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Actress Susanne Wuest poses for portraits at the 71st edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Aug 30. (AP)
Festival helps Middle East filmmakers court H’wood partners Arab cinema eyes bumper year

LOS ANGELES, Aug 31, (RTRS): This fall, in the bustling media hubs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and the more ancient Arab capitals of Cairo and Marrakech, festival execs are promising a bumper crop of Arab cinema. It’s a harvest that regional players have spent several years cultivating. Sandwiched between Venice and Sundance, the fall festival slot, which includes the Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Cairo and the Marrakech film festivals, offers significant opportunities for Arab filmmakers to stump for financing and make crucial connections within the industry, as well as a portal in which to take their work beyond the region.

Since the early aughts, the glitzy polestars of the Arabian Gulf have been growing at breakneck speed, and along with the glass-and-steel triumphs of Qatar and the UAE came the high-striving fests of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. With deep pockets and a commitment to nourishing homegrown cinema, the Gulf’s trio of competing fests started out shallow, but gained depth thanks to the networking opportunities, press exposure and funding grants they could offer.

The now-defunct Doha Tribeca Film Festival, launched by the Doha Film Institute in 2009, made waves not so much for its content, but for the DFI’s financing power, which got such projects as Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Black Gold” off the ground. The DTFF was short-lived. Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, however, are thriving. DIFF last year opened with “Omar,” Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s searing West Bank-set love story, which had been supported from pre-production by the fest’s Enjaaz Fund, and which would go on to an Oscar nod for foreign-language film. One year earlier, Saudi helmer Haifaa Al-Mansour’s groundbreaking “Wadjda,” which was made with the support of the Dubai Film Connection, the fest’s co-production market, was crowned best Arab film.
 
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“We started out as an event for the local community and by the second year we were adding an industry point of view. We’re a key festival now for audiences in Dubai, the UAE and the GCC,” says Shivani Pandya, the fest’s managing director. “We’ve really become an important aspect in the development of Arab cinema.” Fest execs in Dubai have just completed a 10-year plan for the event’s future, which they say will expand their focus on sales and acquisitions to match the uptick in local film productions in the region, also adding TV and VOD to their marketing offerings. The ADFF, which was launched in 2007 and runs from Oct 23-Nov 1, has played host to some of the most important films in the region. These include Annemarie Jacir’s “When I Saw You,” Palestine’s 2013 Oscar entry. SANAD, the fest’s development and post-production fund, offers $500,000 in coin to Arab filmmakers each year. Four SANAD-funded films will play the Toronto film fest this year, and “Theeb,” from Jordanian Naji Abu Nowar, is in competition at Venice.
 
The venerable Cairo Intl. Film Festival, which will play from Nov 9-18 after political turmoil caused execs to scrap its 2013 installment, is the grand dame of Middle Eastern fests. Established in 1976, the fest’s future looked unsure after the country’s political uprising in 2011. Both its 2011 and 2013 editions were canceled, and while its 2012 event did go ahead, it was with an abridged schedule, no closing ceremony and a boycott by local directors. The Egypt of 2014 looks radically different, however. There is also different leadership at the Cairo Film Fest: a new director, respected Cairo film critic Samir Farid, as well as the endorsement of Martin Scorsese, chair of the Intl. Cinema Institute, with which it has announced a fresh partnership. Execs promise a revamped fest in 2014, fit for a revamped Egypt.
 
And at the Marrekech Film Fest, which was launched in 2001 and plays Dec 5-13, a local film industry has started to take flight under the auspices of the fest, with female helmers at its forefront. So many femme directors have sprouted in Morocco since the fest’s inception that Cinecoles, its shorts sidebar, is split, with separate competitions for men and women. Scorsese is also deeply invested in Marrekech, serving as its jury head in 2013 as well as godfather to the ESAV, Marrekech’s leading film school, which he inaugurated in 2007.
 
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Harvey Weinstein made his debut visit to Marrekech in 2013, solidifying its place as an important promotional springboard. Fest has yet to announce its slate for 2014, but auds can also expect a hearty serving of Bollywood fare — its 2013 installment made history by opening with a Bollywood pic, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s guns and glory drama “Ram Leela,” and local auds have made an habit of clamoring to the fest’s Mumbai-sourced offerings.
 
Suha Arraf’s “Villa Touma,” which screens in Venice Critics’ Week, has arrived in Italy carrying the baggage of a major Israeli controversy. The film, a melodrama set in Ramallah during the early days of the Israeli occupation, was made primarily with Israeli public funds, including $400,000 from the Israel Film Fund. But Arraf, an Arab citizen of Israel, has registered “Villa” as a Palestinian movie, infuriating the Israeli minister of culture and prompting the Israel Film Fund to demand its money back. The brouhaha has led to a series of manifestos, with various local artists, both Israeli and Palestinian, rallying behind Arraf and her decision.
 
As for Arraf herself, the first-time helmer and screenwriter of “Lemon Tree” and “The Syrian Bride” has written a piece in the Israeli daily Haaretz defending her stance. “I am an Arab, a Palestinian and a citizen of the state of Israel. I have the right to emphasize my nationality as I present my film to the world, and there is no law in the state of Israel that forbids me from doing so,” Arraf wrote. “As far as I am concerned, a film’s identity is that of its creator.”
 
Roughly 20% of Israel’s 8 million citizens are Arabs and consider themselves Palestinian. Hany Abu-Assad, the Nazareth-born Arab director, also found himself in hot water when he petitioned to have his Oscar-nominated “Paradise Now” listed as a film from Palestine at the 2006 Academy Awards.”Paradise Now” was also made with coin from the Israel Film Fund, and in the end was listed as a product not of Palestine but of the Palestinian Authority. With his sophomore effort “Omar,” Abu-Assad took no chances, and refused all Israeli funds. That film also received an Oscar nod and was classified at the kudocast as a film from Palestine, the first ever.

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