DUBAI // The sixth Gulf Film Festival began last night with the opening red carpet gala screening of Wadjda at Dubai Festival City.
Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour’s acclaimed debut feature may have already premiered in Venice, opened commercially across several countries, and arguably been the talking point of last year’s Dubai International Film Festival (Diff), but its screening at the Gulf Film Festival (GFF) was considered a triumphant return to where it all began.
It was here in 2008, at the first GFF, where Ms Al Mansour brought her script for the film, which tells the story of a Saudi girl and her quest for a bicycle. Its journey since has been very much entwined with the efforts of the GFF and Diff, which also granted it post-production funding.
“It’s amazing to be here. It’s very intimate, it’s going back to your friends, almost to your family,” said Ms Al Mansour. “It’s like a very special celebration; to be with people who helped you along the way when you were just starting, when you wanted confidence and support. As a filmmaker you want people around you to push you, and this place is the perfect place to nurture talent and give them all the space, so their work can take off.”
“It’s a great story of a great Gulf Film,” said Abdulhamid Juma, the festival chairman.
“The wheel of the bicycle has turned around for Wadjda. Today it has appeared in more than 12 countries and is making money. We’re hoping a lot of other filmmakers will learn from it.”
The wheel of the bicycle is also going to be turning for women in Saudi Arabia soon. Last week the country’s leading newspaper, al-Yawm, announced the religious police will relax its restrictions on women’s bicycling, allowing them for the first time to ride motorbikes and bicycles in restricted areas, including recreational areas and parks.
Wadjda is one of 169 films from 43 countries appearing at the festival, which runs until April 17. Also in the line up are 78 world premieres and 93 films from filmmakers across the GCC, Yemen and Iraq, many competing for prizes in three competitions: Gulf Features, Gulf Shorts and Gulf Students’ Shorts.
There is also a dedicated “Made In Qatar” section, plus 15 films from as far afield as Canada and Venezuela in the International Shorts competition.
Love stories in Kurdistan, Oman’s second ever feature film – from the same director as the first – vast Arabic weddings in Comoros, children’s animations about babysitting fathers and an elderly Iranian couple and their cow; it’s all in the line-up, along with a huge, dominating presence from the growing Emirati film scene.
Alongside the films runs the festival’s four-day Gulf Film Market, the new collective term for the growing series of programmes aimed at helping nurture the regional film industry and ensure a steady flow of films for future festivals.
“It’s basically the umbrella under which we have all our industry initiatives,” said Samr Al Marzooqi, the manager of the Dubai Film Market.
Touching on aspects across the whole spectrum of filmmaking, the programme includes the Gulf Script Market, in which the festival has enlisted the services of acclaimed Emirati scriptwriter Mohammed Hassan Ahmed and award-winning Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah to work as mentors.
“We did a call out for scripts of short films and are flying in the best for three days of intensive workshops and talks with our mentors to help develop their scripts to the next level,” said Mr Al Marzooqi.
Then there’s the Enjaaz Gulf Shorts production fund, which awards up to US$50,000 (Dh183,600) to up to 10 projects, and the Gulf Forum, which involves panel discussions, networking sessions and workshops.
For Dubai’s film-going public, the next six days will be a great opportunity to witness films unlikely to be screening in local cinemas again. For the region’s filmmakers, it’s a chance to mingle with their peers and perhaps get the wheels rolling on the next Wadjda.
“We don’t want this to be a one-time film, we want this to continue,” said Mr Juma. “We should have three films from the Gulf every year doing the same circuit. That’s really the dream.”