x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

A look at the films featured in DIFF's seventh year

In its seventh year, the Dubai International Film Festival now rubs shoulders with cinema's best and brightest.

Colin Firth as King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as his wife Elizabeth in Tom Hooper’s film The King’s Speech.
Colin Firth as King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as his wife Elizabeth in Tom Hooper’s film The King’s Speech.

It's almost ridiculous to think that just seven years ago, at the inaugural Dubai International Film Festival, Morgan Freeman was the biggest celebrity draw. Times have indeed changed across the city, and not just in terms of skyline and shopping facilities.

While it seems crude to judge a festival by the celebrity types in attendance, shuffling down the red carpet at the Madinat Jumeirah over the next 10 days will be Hollywood veterans such as Sean Penn, Colin Firth and Ed Harris, silver screen notoriety in Colin Farrell and the best of the new breed in Carey Mulligan and Jim Sturgess, plus scores more. It's an impressive line-up, but one backed up by an even more astonishing roster of films. There are 157 in total at the 7th Dubai International Film Festival, including 41 world premieres, 58 Middle East premieres and 13 films screened for the first time outside of their homeland.

DIFF might not yet be pushing the same sort of figures as the industry leaders, but it's certainly raising its game and can now rub shoulders with some of the world's most established film institutions, no small feat in under a decade.

First up for fans of Western cinema is The King's Speech, which kicks off the festival tonight with a gala screening at the Madinat Arena. In this historical drama, Colin Firth plays the Duke of York, a nervous man afflicted with a terrible stammer that forces him to shy away from public speaking. When his brother, the king, abdicates the throne as the country prepares for the Second World War, the Duke must rise to the challenge and give the speech of his life.

Two years ago, the then relatively unknown Slumdog Millionaire was treated to a gala screening in Dubai, before going on to sweep the boards across the international awards scene. There are suggestions that DIFF could have another winner with The King's Speech, which last week won the top prize at the British Independent Film Awards and is heavily tipped for Academy success. The film is especially poignant for Dubai. The director Tom Hooper's debut feature Red Dust was the closing film at the first DIFF.

While much of the camera action might be occurring on the Madinat's red carpet for Firth and co, this year DIFF is offering those without a golden ticket a chance to take part in the opening night festivities. A free open-air screening of The King's Speech is being shown simultaneously at Jumeirah Beach Residence's The Walk.

Another film that could be in the running for awards next year is Danny Boyle's first directorial project post-Slumdog, the biographical feature 127 Hours, which dramatises the story of the mountain climber Aron Ralston, played by James Franco. Trapped for three days under a boulder in Utah, Ralston was forced to sever his own arm to escape - an experience that makes this a film that the squeamish may want to avoid. Also highly anticipated is The Way Back, starring Colin Farrell and Ed Harris, the first film in seven years from Peter Weir, the director of Dead Poet's Society and The Truman Show.

As ever, DIFF has an excellent line-up of films from across the Arab world. Two hotly tipped world premieres from Egypt are being given the Gala screening treatment: 678 - the number of a Cairo bus - covers the taboo subject of sexual harassment, witnessed by three women from different segments of society; Cairo Exit, directed by Hesham Issawi, also touches on social and cultural taboos in the Egyptian capital - it's a gritty story of lovers forced into a seedy underworld.

Aside from the big names and potential Oscar nominees on the schedule, perhaps the biggest achievement at this year's festival is the inclusion of an entire category dedicated to locally produced films. The Muhr Emirati Awards features 12 films produced by Emiratis, an accomplishment that wouldn't have been possible when DIFF began, and one which makes it clear just how far homegrown filmmaking has come.

Among the 12, Abdulla al Kaabi's directorial debut The Philosopher stands out, not least because the Fujairah-born filmmaker recruited the acting talents of Jean Reno, who plays a successful Parisian who decides to shun material wealth. Reno is heading to the festival for the screening. Another is Gaza Diver, a documentary by Ali Khalifa Bin Thalith, which follows the story of a Palestinian family whose disabled son underwent treatment in the UAE. In Letters to Palestine, directed by Rashid al Marri, Emiratis and UAE residents read out their personal messages to the people living under occupation in Palestine, with footage of the documentary being shown in the West Bank.

DIFF 2009 dedicated an entire segment to films and documentaries produced from within Palestine, and while this year's festival doesn't do the same, there are still plenty of offerings. In The Road to Bethlehem - part of the Muhr Arab Documentary category and receiving a world premiere - Leila Sansour pieces together film shot over five years as she documented the effects Israel's wall has had on her hometown.

From further afield, films from the healthy AsiaAfrica section are well worth investigation. Outrage, from the director Takeshi Kitano takes a macabre look at the world of Japanese yakuza, with increasingly creative methods used to deal with opponents (it might put you off using chopsticks for a while). Aftershock, directed by Feng Xiaogang and framed by the earthquakes in Tangshan in 1976 and Sichuan in 2008, is already China's highest-grossing film and emotionally captures the heartache and devastation over four decades.

But don't let fear of natural disasters or the Japanese underworld put you off taking children to the festival. The Nutcracker in 3D is the perfect Christmas build-up, a modern take on the classic story of imagination, adventure and anthropomorphic rats in military uniforms. And in Tron: Legacy, there's something both young and old have been getting excited about: a 3D sequel to the groundbreaking 1982 original.

Nor are the eight days solely to be spent in darkened cinemas. Both Colin Firth and Sean Penn - here to collect lifetime achievement awards - will be sitting down for "Conversation with…" sessions, where the public will have a chance to ask their own questions. Then there's an entire day-long programme of events under the festival's "cultural bridge" banner, including a Peace Wall in collaboration with the JamJar gallery to be displayed on JBR's The Walk.

Staying on The Walk, several concerts are planned to support some of the many music-based films and documentaries. Rhythm and Reels will see a six-member mariachi group performing after the screening of Enamorada, a selection from the festival's focus on Mexican cinema. Also showing as part of the Rhythm and Reels section are acclaimed documentaries on John Lennon and The Doors in LENNONNYC and When You're Strange, respectively, plus Microphone, a drama that uncovers Alexandria's subculture of rappers and rockers, which will be followed by performances by the Egyptian rock-fusion band Massar Egbari and a hip-hoppers Y-Crew.

The 7th Dubai International Film Festival wraps up on Sunday, December 19, by which point there will undoubtedly be some rather tired eyes. By then it should also be very clear just how far the city, the event and the region's film industry as a whole has progressed in the past seven years.