x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

It's a wrap: stars shine at Dubai film festival

The Dubai International Film Festival wraps up for another year after a week of frantic activity, a decent haul of famous faces and some 160 films from around the world.

DIFF 2012 really confirmed that the Dubai International Film Festival is the major player on the regional film circuit. Jaime Puelblo / The National
DIFF 2012 really confirmed that the Dubai International Film Festival is the major player on the regional film circuit. Jaime Puelblo / The National
International by name, international by nature. Having opened with the story of an Indian boy bound for Canada who gets lost at sea with a Bengal tiger (Life of Pi), it seems suitably fitting that the Dubai International Film Festival rounded up some 150-odd films later with the light-hearted tale of a group of Aboriginal soul singers from Australia who make a name for themselves singing for the US troops during the Vietnam War (The Sapphires). That's pretty much the full length of the globe covered in just two films.
But, undoubtedly, the festival's standout moment was much closer to home. Receiving its regional premiere, the Saudi feature film (and the first feature to be fully shot in the Kingdom), Wadjda, was adored almost universally and its groundbreaking director, Haifaa Al Mansour, was arguably the most popular attendee.
The story - about a rebellious young girl who must challenge the principles of her strict conservative society in her quest to buy a bicycle - offered a rare glimpse into the lives of women in Saudi, but from a very tender and gentle perspective that saw many leave the Madinat Arena in tears.
"This film is very special to me," said the festival's artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali. "I first met Haifaa 10 years ago when she had her first short film and now she is here with her first feature."
Wadjda - which is soon set to screen internationally - also highlighted the efforts of Dubai on the regional film industry, having first been a part of the script workshop at 2007's Gulf Film Festival and going on to receive post-production funding from DIFF's own Enjaaz programme.
On the subject of funding, a raft of financing awards were handed out to forthcoming film projects that could well be appearing in future festivals. At the top of the bill were grants of US$25,000 (Dh92,000) that each went to titles from Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan.
"Some 31 features have been completed over the past six years with support from the Dubai Film Connection," said Jane Williams, the director of the DFC.
The biggest pot of money this year came from the launch of the IWC Filmmaker Award, a new competition sponsored by the luxury watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen that gave $100,000 to Maysoon Pachachi for her project Nothing Doing in Baghdad, set in Iraq during the volatile period of 2006.
Celebrity snappers had several opportunities to take blurry camera phone shots of the stars. Freida Pinto and Cate Blanchett did the required dazzling on the opening night, Blanchett again at the IWC event (she was on the jury), although she missed out on the much-talked about Bryan Ferry concert afterwards. A few days later, it was the turn of Colin Firth, his wife Livia, Rooney Mara and Kristen Davis to unleash the flash photography for the One Night to Change Lives charity gala and auction held on behalf of Oxfam and Dubai Cares.
"I love it here, that's why I'm here again," said Firth, making his second appearance at DIFF in three years, shortly before offering one of his classic dryly comical speeches about his work with Oxfam over the past decade. The event held at the Armani Hotel ended up raising more than $500,000, with a few last-minute items thrown into the auction lot, including the outfits Pinto and Firth had worn that very evening (once they'd changed into something else, of course).
Other highlights of the festival included the world premiere of Death Metal Angola, an outstanding documentary looking at the metal scene emerging from the ashes of civil war in the west African country. The screening was the first chance its main protagonist - Sonia Ferreira, who runs an orphanage in the city of Huambo - had had to see the film and proved somewhat emotional for her in the Q&A session afterwards. Adding to the drama, Ferreira and Wilker Flores - who helped set up the country's first metal concert - had only made it to Dubai thanks to donations from friends at home towards the flights.
There were unusual chuckles at the Japanese gore-master Takashi Miike when he apologised before the screening of Lesson of the Evil to anyone who might not like it. There weren't quite so many afterwards.
Having never visited Dubai before, the acclaimed British director Michael Apted said he was somewhat bemused when he was first told he'd be receiving a lifetime achievement award. "I first thought 'have they ever seen any of my films out here?'," he said. "But then you see the internationalism of the place. Someone told me they'd seen a film I did in the 1960s."
For the hundreds involved in DIFF, from the jury members to those ensuring the guests made it from airport to hotel to those collecting the tickets, the end of the festival yesterday probably brought to a close a very long, tiring yet enthralling week. For those who were able to enjoy the line-up of films, it was a week of opportunity to catch stories from around the world, from Angola to Australia, Bangladesh to North Korea. And for everyone, DIFF 2012 really confirmed that the Dubai International Film Festival is the major player on the regional film circuit, no small feat for an event that isn't yet 10 years old.
Roll on the anniversary celebrations next time around. But first, sleep.
 
aritman@thenational.ae