x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Gulf Film Festival shines the light on regional cinema

With the 6th Gulf Film Festival kicking off Thursday evening, we look at how the region's different film industries are shaping up, and pick out some titles to watch.

Aseel by Khalid Alzadjali in a Omani film that tells the story of a boy and his racing camel-training father. Courtesy Gulf Film Festival
Aseel by Khalid Alzadjali in a Omani film that tells the story of a boy and his racing camel-training father. Courtesy Gulf Film Festival

Considered the festival that laid the building blocks for much of the region's growing film industries, the sixth Gulf Film Festival (GFF) kicks off tonight at Dubai's Festival City for a week of talks, workshops, networking sessions and, naturally, films.

Among 169 films from 43 countries are 78 world premieres, with 93 film originating from the GCC, Yemen and Iraq. Many will compete for prizes across four competitions. With submissions to the festival at an all-time high, the event director Masoud Amralla Al Ali, described by many as the godfather of the UAE's film industry, talks us through the state of moviemaking across the countries taking part.


Although the major Qatar-funded international projects such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Black Gold have grabbed the headlines, locally made films are beginning to emerge.

"For years we'd been struggling to receive films from Qatar," says the event director, Masoud Amralla Al Ali. "But I think since the Doha Film Institute [DFI] was established and they concentrated more on the Qatari film, we've been receiving more and more. This year I think we have the highest participation ever from Qatar, with three or four in competition."

Much credit can be given to the DFI, which was set up three years ago. "But there are also some young independent filmmakers who are really doing a great job working together and they are producing many films," Al Ali says. This year also features a separate, out-of-competition Made in Qatar section.

Films to watch for

Lyrics Revolt by Shannon Farhoud, Melanie Fridgant, Rana Al Khatib, Ashlene Ramadan

After its world premiere at last year's Doha Tribeca Film Festival, it's time for the UAE to get its taste of this impressive documentary looking into the influence of local hip-hop and rappers on the Arab Spring.

Ghazil - The Story of Rashid and Jawaher by Sara Al-Derham

Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, this tale set in the early 1900s revolves around the trials and tribulations of a strict family, a jealous cousin and a society as enemy.

Bidoon by Mohammed Al Ibrahim

His supernatural debut feature, Lockdown: Red Moon Escape, premiered at GFF last year. Now, Al Ibrahim returns with something different: a short about two students from different social backgrounds who fall in love.


Last year, GFF featured a Bahrain spotlight, but this year the country hasn't got such a presence. Political instability could be a factor, says Al Ali. "Unfortunately, it has not been a good year for Bahrain. Last year we had the best year ever from them, but it seems Bahrain is always like this. Every two years we see a wave of films coming out, but the next year is surprisingly dead."

Film to watch for

Accident… by Yaser Al Qarmazi

The award-winning actor and director Yaser Al Qarmazi brings this silent short in which a young man waits by the roadside for a car to take him to an unknown destination.

Saudi Arabia

Undoubtedly the biggest Gulf film of the moment, Haifaa Al Mansour's captivating drama Wadjda will open the festival this evening. But it's not the only sign of cinematic life from a country where cinemas are still banned.

"I think Wadjda came as a conclusion of the efforts of young filmmakers over the past seven to eight years, and I think many young filmmakers will follow," says Al Ali. Other success has come from Ahd Kamel, who stars in Wadjda and whose short film Sanctity screened at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year.

"I think Saudi is improving every year, and internationally it has been a very good year," Al Ali says.

Films to watch for

Half a Chicken by Abdullah Ahmed

Saudi may be among the richest countries in the world, but Ahmed, a filmmaker and actor with several shorts to his name, looks at a day in the life of a vagrant in Riyadh in this silent short.

Sanctity by Ahd Kamel

This short from the rising star Ahd Kamel follows the story of a pregnant Saudi widow. Kamel, who is based in New York, also worked alongside Peter Berg in The Kingdom and stars in Wadjda.

Grand Marriage by Faizal Al Otaiba

A documentary looking at one of the uniquely Arab wedding ceremonies that take place on the islands of Comoros, where the celebrations last for two weeks. Al Otaiba took third prize at GFF in 2008 for his documentary The Fort.


While it has the Muscat International Film Festival, which last year welcomed the likes of Darren Aronofsky and Susan Sarandon, along with the Oman Film Society and a national competition, Oman continues to struggle with its film output. "It's always seemed far from the industry and this year has not been a great year for production," says Al Ali. "In the past, we've seen some good filmmakers come to GFF, but sadly this year we don't have them."

Film to watch for

Aseel by Khalid Alzadjali

The founder of the Oman Film Society, Alzadjali was the director of Al Boom, considered to be the first Omani feature film. Aseel, his second feature, tells the story of a boy and his racing camel-training father.


While Yemen's film output has never really kept pace with its regional counterparts, there have been some promising signs in documentaries. "One thing that I've been noticing over the past two years is that more documentarians are coming from Yemen than fiction filmmakers," Al Ali says. "In the UAE, for example, we are struggling with not many documentarians, but in Yemen it's totally the opposite."

Many of the Yemeni filmmakers are also women. "We have Khadija Al Salami, who is known, and there are two other female filmmakers whose films we have selected. Also, last year a filmmaker won an award and he's coming back with another documentary."

Films to watch for

18- by Sameer Al Namri

Al Namri, who won the second prize in the shorts competition at last year's GFF, returns with this documentary about a 27-year-old on death row for an accident he caused at the age of 13.

The Scream by Khalida Al Salami

Women played an important role in the uprisings against Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011. This feature film explores the aftermath of their participation, looking at issues of equality and what, in the end, they achieved.


"In Iraq we have different styles or groups of filmmakers," Al Ali says. "The first is the Arab Iraqis who are living in Iraq, and these mostly work in very tough situations, with no facilities. They are usually students and young filmmakers. Then we have the Arab Iraqis abroad, and these are more established. They have perhaps been immigrants for many years in Europe and North America. They often come with good quality films because they can get better budgets and support."

But the most interesting development is what Al Ali calls the "third wave": Kurdish cinema, which has been flourishing since the fall of Saddam Hussein. "And these three types are all working together. I think we have plenty of each group in the festival."

Films to watch for

Shirin by Hassan Ali

A traditional love story set in contemporary times, Shirin is the story of an Iraqi Kurd who returns to his village only to fall in love with an outspoken visitor from the city. To escape the restrictions of family and tradition, the two travel to France and back again.

Baghdad Messi by Sahim Omar Kalifa

Like most of his friends, 8-year-old Hamoudi is addicted to football and is eagerly awaiting the 2009 Champions League final. Unlike most of his friends, he only has one leg.


This year, the GFF will honour the Kuwaiti actor and writer Mohammed Jaber, an industry figurehead for some 50 years who is credited with helping lay the foundations for Khaleeji cinema.

"I think it's a good year for Kuwait," says Al Ali. "Between this year and last we have the same movement, the same filmmakers doing films along with some new ones who have been working together." Al Ali credits much of the support for Kuwaiti cinema to Cinemagic, a production house and academy. "Most of the films coming out of Kuwait are coming from Cinemagic."

Films to watch for

Scenario by Tareq Al Zamel

This feature-length drama tells the story of a director who makes a low-budget film with a group of people he has worked with before, only to see things descend into chaos when someone dies on set.

Ka'bool by Musaed Al Mutairi

When a Bedouin who works in a fast-food outlet is fired, he finds himself being taken advantage of and mocked for his previous job, which involved dressing up as Barney the Dinosaur.


When it comes to simple mathematics, the UAE is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest. "With all the support filmmakers are getting from the festivals and from the different governmental bodies, as you can see from the numbers, the development is growing every year and getting better and better," says Al Ali.

Alongside two feature films screening at this year's festival, the UAE is dominating much of the competition. "I think half of the shorts competition is from the UAE, and about 70 per cent of the overall programme. It shows that the UAE is ahead of the GCC in terms of production and quality."

Films to watch for

Murk Light by Yasir Al Yasiri

Two friends embark on a bus journey across the UAE in the 1960s in this short that will have the honour of competing in the Tribeca Film Festival in New York later this month.

Bani Adam by Majid Abdulrazak

A complicated weave of interconnected relationships among different social strata is the basis for the drama by the Emirati director Abdulrazak, who already has two feature-length films to his name.

Daddy ABC by Hamad M Alawar

A charming animated comedy short in which a mother decides she needs a break from parenting, leaving the father to discover the potential pitfalls of caring for a baby.

The Gulf Film Festival is tonight until Wednesday at Dubai Festival City. Screenings are free but tickets will be issued in two lots, the first when the box office opens each day at 10.30am and the second two hours before each screening. Visit www.gulffilmfest.com

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