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De-festivaling Dubai
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 05 - 2018

It is confirmed. The 15th round of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), first held in 2007, will take place 2019, not 2018. According to the official press release, “The organizers of DIFF will be adopting a new strategy to support the growth and evolution of the film and content industries in the region. The strategic shift aims to embrace the significant changes taking place in the region's creative and entertainment landscape. The new strategy also seeks to leverage the emergence of exciting new talent and innovative new technologies that are rapidly transforming the content landscape in the region.”
The decision took the Arab film community by surprise, leaving them with numerous questions about the fate of the festival and, especially, the funding programme associated with it: Injaz. The “strategic shift” brought back memories of the closure, in May 2015 – after only eight rounds – of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF). There too the organisers said they would focus on initiatives to support filmmaking, but the following year the Sanad funding programme was discontinued. In 2014, the Gulf Film Festival (GFF) had folded too. Dubai has been by far the most successful with “almost 2,000 screenings including 500 films from the Arab world”, actual contributions to over 300 films from the region and (through the Muhr awards) 200 filmmakers” and help with another 140 productions. Making it biannual in what many see as a step towards closing it has reopened the debate on how far film festivals help to maintain and improve the Arab film industry, and how solid the strategies and visions behind them are. Why would such a successful event be abandoned?
According to Essam Zakaria, the president of Ismailia Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts (IFFDS) – in which Emirati filmmaker Nujoom Al-Ghanem's Muhr-winning documentary Sharp Tools won the Best Feature Length Documentary prize this last round – random decision making in culture is a kind of Gulf tradition; the real reasons are never announced. “It's anyone's guess. The moment a festival starts to be regionally, internationally significant, it is shut down.” The Dubai Festival's huge budget could be a factor since the UAE's economic priorities are constantly shifting. The Gulf countries are obsessed with superlatives, says Zakaria: “the tallest tower, the biggest building – and the greatest festival. DIFF expenses were beyond the imagination of even Hollywood guests”. Drawing attention to your country is easy, he goes on, compared to making a sustainable impact. And yet Zakaria hopes “they'll find a way to reconstruct their budget instead of sacrificing everything. There has been a notable emerging film scene in the UAE and the Gulf and we cannot eliminate the DIFF as one of the main factors for this.”
For his part Intishal Al-Timimi, the Director of the El Gouna Film Festival (GFF), who at various points in the life of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival was both director of the SANAD fund and programmer of the Arab cinema programme, says such changes reflect a lack of vision and methodology in the Arab world. He fears that the way in which the decision was announced indicates that the end is nigh: “When a festival decides on a strategy change that never happens all of the sudden. It should be declared at least three years in advance. I hope this is not a step to end the festival.” The DIFF had its flaws, he says, but especially in its last three rounds it concerned itself with the art of cinema, not propaganda, and its cumulative weight had begun to show.
“It is true the other festivals will now have more opportunities to show Arab films that used to be hogged by Dubai,” Al-Timimi says, “but in the long run what will losing a funding programme and a screening platform mean for film production in the region?” Of all Arab film festivals, only the DIFF seemed to understand the role of a film event in funding and developing film projects, and so it instituted Injaz. “In its first round El Gouna followed in the footsteps of Dubai, creating the CineGouna platform and I believe with Mohamed Hefzy as its president the Cairo International Film Festival will do likewise.” But, even if the UAE had absolutely no film industry, losing the DIFF would still be a great loss. “The film industry cannot develop without platforms enabling filmmakers to have cumulative experiences and helping with the audience's awareness of the culture of cinema. The DIFF does not belong to the UAE any more but to the Arab region, to Arab filmmakers, expertise, organisers and jury members who exerted so much effort to make the festival what it is.”
Cate Blanchett
As for Hefzy, a producer and screenwriter as well as the 40th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) president, he feels the decision will have a negative impact on the world cinematic community's view of the Arab world. “We are getting a reputation for never completing what we start and this will affect all film festivals in the region. Will they take us seriously?” Competition between them notwithstanding, the Arab festivals supported each other. DIFF had a much bigger budget than CIFF – “a class A festival that despite limited resources grants awards that are important the world over” – but, DIFF's budget could mean that it took films away from CIFF, it also meant essential support for Arab filmmakers which may now be lost. As Hefzy puts it, “One festival cannot replace the other.” This, in spite of CIFF plans to provide support through a five-day programme (soon to be announced at Cannes) of project development sessions, workshops, seminars and masterclasses. “It is bigger than the Cairo Connection programme,” now discontinued, “and should be the basis for a comprehensive plan.” Still, there is room for at least five big festivals in the Arab world.
More than the others, producer Alaa Karkouti – cofounder of the Arab Cinema Centre and MAD Solutions (of which he is also the CEO), a film and entertainment, pan-Arab, independent studio of marketing and consultancy for which the DIFF was crucial – is certain that this is the end of Dubai. “A festival that is ranked in the top 20 in the world should not take random decisions. No international festivals do anything of the kind unless there is a war or a revolution or something. MAD used to participate with up to 25 films and 10 team members. The Arab pavilion at Dubai Market was huge too. Suffice to say the DIFF could sell up to 70 thousand tickets in 10 days. The end of the DIFF is very sad news.” And symptomatic of the terrible state of film festivals in the Arab world: “CIFF is hardly works, Gulf festivals when they aren't weak periodically vanish. Carthage, despite its reputation, doesn't have proper theatres. In reality festivals afford no distribution opportunities although they are distributors' only window. Arab filmmakers have to start from scratch every time, relying on their own independent finances. It is as if we're running round and round in a circle.”
Critic Ahmed Shawki, assistant artistic director of CIFF, says even if DIFF was held biannually as promised that wouldn't be the same; it places the event in a different category. The organisers' statement provides more questions than answers. What, for example, will happen to Injaz? As to clearing the way for the CIFF, Shawki feels this is not the right way to think. The question, he says, is whether filmmakers are coming to CIFF because of its importance or because they have no other options. “There is a big difference. When you are competing against a strong opponent you will do your best to improve and progress. What happened to Dubai will not only have a negative effect on Arab filmmakers but on Arab film festivals as well. Even the one-year-old El Gouna drew the attention of the state and of sponsors to ways of improving CIFF, so you can imagine the loss. There are questions to be answered not just by DIFF organisers but by the Arab film industry itself.”
Mona Zaki
Dhyaa Joda, the Belgium-based Iraqi filmmaker, says Gulf and Arab festival confusion has a negative effect on expat filmmakers too. “What brought me back to the Arab film scene were the festivals and funding programmes in Egypt, the UAE and Lebanon. For sure I will face difficulties producing my next short film, which I planned to present to DIFF's Injaaz funding programme, because other funding opportunities are very limited and if you live in Europe the funding priorities are for local filmmakers.” Joda's first documentary received a grant from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival which helped him to receive more grants from other resources but the disappearance of ADFF in 2014 limited his opportunities. Joda, whose latest short fiction film Captivity won the Special Jury Muhr prize at the Gulf Short Awards in 2017, appreciates that the DIFF was able to divide its funds and awards among Gulf filmmakers, Emirati filmmakers and filmmakers from the rest of the Arab world. He also believes that the financial awards of the DIFF enabled filmmakers especially on the independent scene to produce more films. “As an Arab filmmaker who lives abroad the disappearance of any Arab film festival has a negative effect on me.”
The Egyptian winner of the Muhr Feature Award for best director, Mohammed Hammad, had valuable experience although his film was independently produced. The key point was the commercial distribution of his first feature fiction film Withered Green, which was commercially screened in Dubai and Lebanon before its commercial screening in Egypt. “It was not about the financial value of the award but how a film festival distributes your film commercially so you can get back a part of what you spent as an independent filmmaker.” The festival for Hammad was very well organised and served him as a filmmaker not only by screening his film but by creating every opportunity for him to develop his project either in terms of distribution or funding a future project. “In addition to helping with the commercial screening of my film the festival was a platform to meet world distributers, producers and funders so you can take further steps in the future. The life cycle of any film in a festival should not end with its screening but should start there.”

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