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by Peter Knegt
December 16, 2009 1:45 AM
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Building Cultural Bridges in Dubai

Dubai appears to have an almost fanatical prediliction for world firsts and records, and on Sunday they added an unlikely honour to an ever growing list, when their film festival apparently became the first ever “to feature a queen and a neuroscientist on the same stage”.

Such was the claim of Shamil Idriss, CEO of Soliya, a non-profit organization working to empower young people to achieve social change through new media, as he chaired a genuinely diverse “Cultural Bridge Panel," gathered to discuss the topic of media and social change. He was joined by Mike Medavoy, current CEO of Phoenix Pictures and former chairman of TriStar, MIT professor Rebecca Saxe, and Julia Bacha, young director of the Cultural Bridge gala film "Budrus," a documentary which screened immediately prior to the panel.

The panel was introduced by Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, delivering a keynote address (her husband and Jordan's ruler, King Hussein, died in 1999). Queen Noor has been involved for a long time in sponsoring research into cross-cultural relations at Harvard and MIT. The Cultural Bridges panel provided an unusual opportunity to bring some of that research into the context of the film festival, with the research translated and published in tandem with the forum event.

Noor detailed her experience in using the arts as a tool for cross-cultural understanding. In Jordan she had instituted an arts and cultural festival that brought together musical dance and theatrical performers from around the world, as well as a program that allowed exchange between Arab children from various nations on an arts/cultural level, as well as regional and global issues, such as environment or security. While one can imagine such events paying as much lip service as actual investigation into the slippery concept of cross-cultural understanding, there was no denying Queen Noor’s personal commitment to the matter.

This was exemplified in her address which introduced the Cultural Bridge panel, where she spoke of using film "as a knife to break bread." She concluded by proclaiming allegiance to "film which makes a profit while at the same time profiting humanity." The statement seemed particular resonant at a festival such as this, as Queen Noor's attendance allowed its headline-grabbing to take a turn from screenings of Hollywood fare such as "Avatar" and "Nine" to a genuinely interesting and worthy cause.

Following Noor's address, Idriss initiated the discussion with Julia Bacha, visibly delighted to have just screened her film "Budrus" for the first time. According to her, "film has the potential to create little cracks, but the change starts when the lights go up." For this reason, she was thrilled that her screening had been immediately followed by the panel, as she felt it was the perfect forum to put the issues it raised - the film follows a Palestinian community organizer who unites Fatah, Hamas and protesting Israelis in a struggle to save his village from destruction - into circulation.

Rebecca Saxe was able to offer an entirely different perspective through her work investigating the elusive concept of empathy. She described an intriguing research experiment where Israelis and Palestinians were asked to engage in fifteen minute Skype conversations about their countries' conflict. However, rather than enter into debate, they were only allowed to respond by summarising their counterpart's thoughts without adding their own. Participants were then asked whether they felt more empathy and trust had been gained by hearing the other side's point of view, or by having theirs heard, with results showing that Israelis were more likely to opt for the latter, while Palestinians the former. Saxe's research added an interesting angle to the idea of audience reception and empathy in cinema.

Mike Medavoy made no apologies on Hollywood's behalf when asked to "be brutal" in discussing what Idriss described as a very negative and simple view of the Arab world presented in recent US cinema. Medavoy felt that America's educational system - at least until university - was to blame for failing to educate young people about the experience of other nationalities and cultures. As for Hollywood, he put it simply: "in the rules of the game, you gotta have a bad guy," and that bad guy is currently very frequently Arabian. He claimed that "extremism of all types has influenced this thinking," apparently including the hysteria towards the Middle East engendered among North Americans by 9/11.

There is always a risk that a discussion based around such concepts as "cultural bridge building" could tend towards idealism rather than practical solutions. However, the adroit selection of panelists, each of whom was able to illuminate the potential for progression in his or her very different field of expertise, meant that the panel avoided this pitfall for the most part. At the very least, it sent out an appropriately inspiring message from a festival whose country is not often associated with political ideals. As Saxe stated in summary to a question;"“Is it reasonable to hope? What can we do but hope?"

[Update: The Dubai Film Festival unveiled its winners Wednesday evening. View the main winners at indieWIRE.com]

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