DUBAI: The Dubai International Film Festival marked its first decade this year. Even skeptics acknowledge the anniversary as a landmark of sorts.
The financial crisis of a few years back was widely read as a rebuke of the very premises of Brand Dubai. DIFF is weathering that storm and, though the budget of this year’s event was affected by the withdrawal of some sponsors, it didn’t detract overmuch from efforts to cultivate a festive mood.
The first international film event to root itself in the Gulf, DIFF has since been emulated by initiatives in Abu Dhabi and Doha. As clearing houses for new works from around the region and the world, the film festivals in these three cities would seem not dissimilar to audiences.
The differences are more evident among film professionals.
Though all events provide platforms where Arab filmmakers can compete for prize monies, they differ in their programming and competitions – films can screen competitively in only one of the festivals.
The roles each event play in regional film development are also distinct. The petrostates of Abu Dhabi and Qatar channel most of their film development energies into professionally adjudicated film funds. As Dubai isn’t a petrostate, DIFF has engaged with the film industry in different terms.
In the early years, when it was a noncompetitive event, DIFF’s most substantial gesture to the industry side was a cocktail hour.
Held each afternoon at the Koubba Bar of Al-Qasr Hotel, it invited young filmmakers to sip complementary drinks, commiserate with colleagues about their funding woes and perhaps meet a producer or distributor.
“The Koubba’s been vital,” Jane Williams laughs. “People have told us we can do away with everything else, but we must keep the Koubba.”
DIFF’s industry side became more serious with Williams’ arrival in 2006. A film industry veteran, the U.K. national became head of training at Holland’s Maurits Binger Film Institute in 1998. Since 2002 she has been a freelance consultant with a number of funding organizations and international festivals including the Cinemart and Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Greece’s Thessaloniki International Film Festival and the industry office at BAFICI in Buenos Aries.
While other hands developed DIFF’s Arab and AsiaAfrica film competitions, Williams has overseen the assembly of the region’s best-developed film market.
Today Dubai Film Market (DFM) is a multiheaded beast, the centerpiece of which remains Dubai Film Connection, a co-production platform that showcases 15 film projects to an invited guest list of international and Arab industry professionals with the aim of encouraging co-productions.
DFM also introduced a producers coaching program, established in association with EAVE (European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs) to support the capacities of 10 producers from the MENA region.
Since 2009 DFM has run Enjaaz, a funding program that provides postproduction financial support to Arab-led film projects.
Among other platforms at DIFF’s film market is Interchange, a project development program designed to increase co-productions between Arab and European film professionals.
Launched in 2010, the program assembles 10 teams of writer/directors and producers from Europe and the Arab world now working on feature-length fiction films and sends them to internationally tutored workshops in Torino and Dubai.
New to the DFM in 2013 was Dubai Docs, a pilot project established to raise the awareness of, and interest in, creative documentary in the Arab world. In association with several partner associations who support Arab documentary filmmakers, Dubai Docs provided a three-day training and talent development program for seven project teams.
“We don’t have a fund,” Williams says. “What interests me in having a market is that you have a platform to test your project. Rather than receiving funding to make your film, you see if there’s an audience. It is obviously important in co-productions that the international people see if they’re involved in a project that will find a home in the place it’s coming from.
“Giving people business opportunities is an important proposition,” she continues. “It’s more sustainable than grants alone. It means filmmakers learn more about the industry they work in. It’s not a fund, but it is giving them access and networking and tools that they can use in whatever film they work on.”
In 2013 DFM looks more like an actual market than it has done in previous years, with various production companies manning kiosks at DIFF’s Madinat Jumeira conference center. In past years DIFF’s market had an informal profile with professionals meeting with an exchange of business cards and a chat.
“The exhibition area has added another dimension to what we do ...” Williams says. “I think there are a couple of things that happened this year that we couldn’t have done before.
“We were able to have stands because there are organizations – and most of them are organizations – and people feel much more confident in what they’re doing not only in the regional market but internationally as well. It means that people who come with even a basic accreditation have networking opportunities through the stands, and can speak directly to representatives of Doha Film Institute, say, or companies like [Egypt’s] MAD Solutions.
“I don’t think we could have done that seven years ago. It came together at just the right time because there are organizations like DFI and twofour54 [the Abu Dhabi media authority] and the Algerian Cultural Agency that want to promote what they do.
“At the documentary forum this year, we had filmmakers standing, presenting their projects in public, in English. That could not have happened five years ago.”
Williams sees DFM’s growth as reflecting changes in both the festival and in the Arab world’s cinema industry. “We are incredibly lucky in that [DFM] has been able to grow at the speed that we wanted. We’ve been able to develop the market organically, responding to the needs expressed by the people we’ve been working with.
“I think the market has played a leading role in shaping the way the filmmaking business is done in the region.
“There are certain things that we insisted on when we set up DFC. We insisted that projects have producers, not just directors. We wanted synopses, treatments. We wanted budgets, financial strategies.
“We asked for things that, at the time, were quite difficult for people to deliver. People were upset that we wanted those things. What we were trying to say was that, if you want to be involved in this field of production, if you want to talk to people about your ideas, these are the things you have to do. You have to organize your thoughts. People have to be able to evaluate your projects.
“We’re not the only player, but in those sorts of things we’ve had an impact,” she continues.
“In terms of the industry, ... obviously there’s not an industry in most countries [in this region], so we’re really talking about the communities of filmmakers.
“But the quality of the films coming out, the fact that there’s successful films like [Hany Abu Assad’s 2013] ‘Omar’ and [Haifaa al-Mansour’s 2012] ‘Wadjda,’ and there are three national nominations for the Oscars, that there are films being produced that can travel, that have much higher production values, etc. – all that indicates that, despite issues around financing, the industry is really improving.
“Regional producers like [Egypt’s] Mohamed Hefzy and Mohamed Samir, [Lebanon’s] George Shoucair and [Jordan’s] Rula Nasser, those are all people that are being viewed as potential partners [for] international producers.
“I feel quite optimistic.”