The second Dubai InternationalFilm Festival has stepped up its bid to become a centre of cultural debate inthe Middle East with the gala opening of its second edition and theGulf premiere of a decidedly controversial film - Hany Abu Assad's suicidebomber drama, Paradise Now.

Unspooling in front of anaudience of local dignitaries including His Royal Highness Sheikh Ahmed binSaeed Al Maktoum, Assad's tale tracks the final hours of two young Palestiniansin beleaguered Nablus who have been recruited for a human bombing raid in TelAviv. Audience reaction was muted, to say the least, but Dubai, under thedirection of Neil Stephenson, is ploughing ahead with its aims of being acentre for discussion in the Middle East, with other controversial titles thisweek to include West Bank Story (aUS-produced musical comedy rejected by Israeli festivals), the worldpremiere of Albert Brooks' Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World,and Being Osama, a Canadiandocumentary about distrust and suspicion in the Western world. Dubai's usual censorship restrictions are lifted for thefestival.

The choice of the openingnight film marked a step up in tone from Dubai's inaugural festival last year, which launched withthe decidedly less confrontational LeGrand Voyage, from Morocco, about an elderly Moroccan who forces hisFrench-born son to drive him to Mecca. Said Stephenson: "Dubai has always been a crossroads, a place where the restof the world comes to meet and do business. Starting tonight, it will also be aplace where the rest of the world comes to share their love of film and talkabout important world issues."

Apart from the sombre toneof Assad's bitter tale, Dubai'sopening night proceeded as glitzily as might be expected from a festival whosebudget has been reported at $10m. Leading the celebrity charge down a lengthyred carpet at the luxury Madinat Jumeirah resort were Dubai honouree MorganFreeman, Laurence Fishburne, Egyptian superstar Adel Imam, Michael Caton-Jonesand his Shooting Dogs star HughDancy, Terence Stamp, Deepa Mehta, whose Wateris the film's second gala screening, Viacom's Sumner Redstone, Noor Sherif,Hanan Turk, Mona Zaki, Joshua Jackson and Subhash Ghai. A lavish party followedAssad's drama.

With 1,000 press andindustry delegates registered, Dubai is set to wrap on Saturday night with the closingnight screening of Merry Christmasand the short, West Bank Story.