With the recent emergence of film festivals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Middle East's festival calendar is getting busy. But one of the oldest in the region - the Damascus International Film Festival - is determined to raise its international profile, despite operating on budgets that are a fraction of those in the Gulf.

Founded in 1979 by Syria's National Film Organisation, the festival is now part of the Ministry of Culture's wider plan to position Damascus as a cultural capital.

Admittedly, the organisers face a few obstacles - such as a lack of modern cinemas - but are working hard to put the festival on the map.

Formerly held every two years, the festival changed direction when Mohamad Al Ahmad took the reins in 2001. He turned it into an annual event and opened the competition, which focused on Asian, Latin American and Arab films, to Europe and other regions. 'People didn't know the festival in Europe, so we opened the selection to give it a chance to be known all over the world,' explains general secretary Rafat Charkas.

The guest list for this year's edition (November 1-11) reveals the results - the festival drew 250 overseas visitors although Egypt, the region's major film producer, still accounts for around one third. Film-makers such as the Czech Republic's Jan Sverak (Returnable Bottles) and Morocco's Ahmed El Maanouni (Burned Hearts) came in with their films, while stars included Catherine Deneuve, Claudia Cardinale and Franco Nero. French director Yves Boisset headed the jury.

Charkas says the festival also wants to 'open a window for Arab cinema to be known all over the world'.

Again it faces stiff competition from its neighbours and some censorship problems - films are not selected if they are deemed to offend religion or promote homosexuality. However, the Arab programme had some strong films that had premiered elsewhere such as Burned Hearts and Palestinian title Laila's Birthday. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys opened the festival, which closed with Brazilian thriller Elite Squad.

The local film industry also had an unusually strong showing. It usually produces only one or two films a year but four Syrian films premiered at this year's event including epic Hassiba and Abdellatif Abdelhamid's Days Of Boredom, which won best Arab film, sparking hopes of a revival. It is screening at the Dubai International Film Festival.

But perhaps one of the festival's strongest features is that it also opens windows in the other direction, giving Syria's highly educated and Francophone audience a chance to sample films beyond the Egyptian comedies and Hollywood releases that usually play in cinemas.

Screenings for competition titles were packed and films from France were not subtitled in English, as many Syrians understand French.