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DISPATCH FROM DUBAI | Spotlighting Palestinian Film; And Tackling that Elusive North American Market

DISPATCH FROM DUBAI | Spotlighting Palestinian Film; And Tackling that Elusive North American Market

“Your country is very different from mine,” said Bosnian filmmaker Aida Begic while introducing her debut feature, “Snow” (Snijeg) at Dubai’s chic and massive Mall of the Emirates, one of DIFF’s main screening venues. Begic’s film, which won the top prize at Critics Week in May at the Festival de Cannes, offered up a contrasting world compared to the festival venue’s huge assortment of top end European and American retailers, including Fendi, Harvey Nichols and Calvin Klein. As with many award-winning films from the conflict-torn country, the 1990s war, which resulted in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, was the backdrop of “Snow,” which is Bosnia’s submission for best foreign-language Oscar consideration, a coveted prize won in 2002 by fellow compatriot Danis Tanovic’s “No Man’s Land.”

Set in a small remote village in eastern Bosnia, a small group of women band together into a jam-making cooperative in a quest for survival amidst the aftermath of ethnic cleansing that has left all of their husbands and sons dead. While selling jam along a tiny road, the women encounter two businessmen en route to their town with a strange offer – to buy their village for a lump sum of cash as long as they agree to leave. While enticing for some, the villagers are skeptical of the men’s motivations. Battle-hardened and weary of outsiders, the women maintain a spirit of steady determination after years of war.

“In ‘Snow,’ it is a combination of documentary-style with [fiction filmmaking], to achieve a poetic film that is also naturalistic,” Aida Begic said about her film back in August at the Sarajevo Film Festival. “The camera [was held] on the shoulder so as to [bring out] what’s inside the character.”

Personal stories amidst the backdrop of war are also topics for a range of Dubai International Film Festival titles this year, including Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir’s “Salt of the Sea” (Milh Hadha al-Bahr), Kasim Abid’s “Life After the Fall” (Al Hayat Baad al Suqoot) and Samir Abdallah’s “After the War” (Apres la Guerre).

Palestinian writer/director Najwa Najjar’s “Pomegranates and Myrrh” arrived here in Dubai with the benefit of some decent initial buzz, in part because the feature will also be traveling to the upcoming Sundance Film Festival in January. Set in Ramallah in the Palestinian territories, a free-spirited amateur dancer finds herself isolated from her husband after he’s arrested defending the family olive tree farm from Israeli settlers attempting to confiscate the land. The villagers’ dynamic personalities prop up the family’s spirits as her husband languishes in a legal limbo in custody, while a wealthy professional dancer vies for his lonely wife’s attention.

“My aim wasn’t to find characters who could be reflected on the news – my aim was to find human characters you can relate to based on the Palestinian reality,” Najjar said at a press conference here, when asked why her film did not delve into the broader politics surrounding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. “I wanted a love story that shows people searching for hope amid these difficult conditions. Do we have to always just show the violence? I think that by showing the lives of everyday people living under the occupation, that this is itself political.”

The business of film took the spotlight Monday at DIFF’s headquarters at the sprawling Madinat Jumeirah Beach resort with two panels about distribution. The afternoon’s panel, moderated by Screen International’s Colin Brown, provided a upfront look at the ever-volatile and evolving North American market.

“The North American market is more difficult [today] for many reasons, one being too much money had been available to make [too many] films,” offered up ICM’s Hal Sadoff as the discussion kicked off. He cited a statistic from the Toronto International Film Festival as an example. “This year, 4,000 films were submitted to the important September event of which 300 were admitted and only about 25 were eventually sold, a frightening statistic.” Nevertheless, Sadoff cited the recent success of Summit’s “Twilight” and upstart Overture Films as recent success stories that show some dynamism in an otherwise increasingly treaturous marketplace.

Continuing he said, optimistically, “and Bob Berney, who is a great distributor in his own right, will be starting his own company soon – so we hear…”

Open City Films’ Jason Kliot noted that it is important to develop an honest film that is first and foremost a good film that can stand on its own merits, rather than a movie pre-conceived to serve the market. “I do believe that if you make a true film with a story that’s true to itself, you can get distribution in the United States, as opposed to trying to ‘make a movie for distribution in the United States.'”

Meanwhile, Seattle-based Arab Film Distributors’ John Sinno, who produced James Longley’s critically acclaimed “Iraq in Fragments,” said that contrary to the sentiment of some, films by and about Arabs are in demand in North America.

“I found there is an amazing appetite for Arab films from an Arab point-of-view,” Sinno explained, “But it is important that filmmakers should build in distribution with the production budget…” He and others on the panel mostly agreed that distribution will continue to evolve in a DIY model with digital distribution becoming increasingly important, though some said the format has yet to be fully accepted by consumers. “The real digital revolution is distribution,” said Kliot.

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