Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) is going on its 11th year. By way of
introduction at the Toronto Film Festival in 2004, they took over The Windsor Arms Hotel, covered the street in front with desert sands, imported camels
and offered free rides. They had already hired the well-respected British programmer the late Sheila Whitaker who brought in the best of world cinema.
In 2005 or 20O6, we went to the Dubai Film Festival with the idea of creating a Books to Film initiative which would bring to prominence Arab Literature in
an unprecedented way, not seen since the 8th century.
How idealistic we were, and how the Middle East has shifted since then must give us pause. And yet Dubai has remained true to its mission, retaining those
it hired to start up and now to refine its goals. As we set out to conduct this interview with Shivani Pandya at the Soho Metropolitan Hotel in Toronto,
these facts, and a comparison to the other two Middle Eastern Film Festivals that started around the same time were on my mind.
Shivani seemed to have appeared, fully grown and in fully in charge when I first met her. But, in fact, she had a career path which led her to the part she
was playing when we met. After receiving her Bachelors in Economics in her home country of India, she continued her studies and received her Masters in
Communications at the University of Mumbai. She went into advertising, working with Saatchi & Saatchi and then went on to work with UTV in Delhi,
focusing on production, first for commercials, then for broadcasting and film until she became General Manager of the New Delhi branch of United Studios
She moved to Dubai 14 years ago to help set up Media City, bringing in broadcasters, and setting up a film industry, which included setting up a film
festival in order to set up film associations.
These two government-sponsored initiatives extended into setting up
Studio City as well, to further the production of films in Dubai.
The strategy the whole time has been to develop the infrastructure of cinema, and it is still ongoing.
Dubai now hosts the biggest sound stage in the Middle East where film and television production take place. It services as the anchor for most broadcasting
companies¹ Middle Eastern offices are there, including BBC, MBC, CNN, OSN as well as the news agencies themselves.
The sound stage is not only used by Middle Eastern filmmakers, but by others as well. See Dubai Film Commission website:
The Dubai Film Festival was the first film festival in the Gulf States.
The venerable Cairo Film Festival, of course, predates it by many years as the definitive Middle Eastern film festival just as Egyptian films have been the
main cinematic fare for the Middle East for generations.
But the films coming out of Dubai are different. They are more modern in outlook rather than melodramas, dealing with personal and political issues of the
Dubai’s. objectives as originally delineated remain the same, namely:
to nurture and develop talent
to develop an audiovisual infrastructure To make a showcase cultural event for viewing films which otherwise would never be seen.
Things have developed well. Dubai has supported 242 projects, 96 of which are films today, and more are being completed. Hany Abu Assad’s Oscar nominated
“Omar” [v1] which was supported by DIFF’s post production fund Enjaaz opened the 10 th edition
of the Festival. The film picked up Best Film and Best Director last year at the festivals prestigious Muhr competition.
Also supported by DIFF’s Enjaaz was Haifaa Al Mansour’s “Wadja” which began at script stage there where it was mentored in the Festival’s Script Lab, Al
Mansour returned to Dubai Film Connection, Connect,[v2] Dubai’s Coproduction Market and her
film went on to win awards at the Venice Film Festival, the top prize at the ninth edition of the Dubai International Film Festival and onward to receive a
You can see a difference in the Middle Eastern cinema today and in the activity in the Gulf region which began with Dubai. The market too has become
increasingly important as there is no other film market in the Middle East.
The Dubai Film Market (DFM) has gained a reputation as the leading platform in the world to raise the visibility of Arab filmmakers, a destination to
discover the best in Arab cinema and a destination for sales and acquisitions of Arab films and TV content.
In a bid to support filmmakers with distribution which is incredibly challenging in the region DIFF has partnered with industry leaders which will involve
each organization selecting and securing distribution for at least one Arab title from DIFF’s 2014 film program. This new initiative for the 11 th edition is an opportunity for independent filmmakers to obtain distribution and showcase their films to a wider audience both here in the
region and on the world stage. Sales agents, distributors, broadcasters and other purchasers will also have access to DIFF’s Cinetech, a digital library
that houses over 350 titles of the festival’s offerings, giving buyers a first-look at the latest showcase of rich and diverse independent films.
Dubai has also spread its showcasing of films from the MENA territories (Middle East, North Africa by building alliances with the likes of the Academy of
Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
During the 10th edition, the visiting delegation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced that DIFF had qualified
as a Festival that can contribute short films for Oscar consideration.
The qualification will apply to the Muhr Arab shorts competitions, making the festival the first from the Arab world to be on the list. Winning films from
last year’s festival can qualify for the Academy’s 2015 competition.
Shorts which show at their festival are eligible for nominationfor an Oscar. For the
first, time documentaries are also being reviewed and rated by critics when they screen in Dubai [v3] .
Cinema of Passion, outlining the best 100 Arab Films was published to
mark DIFF’s decennial edition and was compiled with input from over 475 of the region’s and international most prominent film critics, writers, novelists,
academics, and other arts professionals. This year DIFF showcased a selection of the top Arab 10 films at the Arsenal Theater next to Berlin¹s Film museum
and the Motion Picture Academy Theater in Los Angeles in a bid to reach out to new audiences. DIFF has also held screenings of Arab films in London and
Dubai has taken its place among the cinema countries in the world in its ten years of existence, something to be thankful for in these days of disquieting propaganda so ubiquitous in our world today. We are grateful that serious cinema with deeply felt themes of value is supported by this festival.