Sprawling across an ever-expanding strip along the Arabian Gulf, the Emirate of Dubai is rapidly occupying an entirely unique place in the world. When it is mentioned in the United States, in this luxury magazine or that “Top 40 Celebrity Bling” program on VH1, one hears of a buyer’s paradise of conspicuous consumption and real estate schemes beyond imagining. One hears of land reclamation projects in the shape of palm trees, or a man-made archipelago currently under construction in the shape of the world; one hears Rod Stewart bought Australia. One does not hear discussion about how improbable a phenomenon the city represents, a major international city which has sprung up out of nowhere in the past decade, whose thousands of cranes and billboards are a constant reminder that the city’s main attraction lies in its future. The Dubai International Film Festival, which opened its 4th annual run on Sunday, thrives on both the contrasts throughout the city and the rapid growth.
“Dubai is a very fast-moving city, and this is a very fast-moving industry”, says DIFF festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma, who started the festival in 2003 and has seen it quickly rise to be the premiere festival in the region. “We in Dubai are good at learning from others, and shortening the learning curve. That’s what’s happened also with the festival– we brought the professional people from Cannes, from Toronto, from Sundance and then got that energy in here.” It’s a strategy that is paying off dividends, as this year’s festival provides ample evidence that Dubai is become a major stop on the festival circuit. “We got Clooney,” explains Juma. “Doesn’t that tell you how big this festival’s getting?”
This was, in fact, the primary topic of conversation around town: the attendance of major A-list stars, and in particular George Clooney, who presented the Opening Night film, “Michael Clayton.” This was a return visit for Mr. Clooney, who’s 2005 film “Syriana” was shot partially in Dubai. “I wanted to participate,” said Clooney at the morning press conference “first off, because I said I’d come back… and because I thought this was an up-and coming, very interesting film festival, one which gives us the ability to cross cultures.” The excitement over Clooney’s presence was palpable in the press conference, as the movie star was asked about the reasons for American perceptions of Arabs, how to solve the writer’s strike, what to do about human rights issues in the Middle East, and encouraged to run for political office.
At the dramatic red carpet ceremony for the opening night film (held in the ridiculously opulent Madinat Arena), throngs of fans packed the waiting areas screaming to the attendants as triumphal music swelled, and a breathless announcer screamed, “ladies and gentlemen, the stars are out tonight!,” as Clooney was joined by singer Gloria Estefan (who will be performing at the festival’s ‘Rhythm and Reels’ show on Thursday night), Kenneth Cole, and a bevy of Bollywood stars. Drawing almost as much applause as Clooney was actress Sharon Stone, who was in town for the dinner and auction thrown by the AIDS charity AMFAR, for which she is the spokeswoman.
This event, held on Monday night in the middle of the desert at the exotic Jumeirah Bab Al Shams resort, was another signal of DIFF’s status as an emerging major international film festival. AMFAR has traditionally held its functions at premiere film festivals such as Cannes, Venice, or Berlin — where at a similar auction last year, Stone famously enthused about “naughty, nasty little Germans.” Ever the national treasure, she did not fail to put on a show here in the Middle East; drifting down the red carpet in matching purple furs and eyeshadow, alongside such other stars as Michelle Yeoh, Hayden Christensen, and Rachel Bilson, Stone had to stand aside for a moment and have herself a little cry. “I was really, really experiencing the impact,” she explained later. “This is, like, the anti-war. It’s such a human cause that brings us together in a way that is so respectful to each other and so full of spiritual elegance.”
After the opening night screening, attendees made their way to the lavish party on Jumeirah beach, feasting on foie gras and oysters and gazing at the famed “7 star” Burj al Arab Hotel. Behind the somewhat restricted mingling between those guests clad in tuxedos and evening gowns and those in the traditional Emirates national attire, festival banners proclaimed DIFF’s slogan, “Bridging Cultures, Meeting Minds,” an idea that overshadows all of the proceedings. With over 80% of its residence foreign nationals hailing from disparate parts of the globe, Dubai is in a unique position to explore that idea.
“You can see in the structure of the program the ways in which we’ve emphasized the global personality of the festival and the city,” says Artistic Director of International Programming Simon Field. Fifty percent of the programming is Arabic, both in competition for the Muhr Awards and in the non-competitive Arabian Nights categories, and the remainder is divided regionally between Africa, Asia (with a spotlight on China), and the more Western ‘Cinema of the World’ (with sidebar categories for children’s film and music films). “We program all of this with some sensitivity towards regional sensibilities,” explains Field delicately, when asked about the inclusion of such potentially controversial films as the Romanian “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” or the Cohen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” “but not as much as you might suspect. We’re feeling out how far you can go in terms of adventurousness of cinema.”
The festival continues throughout the week with over 140 films, with a different gala screening every night, including the Mira Nair-produced omnibus film “Aids Jaago,” Wes Anderson‘s “The Darjeeling Limited,” and closing night film “The Kite Runner.” Lifetime Achievement awards will be given to American actor Danny Glover (with a screening of Charles Burnett‘s 1990 film “To Sleep with Anger” and John Sayles‘ new “Honeydripper.”
[Charlie Olsky will file additional reports from the Dubai International Film Festival later this week.]