFF is expected to go head with its usual sumptuous style over the next seven days, before closing on December 15 with a screening of James Cameron’s long-awaited 3D sci-fi adventure, Avatar.

Masoud Amralla, the festival’s artistic director, said that hosting  “two of the best studio films of the year” showed confidence in the event. He added: “It hasn’t been easy to reach this point, especially when you look at the fierce competition there is to become a centre for film in the region.”

This year DIFF will screen 168 films, including 29 world premieres, and will play host to more than 700 guests. Amralla also expects an increase in local admissions, which reached 45,000 last year.

The festival has developed a solid base of followers since its launch in 2003 and, according to local sources, has become the region’s leading event. Ziad Abdulla, a film critic for local newpaper Emirates Today, said: “In comparison to other festivals in the area, this one is still the top. It has worked hard to obtain its present position.

DIFF faces stiff competition from Abu Dhabi, which held its third film festival in October, and the launch of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in November. But Amralla believes that its relationship with Arab film-makers will help it retain its key position in the Middle East. He added: “Each festival has its policies and philosophies what distinguishes us is the two-way street with the Arab film community. We obtained the filmmakers confidence as the best window for their projects. That we are serious as they are about their future”.