x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The world taking notice of the Gulf Film Festival

The Gulf Film Festival is coming into its own, and the world is noticing.

Masoud Amralla Al Ali, the director of the Gulf Film Festival.
Masoud Amralla Al Ali, the director of the Gulf Film Festival.

For the first time in its 60-year history, the Berlinale in February this year included a UAE short film in its programme. Just a few months earlier the very same film came second in the Emirati Muhr Awards programme of the Dubai International Film Festival, after having won Best Short at the New York Eurasian Film Festival and receiving its premiere at Switzerland's Locarno Film Festival. And, almost a year to the day, before filming had even started, it picked up the second prize for Best Emirati Script at the Gulf Film Festival.

This week, on the back of this international success, Sabeel, directed by Khalid Al Mahmood and written by Mohammed Hassan Ahmed, returns to where it all began: the Gulf Film Festival - to compete in the main Gulf competition.

While it may not have the same red-carpeted glitz as the region's celebrity-strewn international film festivals, the Gulf Film Festival, which starts on Thursday at Dubai Festival City, is of central importance for the region's filmmakers, helping local films such as Sabeel get the initial lift-off they need for further success.

"Attracting film from around the world is one thing, but to establish, to educate and to try to create something out of nothing is much harder," says the festival's director, Masoud Amralla Al Ali.

In fact, many rising filmmakers from across the region actually make films specifically for the festival. While the festival began only in 2008, its roots go back to the Emirates Film Competition, which Amralla Al Ali helped establish in 2001, an event that ultimately kickstarted a movement that is now considered a vital element to the region's collective creative body.

"I remember at the first Emirates Film Competition the families of the filmmakers didn't agree to screen the credit of the film because their names were mentioned. In 10 years, we've seen this dramatic change."

And the change is nowhere more evident than at this year's event. Having added an international shorts competition, the 2011 festival has received more than 1,400 submissions from more than 98 countries. Alongside 66 entries from the UAE, applications have come in from as far afield as Lithuania, Gabon, Kyrgyzstan and Colombia. Nearly half a million dirhams will be distributed as prize money to the winners in the various categories.

Alongside the prize-giving, the backdrop of the festival will be one of discussion, giving filmmakers the opportunity to collaborate and communicate about ideas and projects. Industry veterans have also been brought in to sit on the juries, and also to provide invaluable advice to those yet to establish themselves. Sitting on the jury of the Gulf Competition are the Egyptian filmmaker Magdy Ahmed Aly, director of The Nile Birds and Fawzeya's Secret Recipe, plus Iraqi filmmaker Kais Al Zubaidi who has directed numerous documentaries about the Palestinian cause. This year's festival will also honour the Emirati actress Mariam Sultan, the Saudi filmmaker Mohammad F Gazzaz and the Kuwaiti filmmaker Mohammad Al-Sanousi.

"We want to encourage regional filmmakers not only by giving them this platform, but by giving them opportunities to learn through workshops and seminars, and also by providing them with role models to emulate," says Amralla Al Ali.

Giving a 10-day master class during the festival is one filmmaking role model who requires little introduction: the renowned Iranian director and artist Abbas Kiarostami. Forty-five students from across the Middle East and the world - including 20 from the UAE - will have the opportunity to learn first-hand from one of the region's undisputed masters. Of those chosen to take part, 25 already have films in competition at the festival.

Another cinematic legend celebrated at this year's event is the avant-garde French filmmaker Gérard Courant, whose works will be showcased in the festival's "In Focus" segment. Courant holds the world record for the longest film made, the 156-hour Cinématon, put together over 33 years and featuring short, silent self-portraits of more than 2,347 artists, directors and cinephiles. Delegates to the festival will have the opportunity to take part in Cinématon.

But for those out there without any directorial aspirations, or perhaps without the patience for a 156-hour film, the Gulf Film Festival offers a great opportunity for some quality viewing. Of the 150-plus films being shown - all free of charge - there is a wide variety of genres and geographies to enjoy. Some were shown at the Dubai International Film Festival, such as Kassem Hawai's drama The Singer, about a man forced to perform for Saddam Hussein; the documentary Baghdad Film School, which followed film students working under some severe conditions; and Emirati director Rashid Al Marri's Letters to Palestine, in which Arabs in the UAE send their messages to those living under occupation.

Then there are two powerful shorts from Bahrain, selected from 11 entries from that country. Osama Al Saif's Lulwa focuses on the delicate issue of sexual harassment, while The Power of Generations by Mohammed Jassim offers a commentary on the fragility of progress, centring on a man seated in a chair in the desert witnessing the world around him evolving and changing.

For Amralla Al Ali, many of the films help to offer a glimpse into an unknown world that might be just over the neighbouring wall. "In the UAE, Emiratis and expats are very isolated from each other. I think cinema is the perfect medium to learn about the other society, to watch them and see how they live, how they talk, how they treat their families. It's a dialogue."

And while providing a window into a culture that might not have been understood, the films can also help tackle subjects not previously exposed. "We need these voices to talk about themselves, to talk about their problems in the society and their lives."

In the 10 years since the first Emirates Film Competition, the regional film scene has progressed far beyond any script could have envisaged. It may still be only in its infancy, but with support from the likes of the Gulf Film Festival, its teenage years should be ones of growth and expansion.

"One of our greatest contributions, I think, is to establish the credibility of Gulf cinema in the industry and among the critics. Nobody can say any more that there is no Gulf film industry. Nobody can say there is no quality, and that we are only consumers of film and not thinkers or creators - it's simply not true. We are not just playing in our own backyard any more. Our films stand on their own around the world."

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