The GFF will bring the best of film in the region to Dubai and Abu Dhabi from April 10 to April 16.
The Gulf Film Festival gets underway
Tom Cruise won't be spending six days shaking hands on the red carpet and Omar Sharif is unlikely to be unleashing his fists of fury. In fact, this particular film festival is likely to attract a whole lot less international attention than others across the region. But the Gulf Film Festival, in its fifth year and launching a seven-day run at Dubai's Festival City on Tuesday with first-time select screenings in Abu Dhabi as well, is arguably the most important annual event for local filmmakers.
"GFF will allow for the underdogs to come to life. It's low-key in that it allows the networking to be more accessible," says the Emirati filmmaker Sarah Alagroobi, a GFF first timer who is bringing her short drama Forbidden Fruit to this year's festival. The film, which Alagroobi says is the controversial story of two Emiratis as they "deal with the duality of the traditions of their society and westernisation", was first premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival in December.
"As much as DIFF was amazing and empowering as a filmmaker, it was overwhelming because it was so much about the fact that it was an internationally renowned festival," she says. "GFF has a more casual environment."
More casual it might be, but that doesn't mean the films showing at GFF are any less worth watching. This year's busy schedule includes 160 films in its official screening programme, selected from almost 1,200 entries coming in from more than 90 countries.
The GCC is putting in a strong appearance, with Tora Bora, a Kuwaiti feature about a young man who is brainwashed into extremism, opening the festival on Tuesday at Dubai Festival City's Grand Cinemas. Alongside five other Kuwaiti films, there are seven from Oman and 11 from Saudi Arabia, including Drives Me Crazy, in which a newlywed young wife finds herself stuck at home with errands to run and a perfectly working car outside.
Among the three films coming from Qatar, Lockdown: Red Moon Escape stands out from the pack, a sci-fi involving a story of two friends whose road trip goes - understandably - awry when they encounter a group of zombies.
Those troublesome zombies crop up again in Isa Swain's UAE-Bahrain co-production Envy the Dead, which has been screened at various dedicated horror festivals. The film takes place in the aftermath of a zombie epidemic in "a modern Arab city". Rumours that the zombies are simply lost shoppers in the Dubai Mall have so far remained unconfirmed.
Alongside Envy the Dead and Alagroobi's Forbidden Fruit, the UAE has a sizeable presence at the festival. In the Gulf Students Competitions, 14 films from Emirati filmmakers are jostling for attention, with some interesting topics under the spotlight. Marwan Alhammadi's Cats looks at exotic pets living in UAE homes, while Gamboo3a Revolution, from Abdulrahman Al Madani, focuses on the beehive hairdo phenomenon among local women, discussing whether it actually contradicts its original purpose: to dress modestly.
Some more established UAE filmmakers are showcasing their recent creative wares in the Gulf Shorts Competition, among them Talal Mahmood and Alya Al Shamsi, whose co-directed film Perfume of the Rain sees rain become a metaphor for life. Another entrant is Glimpse, a two-minute concept piece from Nayla Al Khaja, one of the most recognisable names in the Emirati film scene.
"I really enjoy the festival very much," says Al Khaja, who has been coming since it began. "It's really an indie festival, for the filmmakers rather than the glam. It's there to hone and encourage and support specifically Khaleeji filmmakers from the Gulf. It's the perfect networking space for Gulf filmmakers to come together and catch up on news and find out who's doing what and collaborate on projects."
While Dubai will be the hot spot for the networking opportunities, film fans in Abu Dhabi won't have to worry about making the trip each day. For the first time since GFF began, the festival will come to the capital, with films screened simultaneously at the Abu Dhabi Theatre.
While much of the festival will be about world and regional premieres, there are also chances to see recent acclaimed titles that might have passed you by. Nawal Al Janahi's Sea Shadow, which premiered at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year, is screening, as is the DIFF award-winning Amal, from renowned Emirati director Nujoom Alghanem.
Alghanem is no stranger to GFF, with her film Hamama taking home the first documentary prize last year. "It's a smaller festival in terms of scope," she says. "But it has grown very fast and in five years has become as important as other well-established film festivals."
Alghanem has another film appearing this year. Salma's Dinner is being debuted alongside 36 other shorts in the Cherries of Kiarostami programme, a culmination of the 10-day masterclass Abbas Kiarostami hosted at the 2011 festival, which was attended by 45 emerging and established filmmakers from across the Arab world. The veteran Iranian artist and director will be returning to Dubai for the occasion.
This year's event is likely to cement the Gulf Film Festival's importance to the regional film industry. Don't expect fireworks (actually do, this is Dubai after all), but if you're a film buff or even just a fan of cinema, look forward to seeing some of the most creative minds from the region - and beyond - showcasing their talents and perhaps providing a hint at what could be coming around the corner.
And with many of the screenings being shorts, even if they don't tickle your fancy it's not like you have to sit there for long.
• The festival will take place at the InterContinental and Crowne Plaza hotels and the Grand Festival Cinemas at Dubai Festival City from tomorrow to April 16, and from April 12 to 14 at the Abu Dhabi Theatre. For a schedule of the films, visit www.gulffilmfest.com
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