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DIFF co-productions allow gulf fest to thrive – UAE earns rep as int’l hub for hi-tech productions

LOS ANGELES, Dec 5, (RTRS): The ever-changing Middle East festival scene has been shaken up by instability lately just as the Arab film industry gains more traction. In this scenario the Dubai Intl Film Festival is becoming more pivotal as a platform to nurture and launch fresh Arab fare, as it continues to boost its role as a driver for the nascent biz in the Gulf.

In May the nearby Abu Dhabi film fest shockingly shuttered after eight editions during which it had gradually earned a significant spot on the map. Just days later Dubai, now at its 12th edition, announced it would reinstate the Dubai Film Connection co-production platform, which had been scrapped in haste in 2014.

These moves encapsulate the dynamics of a shift that in recent years has also seen the Doha Film Institute pull the plug on its glitzy Doha/Tribeca fest to focus instead on local productions through its innovative Qumra event, which blends creative workshop and festival elements.

“Obviously the landscape has changed dramatically,” says DIFF managing director Shivani Pandya, a member of the Dubai fest team since its inception, “and I think our responsibility to be a platform for all Arab filmmakers is greater now.”

Dubai, this year, become the only major international festival left in the Gulf region, where there once were three. Going forward, Pandya says the idea is to step up collaboration with other Gulf entities, including Image Nation Abu Dhabi, the powerhouse production company headed by US exec Michael Garin. It has three Arab films launching from Dubai into the Middle East, including Emirati filmmaker Majid Al Ansari’s Tarantino-esque “Zinzana” (aka “Rattle the Cage”) about a man trapped in a Jordanian jail cell with no memory of how he got there. The pic is considered to be the first neo-noir film to come out of the UAE.

Industry expert Jane Williams, who set up the Dubai Film Connection and is back in charge after a one-year hiatus, says her reinstated co-production platform has received lots of local support, including prizes from prominent Dubai-based distributor Front Row Entertainment and the Abu Dhabi fest’s Sanad fund for Arab films in development and post-production, which stayed in place after the Abu Dhabi fest was scrapped.

“It’s really great that we can work with Sanad,” says Williams, especially since “there aren’t a lot resources out there for Arab filmmakers.”

Williams also points out that recent standout Arab titles such as Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s inspirational “The Idol,” about pop singer Mohammed Assaf who went from being a kid in a refugee camp in Gaza to winning the second season of “Arab Idol” in 2013 and becoming a U.N. peace ambassador, keep interest level from international distributors high. And audiences remain eager to understand the complexities of events in the Arab world. Interestingly, instead of a barrage of projects with political angles, she received submissions for “very strong intimate stories from the region, which give a much more personal view of what life is like. It’s a real surprise.”

Similarly the fest’s core Arab feature film section provides a panoply of perspectives into topical political and social-economic issues rattling the region, often depicted though a personal prism.

New works from known Arab filmmakers that will launch from Dubai include Egyptian distaff director Hala Khalil’s “Nawara,” about a young woman who works as a housemaid for a family closely connected with the Mubarak regime in its final throes; Danish-Palestinian actor-director Omar Shargawi’s Dogme-style drama “Al Medina,” in which Shargawi stars as a man who returns with his Danish wife to his Arab birthplace where he is imprisoned; and Norway-based Iraqi helmer Halkawt Mustafa’s absurdist comedy “El Clasico,” about two brothers in Northern Iraq who are both football fans determined to meet Real Madrid star forward Cristiano Ronaldo.

Meanwhile Dubai’s rich Cinema of the World section will launch lots of titles with early awards buzz, including James Vanderbilt’s “Memogate” movie “Truth,” Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” John Crowley’s “Brooklyn,” Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Dheepan,” and Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth.” These films will provide an opportunity for local audiences to “gain a better understanding of a variety of cultures from across the globe,” says section programmer Nashen Moodley.

Abdulhamid Juma, who is chairman of the Dubai festival, recounts that “one of the main reasons for Dubai to start a film festival in 2003 stemmed from 9/11.”

“The bridge between East and West had been devastated and people in the West wanted to know more about us; about people in the Arab world,” he says. “At the same time we had this vision of Western movies that were mostly about car chases and cowboys and whatever, so we also wanted to bring another cinematic vision of Western society to the Arab world. We were creating a bridge that goes both ways.”

Twelve years later, with the Paris attacks, Juma says he feels he’s in the same situation. “Today we feel stronger and more determined to keep sending this message: ‘let’s really defeat that negativity.’”

What do the latest “Star Wars,” “Fast and Furious” and “Star Trek,” installments have in common? They all recently shot in the United Arab Emirates, where a combination of incentives, security, transportation, state-of-the art studio space, a futuristic skyline and exotic desert ambiance are positioning Dubai and Abu Dhabi as the prime Middle East hub for different types of international productions.

In October, after three months in Vancouver, Canada, Paramount’s “Star Trek: Beyond” touched down in Dubai for a two-week shoot, brought by executive producer Jeffrey Chernov who in 2010 had come with “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” in which Tom Cruise famously rappels down from Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.In September, director Stanley Tong started principal photography in Dubai on Jackie Chan starrer “Kung Fu Yoga,” which will feature several car chases amid its iconic skyscrapers.

At Dubai Studio City “Star Trek” occupied almost all of the largest soundstage in the Middle East — 50,000 square-feet, which can be split into two 25,000-sq.-ft. facilities, designed and built by California-based studio Bastien and Associates.

“The film industry has been rising in this part of the world,” boasts Jamal Al Sharif, chairman of Dubai Film and TV Commission. “Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and the UAE in general, have really provided the platform and the infrastructure, and also the talent is starting to grow.”

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