Amidst a financial meltdown that put its city atop headlines around the world, the Dubai International Film Festival debuted its sixth edition last night with no sign of anything remotely resembling a financial struggle. Boasting more sponsors than any of its previous editions, the festival kicked off with an over-the-top opening night celebration culminating with champagne, live performers and fireworks on the beach below the city’s trademark Burj Al Arab – the world’s second tallest hotel (behind only another Dubai structure, the Rose Tower).
Prior, hundreds gathered in Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah Arena for a screening of Rob Marshall’s “Nine” – the first and presumably only film festival screening of the big budget musical, which opens in North America next Friday. After a festival trailer that looked like it cost a $1 million to produce, Dubai festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma took the stage to introduce the film and the festival itself.
“Since 2004, this festival has established a policy to encourage filmmaking newcomers who are here to stay,” Juma said via a translator. “Therefore, we have developed a problem of diversity appreciated for their openness and originality. We constantly interact with the filmmakers, giving them the breathing space and room for creativity. What is extremely important is the process of interaction that DIFF brings in, which is genuine and continuous. The expansion of the culturally rich program to cover all these films reiterates that cinema has the power to establish dialogue between culture and nations.”
Three Arab-focused competitions – for narrative, documentary, and short films – will unspool over the next eight days, providing a truly unmatched showcase for Arab cinema. With a lineup of more than 60 films directed by Arabs – most of them world premieres despite DIFF being at the end of the region’s festival calendar.
“I don’t want people to look at DIFF only for its red carpet, its stars and its awards,” Juma said prior to the opening night festivities. “But to see DIFF as an engine for holistic industry development. For the first time, I am confident that engine is in place.”
But tonight, it was all about “Nine,” which went along with Juma’s hopes that DIFF wouldn’t be known for its red carpet or stars, as – despite a rolled out red carpet comparable to the Oscars in size – none of “Nine”‘s star-studded cast was on it.
“In the initial years of DIFF, we sought to bring in the world’s leading stars to put Dubai on the map,” Juma was quoted as saying in the festival’s daily newspaper. “This year, we only wanted stars who have who have something to do with the festival. We lost the talent for ‘Nine,’ for example – they were to come here but went to Los Angeles. We had a chance to shift the screening date and keep the stars, or keep the screening intact with no stars. We made a conscious decision to lose the talent. This is a film festival, not a star festival.”
Juma introduced the film by noting that Marshall “brings back the brilliant blend of Fellini’s movie ‘8 1/2’ and its hero Mastroianni through ‘Nine”s narration.” He thanked The Weinstein Company for helping bring the film to the festival, inviting two representatives from TWC up on to the stage. Noting it was only the second time the film has screened for a public audience, they thanked DIFF, Marshall, and “the unbelievable cast,” forgetting Kate Hudson’s name (but remembering Fergie’s) as they listed them all aloud. Marshall, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis and Penelope Cruz then all appeared on screen via satellite.
“I’m here with some of the gorgeous cast of ‘Nine,'” Marshall said on screen, as the four actors all smiled silently. “We’re so thrilled to be chosen by the Dubai Film Festival. We’re incredibly honored and we wish we could be there. But we’re in Los Angeles as we speak, opening the film here. This film’s for you, please enjoy.”
As it turns out, the film wasn’t quite for everyone there. It quickly became apparent it was a rather bold choice for Dubai, which – while regionally known as a relatively liberal oasis, remains a significantly conservative political and social culture. Sex outside that that occurs in a heterosexual marriage is strictly illegal, so for the festival to open with an film like “Nine,” which centers Day-Lewis’s sexual and emotional infidelity, is really quite something. More over, the cut that the festival screened sets a standard for all of the region, and thus “Nine” – complete with Penelope Cruz’s lingerie clad, gloriously erotic musical number (by far the film’s high point, and one that resulted in more than a few walkouts) – will soon be screening across the United Arab Emirates censorship free.
The Dubai International Film Festival continues through next Wednesday, closing off with another major Hollywood release, James Cameron’s “Avatar.”