By Joseph Fahim
Film is a business largely defined by giant egos, unrealistic ambitions and breakneck rivalry. Art, passion and real dedication occasionally take a backseat to a host of other commercial and strategic considerations.
This reality is especially palpable in the Arab world where competition has grown sterner over the past few years with the emergence of the Gulf film fests that managed, intentionally or unintentionally, to steal the limelight from the old guard.
There is a key difference between established European and Asian fests and their Arabic counterparts: Film production in the Arab world, a market still in a state of infancy, is comparatively small in addition to the fact that the quality of Arab films is highly inconsistent.
The bizarre thing is while both production and audience is relatively limited, the Gulf fests, according to reports, rank among the richest in the world. The gap between Arab films and the fests that promote them is quite large, a fact that prevented numerous critics and industrials alike from taking them seriously for a long time.
This might finally be changing as the Gulf harnesses its powers not only to create an international platform for Arab films, but to assist filmmakers in realizing their work.
Leading the charge is Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), the oldest and most established of the Gulf fests. Emerging triumphantly from the forceful storm of criticism that greeted it from day one, Dubai is currently regarded as the most important showcase for Arab film in the world.
I personally wasn’t sure what to expect when I landed to Dubai for the first time last year. Word of mouth among critics and filmmakers I know was quite favorable, yet I remained skeptic about the true intentions behind the fest until I arrived.
Contrary to my expectations, what I witnessed was a bona fide film festival abundant with various film sections, interesting seminars and countless industry meetings and side-activities. And although there were undeniable organizational glitches, DIFF was well publicized, attracting film aficionados and industrials alike. Nearly all screenings I attended, including the early afternoon ones, were sold-out while discussions enjoyed a large audience turnout, a rarity in the Arab fests.
The blossoming market is what elevates DIFF above the rest of its competitors. With sales exceeding $2.7 million in 2009, Dubai has managed to accomplish an exceptional feat that continues to elude the more established fests in the region: Direct contribution to the distribution process. The facilities at hand — a digital library offering all films screened in both the fest and the market — have eased the buying and selling process.
Like all Arab fests last year, the film selection, as illustrated in previous reports, was uneven, disappointing and unfocused to some. The Arabic selection contained few revelations and plenty of duds.
The mastermind behind Dubai is artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali. Mostly known for being the biggest patron of young Arab filmmakers, the incredibly modest Al Ali is possibly the most accessible director of any festival anywhere in the world. Accompanied by no entourage whatsoever, you can always spot Al Ali having long discussions with critics, filmmakers and industrials in the DIFF’s headquarter. His passion for film is contagious; his belief in young Arab talents is unquestionable and in a region inhospitable to disagreeing opinions, his acceptance of criticism is refreshing.
At the very end of December, I had a long phone interview with Mr. Al Ali clocking over two hours in which he discussed Dubai’s new initiatives and the state of Arab cinema while also responding to the criticism that continues to taunt the fest.
I began the interview by asking him about his thoughts on DIFF’s last edition, which concluded last month.
“It’s been an exceptional year for us,” Al Ali said. “A very distinctive one. We’ve now grown into a full- fledged film festival that covers both art and industry. DIFF’s much more than film screenings. The festival can now be classified as a real film market.”
All sections of the fest, both documentary and fiction, have been expanded, incorporating more daring and experimental works from budding and established cinemas alike.
Al Ali pointed in particular to the African/Asian Muhr section, one of the strongest feats of the 2010 edition.
“It’s important to highlight and showcase the alternative side to established cinemas like India for example,” he said. “Indian films have a strong presence in Dubai, but it’s mainly restricted to commercial films. Documentaries for instance are always neglected. The African/Asian Muhr section offers a good opportunity to show those films.”
One of the new initiatives the 7th edition presented was the Muhr Emirate competition for Emirate films.
“In here, there’s a need now for tackling social problems, for expressing them through film,” Al Ali said. “And when there’s a competition, people are incited to create excellent, original work.”
Known for having the biggest film mart in the region, Al Ali believes that Dubai’s film market has come of age this year.
“Our slogan for the market is ‘From Script to Screen,’” Al Ali Said. “[Last year], I think we truly realized this motto. The film market included workshops, training programs and other new initiatives targeted towards young talents. The market isn’t only focused on the making of film; it also deals with distribution whether it’s theatrical or home release.”
Among the goals of the 2010 edition according to Al Ali was “building a bridge between the East and the West.”
“The infrastructure was reconfigured,” Al Ali said. “We established programs to accomplish this goal, encouraging debates and discussions. It wasn’t only restricted on film; the programs comprised several activities related to various art disciplines. We had art galleries and carnivals and plenty of other activities.”
Pundits have always questioned the significance of such programs, but Al Ali firmly believes that such objective is of great value. “The West’s view of the Arab World remains stereotypical. We need to present a picture of us, a picture of how Arabs see each other instead of the widespread picture of the West’s view of us.”
The main focus of the fest, as Al Ali insists, is Arab film, whether it’s short, long or documentary. And quality aside, Al Ali believes that the Dubai acts as “a representative of the reality of both Arab and what can be called developing cinemas.”
“We don’t claim that these are pure films, that these are great films. But this is the reality of Arab cinema, a faithful representation of the state of Arab cinema, and the West needs to see Arab cinema. Whether these are the best Arabic films or not is an issue that can be argued, but what’s indisputable is that these films do speak of and express the reality of the Arab World.”
The state of Arab national cinemas is always in flux, a fact highlighted by the shift in focus of last year’s selection compared to previous editions. “In 2009, we were primarily focusing on Palestinian cinema. [In the 2010 edition], there was a dearth of Palestinian films. Morocco was prominently represented in past years but was less so in 2010.”
Judging by this year’s edition, I asked Al Ali where he believes Arab cinema is heading.
“It’s difficult to say where Arab cinema is heading judging by one or two editions,” he replied. “Overall though, I believe that Arab cinema is experiencing a revolution in terms of quantity, although not necessarily quality, and that’s not a bad thing. If there was no proliferation in production, we would’ve ended up with the same old names, the veteran filmmakers of the ‘90s, who have dominated Arab cinema up until recently. The promising thing is there are new great talents that are emerging; new generations of young filmmakers coming out every year. There’s a great interest in cinema among these new generations.
“Making films now is much easier. The entire Arab culture is changing. We are more open now to picture. There are pictures now everywhere; in billboards, mobile phones, internet. For many, many years, the Arab culture was largely concerned with text, the written word. Our culture heritage is built around text. [Moroccan world traveler] Ibn Battuta, for example, wrote extensively about his travels but didn’t offer any illustrations or drawings of the places and things he witnessed. Older generations were naturally attached more to the text.
“Things are different now. There’s a strong pictorial culture present and accessible everywhere. Back in the days, you couldn’t see foreign or art-house films unless you go to festivals. That’s not the case anymore.”
The diversity of media doesn’t however automatically translate into a tangible alternative culture. “We have an absence of alternative culture,” Al Ali commented, “We don’t have film screens dedicated to alternative movies, no TV channels, no specialized publications. That’s why there’s a mix-up on the role of DIFF which is expected to bridge that gap by promoting serious movies, publish books…etc.
“Dubai and other Arab fests are obliged to perform more functions than festivals in the West.”
Follow Daily News Egypt tomorrow for part two of the interview with Masoud Al Ali.