The fifth Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) closes today, and with that in mind all festival lovers will be looking forward to the centrepiece of the festival - the prestigious Muhr awards. Started in 2006, the awards were introduced with the intension of both supporting Arab filmmaking and giving the spotlight to Arab filmmakers (both regional and international). It has proved a great success, with last year's gold award winners including Philippe Aractingi's Taht el Quasif (Under The Bombs) (Best Feature); Karim Goury's Soneaa fi Masr (Made In Egypt)" (Best Documentary); and Khadija Leclere's Sarah (Best Short). At the end of last year's ceremony, it was announced that the 2008 Muhr awards would be expanded. In addition to the current Arab Muhr awards, the Asia/Africa film awards were introduced for the 2008 competition, meaning expanded categories and a focus on the best of filmmaking from both Asian and African continents. Masoud Amralla al Ali, the festival's artistic director and coordinator general of competition, explained the decision at the closing of last year's festival. "DIFF is in a perfect position to showcase cinema from Asia and Africa, being a crossroads between Asia, Africa, Europe, and points beyond," he said. "We feel that this award embodies the cosmopolitan nature of our festival, as well as Dubai's incredible diversity." The new format has two competitions, Arab and Asia/Africa, with three categories: Feature Film, Documentary Film, and Short Film. Both Documentary Film and Short Film categories will have three prizes (First Prize, Second Prize and Special Jury Prize), while the Feature Film category will feature prizes for Best Film and Special Jury Prize as well as prizes for acting, writing, editing, composing and cinematography.
Described as "A Buffet of Middle-Eastern Tales" by the DIFF, the Arabic competition's short films category sees seven countries vying for the $30,000 (Dh110,000) first prize. Two of the Emirati films nominated are in this category, in the shape of Bint Mariam, a tale of a young woman contemplating life after the death of her husband, and the director Waleed al Shehhi's Baab (Door), about the obstacles facing a young man searching for a door washed away after a flood. Among the films competing against the pair in the category are the Palestinian comedy Arafat & I, about a man torn between his girlfriend and his reverence for the late Yasser Arafat; the Lebanese actor Carlos Chahine's La route du nord (The North Road); and the world premiere of the Jordanian family drama Pummelo, the story of three female relatives whose weekend away turns into a life-changing emotional journey. The Short Film nominees for the inaugural Asia/Africa Muhr Awards see 13 films made in countries from all over Africa, Central Asia and the Far East. The first prize matches that of the Arab competition and the nominees present a plethora of styles, genres and cultural backgrounds. A notable entry in the category is the new short from the celebrated filmmaker Idrissa Ouedraogo, a director twice nominated for the Palme d'Or in Cannes, and who was one of 11 international directors to contribute to the film 11'09"01 alongside Sean Penn, Ken Loach and Mira Nair. He is nominated for The Birthday, a dramatic tale of a woman marrying for money rather than love, and the problems that ensue. This film is joined by two more from Africa, the drama Expectations and the South African revenge story Jesus & The Giant. Central Asia's contribution is just as strong, with highlights including Akjoltoy Bekbolotov's Kam Sanabanyz (Everything is OK) and the Indian short Dhin Tak Dha. Meanwhile, the best of Eastern Asia's entries include the comedy Chicken Rice Mystery from Malaysia, about a boy trying to solve the mystery of his mother's terrible cooking.
Documentaries are a staple of any top-level film festival, and DIFF is no different. What makes them so appealing to festival audiences in particular is their tendency to both chronicle and colour the world we live in, providing perspective just as the cultures the films come from provide the context. One of the reasons for having expanded categories in this year's Muhr awards was to give films born out of conflict a voice, and so the Arab Documentary nominees feature many films made about turbulent periods in history. Apres la guerre, c'est toujours la guerre (After the War, It's Still War) by Samir Abdallah is a perspective on the 2006 Lebanese war, while Samaan Bildayaa (The One Man Village) is a very personal tale of the filmmaker Simon El Habre's uncle, the only resident left in a Lebanese town ravaged by civil war. Two documentaries Shutters Open Iraq and Ela Aby (To My Father) look at the influence photography has on people's lives, and Engi Wassef's Marina of the Zabbaleen and Kassim Abid's Hayat Ma Baad Al Suqoot (Life After the Fall) look at family life during catastrophic conflict. The Asia/Africa category boasts 13 films from many different and contrasting cultures, but all with universal human themes. China has three nominated films with differing subject matter, from the trials of poverty in Xiao Li Zi (Survival Song), to the comedic and moving Leng Kuy Xian Jing (We Went To Wonderland), chronicling an elderly couple's trip to Europe. As South Africa prepares for the eyes of the world to be on it for the 2010 World Cup, Junaid Ahmed's More Than Just a Game shows a different side to football, telling the story of Makana Football Association, formed by prisoners of Robben Island. Then, shifting from themes of struggle to one of despair, The Forgotten Woman is Dilip Metha's film about the low-caste widows of urban India.
The highlights of any ceremony are, of course, the feature film awards. This year's Muhr Feature Film category has eight prizes, with the First Prize film winning $50,000 (Dh183,000) and a special jury prize of $40,000 (Dh147,000). Six additional prizes reward every aspect of filmmaking, from acting to composing. The Muhr Arab Feature category is boosted this year by a legend of European cinema: French actress Catherine Deneuve. She stars in Cannes hit Je veux voir (I Want to See), a film looking at the devastation caused by the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 2006. Keeping with the Gallic theme, Souad El-Bouhati's debut feature Française deals with the trials of a Moroccan girl who has moved back to her homeland after spending her early life in France. Other highlights of the nominations include the Gulf War love story L'aube du monde (Dawn of The World), the twisted love story Masquerades (Mascarades) and the Egyptian entry Geninat al Asmak (The Aquarium). The Muhr Asia/Africa Feature category features some powerful dramas among it's nominees, not least Japanese director Hajime Kadoi's Kyuka (Vacation). The film's plot concerns a prison guard who agrees to be a "supporter" to a man on Death Row, in exchange for one week's holiday. Two movies are set on the streets of South Africa. The first, Izulu Lami (My Secret Sky) is the story of two orphan girls surviving on the streets of Durban, while Zimbabwe offers a view of the country through the eyes of a young Zimbabwean girl. The Indian actress Nandita Das will have somewhat divided loyalties within the category, as she directs the multilayered drama Firaaq while acting in Ramchand Pakistani for fellow director Mehreen Jabbar. China's sole entry into the features category is Dada (Dada's Dance), about a woman searching for her mother (with the help of a faithful admirer). The candidates for this year's Muhr show the decision to expand was justified, with different cultures all getting attention on the international stage. The nomination of the previous winner Waleed al Shehhi (silver in last year's shorts category) also shows that Muhr continues to succeed in its mission to encourage and develop future film industry talent.