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DISPATCH FROM DUBAI | Re-branding Arab Film with Only an Eye to the West

By Indiewire | Indiewire December 13, 2007 at 9:43AM

The Dubai International Film Festival, like the city itself, does not want for extravagance. Every night, there's a major gala screening followed by a lavish after-party, one for each section of DIFF's programming. Tuesday night's gala celebrated the festival's Arabian Nights program, a selection of non-competition films from Arab filmmakers with a focus on the interaction between Arabs and the Western world, with a screening of Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch's exceedingly sweet-natured "Whatever Lola Wants." The movie, about an American dancer's friendship with an Egyptian belly-dancer, demonstrated the festival's progressive nature by showcasing a positive gay Arab character and a sexually active unmarried woman, but it did so as inoffensively as possible.
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The Dubai International Film Festival, like the city itself, does not want for extravagance. Every night, there's a major gala screening followed by a lavish after-party, one for each section of DIFF's programming. Tuesday night's gala celebrated the festival's Arabian Nights program, a selection of non-competition films from Arab filmmakers with a focus on the interaction between Arabs and the Western world, with a screening of Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch's exceedingly sweet-natured "Whatever Lola Wants." The movie, about an American dancer's friendship with an Egyptian belly-dancer, demonstrated the festival's progressive nature by showcasing a positive gay Arab character and a sexually active unmarried woman, but it did so as inoffensively as possible.

"I will promise you," introduced Ayouch, "in tonight's film there is not one terrorist, there are no explosions, there are no politics. Tonight we show how people actually live." This was only an alarming statement inasmuch as it was coming from an Arab filmmaker working from an Arab country and presenting for a largely Arab audience; that his film is unique in its portrayal of Arabs as human and presents a certain unsettling reality about the state of Arabs in film.

It's a reality the Dubai Film Festival is doing everything it can to change, through fostering a series of initiatives to spur both production and distribution of films in Arab countries. In July of this summer, DIFF chairman Abdulhamid Juma held the first meeting of the Arab Film Festival Guild, an attempt to bring festivals throughout the Arab world together in an effort to better serve their films. Says Juma, "People talk about competition between film festivals, and also they talk about helping Arab filmmaking. Those are two things that don't really work together... I don't mind if a film plays in Cairo and then comes to me, I just want to get more of an audience for the film."

Actor Kais Nashif ("Paradise Now") and Anthony Azizi ('Commander in Chief") at the "AmericanEast" screening in the Arabian Nights section of the Dubai Film Festival. Photo by Charlie Olsky.

Even more significantly, DIFF celebrates this year the launch of the Dubai Film Connection, a documentary and narrative feature production market. "We've invited 15 projects by Arab filmmakers that are currently in development," explains DIFF Industry Office head Jane Williams "and we've allowed them to workshop their ideas with a variety of industry representatives who might be interested in the projects: potential co-producers, sales agents, television broadcasters, and funders, anybody who can help see the projects realized." Included among the more than 50 industry representatives are Killer Films' Christine Vachon, Cinetic's John Sloss and producer Effie Brown.

"We have an incredible program of events taking place," continues Williams, "Panel sessions, workshops, consultations, speed dating. We've really upped the level of activity for all industry delegates, offering events to bring local and international industries together and a lot that offer one-on-one consultation for the filmmakers." Williams does caution that she is not trying to have Westerners establish the Arab film industry for them. "There is already a lot of filmmaking activity in this region," she says, "what we want to do is help these filmmakers establish their own unique and lasting cinema."

The programming at the festival also helps to spotlight Arab films throughout the world. Playing in the "Arabian Nights" category, for instance, is the U.S. production "AmericanEast," debut filmmaker Hesham Issawi's thoughtfully operatic exploration of the struggles of several Arab-Americans dealing with the everyday ups and downs of their lives in Los Angeles while facing scrutiny and suspicion from those around them. "I wanted to be a part of this film," said veteran Lebanese-American character actor Tony Shaloub, who plays a Jewish businessman trying to open a restaurant with Arab friend Sayed Badreya, "[because] I realized that in order for Arab-Americans to tell their stories, the good stories, the right stories, we'd have to initiate it for ourselves."

This year, there are 36 films in competition for the Muhr Awards for Excellence in Arab Cinema, 12 narrative, 12 documentaries and 12 shorts. Among them are a number of films dealing with the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in the summer of 2006. The best of these is Mai Masri's fantastic documentary "33 Days." The movie, filmed during the attack, shows the efforts of several dedicated humanitarians to keep their communities strong in the midst of destruction, from a woman reporting from the rubble as rockets jet past her, to a young man who keeps his neighborhood's children entertained with improv games in his local theater while bombs fall in the distance.

Festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma. Photo by Charlie Olsky.

Tunisian director Abedllatif Kechiche ("L'Esquive") brings a strong dose of Dardenne-style detail-oriented realism to "The Secret of the Grain," his story of Arab immigrant Slimane (Habib Boufares), attempting to open a restaurant in France after he is fired from his shipyard job with few recourses of action. The film has a powerful feel for its human interactions, particularly between the overwhelmed Slimane and his estranged wife, his mistress' daughter, and his own children.

The honor killing of Palestinian women suspected of sexual indiscretions is the subject of Buthina Canaan Khoury's powerful "Maria's Grotto," which tells the story of several of these killings and the culture that tolerates them. The subjects nod solemnly in understanding when discussing one woman, eight months pregnant out of wedlock, whose family forced her to swallow poison before burning her alive . Another was stabbed seven times by her brother, who recalls his revulsion for his act and his shame for letting her live.

Tariq Hashim's zero-budget and completely uniquely creepy "www.gilgamesh.21" is a youtube-style documentary about two men communicating through webcams between Copenhagen and Baghdad, trying to virtually rehearse for a Gilgamesh play while sharing their own unhappiness -- one at being stranded inside his crumbling country, the other at being stranded outside of it.

The festival culminates with the Muhr Awards, which will be given out on Saturday, December 15.

This article is related to: World Cinema, Festival Dispatch