Gulf Arab film festivals compete with star-studded line-ups to draw the crowds
In a stunning gold and black dress and the highest heels
you've probably ever seen, Hollywood 'A' lister Salma Hayek struts across the
"I really like it, and I take it very
seriously," she tells reporters straining over the barrier for a comment
about her role as a judge at this film festival. "It looks like they have
built a great home for arts, culture and film."
Who would believe she was talking about Qatar, a desert
country of 1.7 million people, mostly expatriates, long seen as a cultural
backwater even compared to its Gulf Arab neighbours.
Blessed with vast oil and gas reserves and tiny
populations, Gulf Arab cities with cash to spare have been competing in recent
years to establish themselves as cultural capitals.
Doha has a prestigious Islamic art museum and Abu Dhabi
is building offshoots of New York's Guggenheim and Paris' Louvre.
But it is film festivals that have emerged as the
prestige cultural event of choice since Dubai launched its version in 2004 - poster child for its drive to become a glamorous destination for the
A week before Hayek strutted her stuff at the second Doha
Tribeca Film Festival, Uma Thurman graced the red carpet at the fourth Abu
Dhabi Film Festival in the UAE.
"For the first time I felt energy coming from a
festival in this region," she told reporters in the UAE capital.
The world's third-largest exporter of oil, Abu Dhabi
handed out prize money of nearly $1m this year at a festival that
boasted 13 world premieres. Dubai, beset by financial troubles that have taken
much of the showy gloss off the city, will have its chance to hit back in
"The last time I'm aware of this kind of cultural
competition occurring was between city states during the Italian
renaissance," said Cynthia Schneider, an art history expert and professor
in diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington.
At this year's film festival, stars mingled at glamorous
afterparties in Abu Dhabi's signature Emirates Palace hotel - the UAE
capital's equivalent of Dubai's sailed-shaped Burj al-Arab. The mood reflected
a dramatic departure from the conservative profile Abu Dhabi maintained just a
few years ago.
"I can't believe this. Look at the crowd, the
ambiance is as good as any Western film festival. Abu Dhabi has changed so
much," said Lina Bagersh, who teaches media studies in Dubai, sipping on a
glass of champagne in the muggy night heat.
Yet the frenzy of cinematic premiers and afterparty
clinking of glasses contrasts with the stark political and cultural realities
that dominate Gulf Arab societies.
There are no cinemas at all in Saudi Arabia, the
birthplace of Islam where the dominant Wahhabi school of Islam forbids men and
women from mixing and strict censorship pervades.
Most Arab films that make it to film theatres in the rest
of the Gulf Arab region, poorly promoted amid blockbuster American and Indian
productions, are dramas and comedies made in Egypt.
On the cross-roads of Africa and the Middle East and
across the Mediterranean from Europe, Egypt was already making movies a 100
years ago -- when many people in the Gulf still lived in palm frond huts, their
traditional way of life as yet undisturbed by the discovery of oil.
Gulf drama is restricted to television series produced
mainly in Kuwait and Bahrain. Even in that realm, more Arab TV dramas are
produced outside the Gulf, in Middle East countries like Syria or Lebanon,
which have more liberal societies and a longer history in the arts.
Peter Scarlet, executive director of Abu Dhabi Film
Festival, said the festivals were playing a role in developing Gulf Arab arts,
even if the region's output remains lacking.
"In Abu Dhabi the only films people can see when the
film festival isn't on is mid-level Bollywood and Hollywood," he said.
"At least 10 days a year there are films from the rest of the world. There
is an opportunity to sample some of film history that people can't access and
that has to be all to the good and that's a necessary element in founding a
Despite the obvious hurdle presented by the widespread
censorship of political and sexual material in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi's
government is sponsoring a drive to produce more homegrown films.
"Sea Shadow", the UAE's fourth feature-length
film, is currently in production. It addresses the crucial theme that Gulf Arab
societies are grappling with - rapid modernisation that ruptures a world of
sleepy fishing villages and pearl trading centres with futuristic cityscapes
that for some are visionary but for others disturbing interventions.
The story moves from Ras al-Khaimah, one of the poorest
of the emirates in the UAE, through Dubai and on to Abu Dhabi, the new
metropolis -- discretely promoting a narrative of Abu Dhabi primacy within the
The film depicts a love affair between teenagers, Kaltham and
"The aim is to reflect a completely Emirati
atmosphere, from the towers, buildings and modern cities to the old quarters
where Emiratis still live," writer Mohammed Ahmed Hassan said.
Daniela Tully, vice-president of the production firm
Imagenation, said the idea was to transfer the expertise of international
film-making to the Gulf.
"We want to build up the local film industry. We
want to have eventually an entire crew that is Emirati," she said.
"We want to bring Hollywood to the UAE and the UAE to Hollywood."
The film stands in contrast to last year's "City of
Life", a Dubai film that celebrated the city's cosmopolitan mix of
foreigners, which underwent some revision by the Abu Dhabi-based National Media
Council that must approve all scripts.
Scarlet, in Qatar for the Doha extravaganza after
comparing events during his Abu Dhabi festival, said rapid changes to the
urban, demographic and economic shape of society in a country like the UAE were
themes ripe for the silver screen.
"It's clear that any film-making in the Emirates
must deal with the fact that cultural change has been so instantaneous,"
he said. "Everyone is concerned with taking a cultural past and adapting
it to the rapidly changing face of now."
He said film distribution was more of an issue than
censorship in the region and held out hope that Gulf Arab attitudes to acting
itself would change -- the leading lady in "Sea Shadow" is of Syrian
"I've heard of young women who couldn't be in films.
Part of that is tradition and part of that is the kind of process that Europe
and America went through when what was a side show attraction for the lowest
levels of society suddenly won legitimacy as an art form," Scarlet said.
Schneider also held out hope that the Gulf Arab cinema
wars would turn out to be more than public relations stunts fixated on the
prestige associated with luring Hollywood stars.
"It would be great if the proportion of money spent
on bringing stars over and that spent on aspiring filmmakers were a little
different, but the mentorship and competition aspects are both good
things," she said.