Show me the money

Arabian Business talks to Abdulhamid Juma, head of DIFF about coping with competition and promoting Arab film making.
Show me the money
By Damian Reilly
Sat 10 Oct 2009 04:00 AM

Arabian Business talks to Abdulhamid Juma, head of the Dubai International Film Festival about coping with competition and promoting Arab film making.

Abdulhamid juma would have every right to be hopping mad. He started the Dubai Film Festival in 2004, and has worked like, well, like a young Walt Disney, to build it up into something to boast about to the world. When he launched it, it was the first film festival in the Gulf. And now, as is so often the case in the GCC, every city seems to want one of its own.

There's a Bahrain film festival, a Doha film festival and, most worryingly, as of two years ago, an Abu Dhabi film festival. Juma's original film festival is in danger of being lost in the crowd.

Far from cursing his luck, Juma meets Arabian Business in his plush office overlooking one of Media City's manmade lakes on a clear day in September and is all smiles.

From here, Dubai's skyline does not look like a work in progress, but rather implies a city which is complete and enormous. In fact, it looks like the type of city that would not have to worry about something so silly as coming second in a race with its neighbour to become the Gulf's pre-eminent ‘centre of culture,' whatever that means.

He says: "I don't think, from what I know, that there is such a planned inside objective of Dubai or Abu Dhabi (to compete with each other).  We are not calling ourself ‘the hub of culture'.

Culture has to come from within. You have to have a culture, but you don't have to be a hub for culture. You have a culture for Dubai, you have a culture for Abu Dhabi, you have a culture for the Muslims. What is culture? Culture is growing on every street. We have to go and find it."

But given Abu Dhabi's push for artistic credibilty - for example its massive investment in the arts, from opera houses to art galleries such as the Louvre - does Juma not consider it inevitable Dubai's film festival will be consigned shortly to poor relation status?

The UAE's capital is hardly likely to sit idly by while Clooney et al prance about on a red carpet an hour down the road, not when they have a red carpet of their own. To put it bluntly, does Juma not think Abu Dhabi will do everything possible to blow Dubai's film festival out of the water?

"You have two schools of thought. Mine is that two film festivals in the same country is not a big disaster. There are 3,000 film festivals in the world. The media is making a big deal out of it, trying to make it into a big story," Juma says.

Can he be serious? Is he really not worried at all about the competition presented by Abu Dhabi's film festival? He frowns.

"What I am worried about is we hurt the people, or the segment of the people, we claim we are trying to help, which is the Arab film makers and the UAE film makers. If we try to compete with our egos, it will be like Rome and Venice competing with each other."

That is certainly one way of looking at it. But what about sharing the film festival out? Instead of allowing each GCC state to dilute the brand by hosting their own festival, why not host it in a different GCC state or city each year? The shift in body language as Juma leans back in his chair indicates this is a question he is familiar with answering.

"That cannot happen, it doesn't work. Film festivals are something fun. They give you a different feel for the city. A film festival is city-related, not country-related. A city has its own vibration and its own energy. Having a film festival is something good. My feeling is this: more schools are good for education. More film festivals are good for the industry."

Before the hard sell, the soft. Juma will take pains to explain that the Dubai Film Festival (DIFF) was set up to heal the world. He says that post-9/11, there was a widespread misunderstanding of Arabs, and what Arabs wanted from life. Establishing DIFF, he says, was a way to build bridges between all four corners of the globe - interconnecting bridges with their nexus in Dubai, if you follow the metaphor - and thereby increase mutual understanding.

And why not in Dubai? This city-state was already by far the most cosmopolitan in the Gulf, comprising a comparatively sprawling and ethnically diverse populace.

It's only after you find yourself being drawn into what a wonderful opportunity DIFF is to bring man close to his brother man that Juma drops in the fact that courting the film industry like this could turn out to be an enormously lucrative thing to do. With a twinkle in his eye, he will remind anyone who listens that the local people of Dubai are good business people.

 "Stories about Arab issues were being taken from this part of the world, made in Hollywood, and then sent back to us. And then we had to live with it. We might not have agreed with it, but from an entertainment point of view, we watched it. So the idea was:  let's see some Arab films, better quality, better content, and then let's also try to make more people see those films."Whether we send the films to them, or they come to see it... whatever. At the end of the day, we want them to see we are human beings. We have the same challenges, we have the same objectives, we have the same dreams and we have the same values. We wanted to show those type of films to the rest of the world."

Juma does not deny that pre-DIFF there was no shortage of places to go to watch Arab films. Indeed Cairo has had its own film festival for 32 years. Damascus, too, has a film festival, one that has been going for pushing two decades. There's a good one in Iran apparently, and Turkey's is meant to be a sensation.

However, he believes the niche Dubai might be able to exploit is in the people's lack of awareness about where to go to find the broadest selection of Arab films. He says each film festival showed films that were too local for the true cinephile.

"If they went to Cairo it would show mostly films made by its own film industry. Or African films. And quite rightly, because one of the mandates of the film festival is to show the production of the domestic industry. If you go to a film festival in Tunisia, they show films with a French background or language, so it is not really the place that you want. When we started the film festival we had our mandate from day one to be the film festival where you find the best selection of Arab films. I think we are achieving that, absolutely."

He will add that DIFF, since its inception, has always shown 45 percent Arab films.

What the people who are behind DIFF really want, much more than just an annual jamboree at which everyone in attendance gets to pretend they are Tinseltown cognoscenti, is for big international blockbuster films to be made in Dubai.

Films cost a lot of money, and the profits to be made from hosting the production process are not to be sniffed at.

Indeed, until they were delayed as a result of the recent downturn, Dubai was engaged in building three international-standard soundstages in, where else, Studio City. Juma says they will be completed some time next year.

"We don't want every Tom, Dick and Harry to come and shoot a film here, but like every city we would like to be considered as a good location. The dream is to have Dubai selected as a choice location, and then when a film comes from Hollywood they would bring their main cast and then they would source everything else from here. I think Dubai is a magnet for talent.

"Look at the costs of making a film, and what those costs could do for a local economy.  The average American blockbuster costs an average of $160m. And then you have all the people involved with filming coming to stay here for two  weeks, like they did for Syriana. They stay in hotels, they rent cars, you have people buying cars to blow up. You have aeroplanes being hired, and production companies moving in. It can be a huge boost for the economy, and there are a lot of other intangibles too."

Is Juma worried about Dubai's depiction in films these days as a centre for international vice?

Not really, is the short answer. He points out that if you believed everything you saw on the silver screen, no one would ever dream of setting foot in a place so violent as New York.

On top of the world healing and the business, Juma also thinks a successful DIFF will foster creative local people who might make films. He thinks it is weird that the GCC makes very few films:

"Over the last ten years films have come out of places where nobody was expecting them to come from. The Gulf is what I call the last frontier of film amking. Everywhere else makes films, except us."

Let's hope that changes. Whatever happens to DIFF over the long run, you can bet that Roman Polanski wishes he had given it priority over Zurich's.

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