In addition to the red-carpet appearances from George Clooney, Sharon Stone and co, one of the main attractions at last year's Diff was the establishment of the Dubai Film Connection (DFC), the first feature and documentary film co-production market in the UAE. It was the brainchild of Industry Office head Jane Williams, whose remit was to bring together professionals from the Arab and international industries to meet and exchange expertise.
"During the previous Diff we had already run intensive workshops with young Emirati film-makers, where we introduced them to some of the industry professionals who were visiting Dubai for the festival," says Williams, of the genesis of the Connection. "The professionals, who were from all over the world, expressed an interest not only in film-making from the Gulf region, but from the whole of the Arab world. It was such a great response that we realised we could easily set up a co-production market for the very next year."
The Dubai Film Connection was launched in 2007, and 15 part-funded projects by directors of Arab nationality or origin were selected to participate in the scheme. The projects were presented to an invited guest list of 80 international industry professionals including representatives from the UK's Channel Four and BBC Films, France's Memento Films and Arte, and Cinetic Media from the US. Three winners, selected by the jury, were awarded $15,000 each.
Building on the success of DFC from last year, Diff has decided to increase the prize money for its 2008 edition from $15,000 to $25,000. "We realised that many film-makers in the Arab world end up paying for production themselves. That's why our prize money goes direct to directors, not producers, and I think it's very helpful for them to receive that money," says Williams.
Following on from last year's success, the winning producers at Diff 2008 will also be given registration for Cannes' prestigious Producers Network in 2009. The 15 teams selected to take part in this year's DFC will also participate in a three-day schedule of one-on-one meetings with key industry professionals from the production, sales, distribution, funding and broadcasting sectors.
"(Last year) we introduced a lot of the Arab broadcasters to key sales agents from Europe too," says Williams. "Both sets responded really well to the fact they had the opportunity to make those connections."
"In a lot of festivals, Arab film-makers are a kind of sideshow to the main event. What really created a buzz last year was that they were the focus of the initiative. In terms of confidence and feeling like they were supported, Dubai Film Connection was a really positive experience for them," says Williams.
Fears there would be a dip in submissions for 2008 have been allayed. "We thought last year's applications might have been unusually high because it was the first opportunity for some older projects to see the light of day," says Williams. "But word has obviously spread, and they've been coming in thick and fast."
Williams has been casting the net as widely as possible in the Arab world for the upcoming edition: "We were keen to get good representation from North Africa and the Magreb this year, and it turns out we've got a lot of submissions from Tunisia and Morocco, which is great. We've also got a lot of applications from Iraq, which I think is the result of our involvement with the (subsidiary) Gulf Film Festival. Both parties became aware of each other, and we were able to reach out to them. It's going to be a very exciting year."
Festival managing director Shivani Pandya agrees. "There was an overwhelming response to the events and networking opportunities last year, and I'm proud that 25% of all the projects at DFC last year are now in pre-production and that we are able to raise our production grants and continue this valuable initiative for another year."
And what of last year's three winners' Amreeka, directed by Cherien Dabis, who was born in the US to parents of Palestinian and Jordanian origins, is the story of a Palestinian single mother and her teenage son who move to rural Illinois to escape a life of oppression, only to face the fallout from the Iraq War. Produced by Christina Piovesan from Canada's First Generation Films (based in Toronto and Los Angeles), it is now in post-production. Also in post is One Man Village, the story of the last man living in a village above Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, directed by Lebanon's Simon El Habre and produced by Irit Neihardt from Germany-based MEC Films, which produces films exclusively from the Middle East. It is hoped both may be ready in time for Diff's 2008 edition.
The third, Sameh Zoabi's Man Without A Cellphone, a light-hearted look at young Palestinians living in Israel, is being produced by Amir Harel of Tel Aviv-based Lama Films, Christoph Hahnheiser of Germany's Black Forest Films, and Marie Gutmann of France's Meroe Films. It is set to start shooting by the end of the year.
"We're very proud to be associated with the production of Amreeka," says Marc-Antoine d'Halluin, CEO of Showtime Arabia, which picked up the film at the Dubai Film Connection last year. "We believe this story will help in bridging some of the misunderstandings between the Middle East and the Western world. From this perspective, this is where cinema plays its most noble and essential role."