There's something quite special about the Gulf Film Festival, which closes today after six days of activity in Dubai's Festival City. There are no elaborate press conferences, no special gifting suites for the stars and no gigantic bodyguards in black suits. Interviews are held in side rooms and the snacks on offer don't get any more exciting than biscuits (some - occasionally - with chocolate chips). In fact, the whole festival lacks the pomp and self-importance of most others.
But what it has in spades is wide-eyed enthusiasm from filmmakers and industry professionals alike for encouraging creativity and helping support the growing film industry across the region. Screenings were regularly sold out - especially for the local shorts - and the phrase "I'm going to support my friend who has a film showing" was a common one heard in and around the box office.
"This year is totally different than the past four years," says the Emirati filmmaker Waleed Al Shehhi, whose short White Coloured Elephant - which features an impressive and "extremely difficult" eight-minute continuous shot - was showing in the Gulf Short competition. "We've seen a lot of Emirati filmmakers who have come back with new films and now we've also got the script market."
The Gulf Script Market for Short Films, launched this year, underlines the importance now being attributed to the GFF. During the event, 15 scripts - including four from the UAE - were selected with their writers going on to receive three days of mentoring at the festival. These will be later partnered with directors and producers to help transform them, potentially, into future GFF submissions.
"It's something we've waited for so long, and it's a great addition to the festival," says Al Shehhi, who has won several international awards for his shorts over the years. Perhaps just as pleasing as seeing his own film screening this year, as a lecturer in the Higher Colleges of Technology in Ras Al Khaimah, Al Shehhi has four films from his students also taking part in the festival.
While the Gulf Shorts competition underlined the talent of those who had perhaps already dipped a toe into the region's film waters, showing off some slick production skills and camera work - notably in Moustafa Zakaria's emotional drama The Pillars - it was the Gulf Student Short Competition that unveiled some eye-opening topics and gave a hint as to what might be coming in the future.
One of the most interesting shorts in the category was Cats, by Dubai Men's College student Marwan Alhammadi (who also earned one of the Script Market prizes), a documentary looking into the trend of owning exotic pets among some Emiratis. What begins as a simple series of interviews with three owners of big cats (two lions and a cheetah) soon turns into a critical look at the idea of holding such animals in captivity, regardless of whether they are loved or not.
Alhammadi, whose previous film A Car Is Just a Car explored the obsession among UAE youths of owning expensive motors, admits he only formed an opinion about the pets as the filming went on.
"At the beginning it was just curiosity, but later on we discovered lots of facts about them," he says. In Cats, an expert suggests that there were something in the region of 3,000 of the animals being kept in private homes in the UAE, and also highlighting the harm that can be done to them - and those around them. Alhammadi is now hoping to encourage suitable open parks for such animals.
Another student short that trained a microscope on to a particular element of Emirati society was Abdulrahman Al Madani's first documentary The Gamboo3a Revolution, which explores the "beehive" hairdo popular among abaya-wearing girls and the fact that it contradicts the purpose of dressing modestly.
"It started about three years ago," says Al Madani. "First, it was just small hair clips, then it became big, and then there were even rumours that they put yogurt cups in there. Now tradition is being turned into fashion, and some people are against the style."
There were further examinations of local society by Mariam Al Sarkal in the excellent London in a Headscarf, a short in which the London Film School student tries to discover the truth behind a rumour that women who live abroad might find it difficult later on to have a traditional Emirati marriage. Interestingly, her introduction to the topic came from an article in The National.
The talk about future plans from almost all the filmmakers - both young and old - at GFF was about their first full-length feature. Most had - at the very least - some sort of idea in mind.
Mohammad Fikree, whose imaginative animation Children was part of the student shorts, is already working on an hour-long feature called The Sword of Atlartor, something he says will be the "the first wholly Emirati-made animated feature".
Although he said he'd be happy to continue making shorts, Talal Mahmoud - whose drama Perfume of the Rain in the main competition examined the emotional relationship between man and rain - indicated that were he to attempt a feature it would be worlds apart from the art-house endeavours of his previous creations.
"If I make a feature, it would definitely be a horror movie," says the Emirati filmmaker and playwright. "I'd want to do psychological stories, full of suspense, like Alfred Hitchcock."
The UAE-based Egyptian filmmaker Moustafa Zakaria says his finely crafted drama The Pillars could well be his last short, with a script already written for his first feature, Full Special.
"It's set in the UAE and is about a bunch of youths who basically get locked with other people in a gas station," he says, adding that he'll soon start looking for the right financial support to get production moving.
"This is the whole point of having a short film, so that someone in the industry sees it, likes it and asks the big question - what are you working on now?"
While GFF might not have been bustling with Hollywood bigwigs, the sheer number of local films on offer, plus the curiosity and imagination shown in some of the productions - particularly the documentaries - indicates that there's a healthy future ahead.
• To view more trailers from the Gulf Film Festival, visit www.thenational.ae/multimedia
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