While all eyes were on some of the world’s biggest actors at the fifth Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), the focus quickly shifted to some of the Arab world’s up-and-coming filmmakers, writes Patrick Elligett.
International celebrities like Salma Hayek, Goldie Hawn, Nicholas Cage, Danny Glover and Anil Kapoor may have made appearances at DIFF, but they did not steal the spotlight for long, for when the screenings commenced, it was the work of some of the Middle East's most promising filmmakers that stole the show.
Now in its fifth year, the DIFF event has matured to provide not only a celebrity-ridden celebration and array of local and international movie screenings, but also an interactive networking and learning platform for the local film industry.
"One of our most important mandates for DIFF was the promotion of Arab cinema," explains Masoud Amralla Al Ali, DIFF's artistic director and director general of the Muhr competition.
"Submissions for the Arab Muhr Awards grew 33% on last year, with entries from Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Morocco forming a good majority. Based on current trends, the next generation of filmmakers in the Middle East is going to be very strong."
Palestinian, Moroccan and Emirati filmmakers were among those best represented throughout the festival, with each of these countries holding a strong presence in the range of categories within the Arab Muhr Awards, which encompassed short films, documentaries and features.
The Muhr Awards also expanded its scope this year to include Asia and Africa, accepting submissions from places as far afield as Afghanistan, Iran and Japan.
Al Ali says that increased interest from filmmakers and the participation of internationally significant industry experts on the various award judging panels demonstrates the level of legitimacy that DIFF has attained within the international industry.
Hosting such a well-recognised international event in the UAE has clearly helped boost the overall strength of the local film production industry. "Emiratis are achieving some fantastic things in the film industry and their performance in the short film category is dramatically improving," Al Ali explains.
"It is our hope that they will also contribute more to the feature film categories in the future, and DIFF has helped in this by ensuring their strong representation at the festival."
Some of the local industry's biggest names were featured in the festival this year, such as Digital Studio's best young film director of 2007, Saeed Salmeen Al Murry, who was also awarded the coveted prize of Best Emirati Filmmaker at the 2008 Muhr Awards and received special recognition from the jury for his latest film Bint Mariam.
Al Murry's short films have not only received acclaim in the UAE, but at various film festivals around the world, in places like the Netherlands, Italy, Bahrain and Jordan, which indicates not only the extent of his own talent, but the growing recognition of local film production talent abroad.
Al Murry's 27-minute film, Bint Mariam is produced entirely within the UAE.
"We shot the entire film in Ras Al Khaimah over a period of seven days. The editing process took us about one month, using Final Cut Pro as our post-production software," Al Murry adds.
As his short films continue to be screened at regional and international film festivals, Al-Murry says he will begin to try his hand at creating feature-length films in 2009.
"My next project will be a feature film, which is currently under the working title of God House. Once again, I will be working with the scriptwriter of Bint Mariam, Mohammed Hassan Ahmed on this project," he adds.
Emirati filmmakers maintained a strong showing at the festival, ensuring the host nation's film industry received generous exposure alongside some of the world's most acclaimed directors such as Oliver Stone and Terry Gilliam.
Many professional Middle East-based filmmakers used DIFF as an opportunity to collaborate, build contacts and discuss production strategies with some of the industry's finest. However, the festival also provided the region's young filmmakers with the opportunity to indulge in some educational activities.
In addition to a series of networking platforms, DIFF hosted a five-day producer's workshop, a young journalist award, a comedy writing workshop; panels on exhibition, film marketing, film financing and a master-class on action direction.
Complementing the series of workshops that were conducted throughout the event was the introduction of the Dubai Film Market, which provided both seasoned and untried industry professionals with the opportunity to readily access the work of other professionals through the use of a new digitised film library called Cinetech.
Colossal IT vendor HP stepped in as DIFF's technology partner to provide a series of xw4600 workstations at the festival, which participants used to access over 200 short films, feature films and documentaries stored on the Cinetech library.The move demonstrated an improved ease of film industry content compilation and delivery to both audiences and film industry professionals. HP's management expects the new technology will revolutionise the process of acquiring audio-visual content.
"HP is delighted to help...talented regional filmmakers find audiences quickly and efficiently - creating social and economic benefit across the region," says Anil Kumar, general manager of HP Middle East's personal systems group.
Due to its role in increasing both accessibility and ease of distribution for the local film industry, the technology has been almost universally welcomed by the region's filmmakers.
The move is set to bolster HP's position in the film industry, adding to the vendor's already well-established partnerships with the Cannes and Sundance film festivals, and the company's products in the animation technology sector.
Introducing the Dubai Film Market and Cinetech technology will arguably benefit the region's aspiring filmmakers more than anyone else, by providing a means by which they are able to quickly propel their work onto the international stage, increasing exposure while eliminating the majority of issues surrounding distribution.
The Dubai Film Connection returned this year to once again provide filmmakers with the opportunity to pursue funding opportunities through the programme.
Organisers say approximately half of last year's 15 projects are commencing production after securing investment through the 2007 programme. A list of 18 productions was presented to international benefactors and mentors during the 2008 Dubai Film Connection, in an attempt to secure funding for future projects.
Amateur Saudi filmmaker, Abdullah Al Eyaf says the abundance of workshops, the introduction of the Dubai Film Market, and simply the opportunity for collaboration and discussion with industry professionals during the festival, made this a valuable event for aspiring directors.
"I was the only filmmaker from Saudi Arabia at the festival for the second year in a row. Because I went alone and there is no film industry in my country, I was worried I would look like a naïve movie fan in front of all the big filmmakers," jokes Al Eyaf.
"I always try to watch as many films as I can while I am at the festival, discuss production techniques with film creators, talk with the other Arab filmmakers, and try to go to some of the workshops organised by DIFF. By participating in workshops and talking with other filmmakers, I believe I will become more confident and improve on my skills."
Although Al Eyaf works full time as an engineer in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and operates with a limited budget, he has demonstrated that there are creative production tactics that can be employed by amateur filmmakers, to achieve a high-quality product. He says his recently released short film, Rain, was created with the assistance of some government agencies within Saudi Arabia.
"Since I don't have an official production company, I was very happy when the Department of Civil Defence offered to help me with the production," says Al Eyaf.
"They provided me with two big fire trucks to help in the creation of artificial rain. I also approached the Astoon Hospital in Al Khobar to allow me to use the hospital as a filming location and they obliged. When it came to actors, I sought the help of some friends and in post production, I did all the editing myself and even composed the music on my own. In all three of my films, I used the Sony Vegas video editing software, but for my next project, I will start using Final Cut Pro."
Budding filmmakers like Al Eyaf received plenty of advice in a more formal setting at DIFF, through the workshops that were conducted during the week-long event.
As the production industry in the Arab world continues to grow, events like DIFF provide a pivotal foundation for not only the industry's young and aspiring filmmakers, but also to the region's established professionals.
Providing countless opportunities for collaboration, the acquisition of project funding, and education, events such as DIFF are not only necessary for audiences and movie-lovers but for the growth of the fimmakers themselves.
Abdulhamid Juma, DIFF chairman, says the festival has grown by 150% since its inaugural year. "This is also the third year of the Muhr Awards for Arab excellence in cinema," he says.
The rapid growth in submissions to the Muhr Awards in 2008 is yet another factor that suggests the Middle East's film industry is rapidly developing, with events such as DIFF providing the sector with a welcome booster shot.
Highlighting the enormous jump in growth in the Palestinian and Moroccan markets, to name only two, the 2008 Dubai International Film Festival has fulfilled its mandate of promoting Arab cinema, while fostering local talent by providing workshops, industry tools and the opportunity for collaboration.
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