x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Stars burn bright at festival, but still a small universe of film

A vibrant film industry should not only rely on an annual film festival. The love of cinema, and indeed art in general, is something that needs to be nurtured.

If the man who played the godfather Vito Corleone, taxi driver Travis Bickle, raging bull Jake La Motta and US government-nemesis Al Capone approves your filmmaking credentials, it's a safe bet you'll be feeling pretty pleased with yourself.

Teta, alf marra ("Grandmother, a thousand times"), a documentary by the Dubai-based Mahmoud Kaabour had just won the Audience Award for Best Documentary and a special jury mention at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, and the 31-year-old Lebanese director is receiving his award from arguably the greatest actor of his generation, Robert De Niro.

With the seventh edition of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) in full swing now, the search is on for more filmmaking talent, especially among Emiratis, to follow in Mr Kaabour's footsteps.

DIFF, while still a fledging event, has started to find its feet. The novelty factor of the first few years has worn off, to be replaced by expectations. Morgan Freeman, George Clooney and Adel Imam have over the years given the event a certain gravitas, but it is now time to develop the festival seriously as a platform for emerging talent and a hub where ideas are exchanged and, like other festivals around the world, major deals are struck.

For all the positive strides it has taken, DIFF remains something of an unknown entity. Some film fans feel that it is not advertised aggressively enough, while the excellent workshops and forums that the festival hosts should be attracting far more attention.

The Dubai Film Market is an initiative that was set up to bring film industry professionals from around the world together, providing a platform for negotiations and cooperation on projects. This market serves as the gateway to the Dubai Film Connection, DIFF's co-production unit, and to the Dubai Film Forum, a hub for talent development, business and industry panel discussions and workshops. Finally Enjaaz, the festival's new post-production support programme, entitles local applicants funding of up to $100,000 (Dh367,00). So the opportunities are there, but will they be seized?

A vibrant film industry should not only rely on an annual film festival. The love of cinema, and indeed art in general, is something that needs to be nurtured. For financial reasons, filmmaking, like music, painting, performing and writing, still lags considerably behind jobs in banking and government as career choices for young Emiratis. There is no quick fix for this. Long-standing attitudes need to change if this embryonic cultural shift is to bloom.

As a film locale, the UAE ticks off most boxes. Despite its relatively young age, or maybe because of it, there are many untold stories that are ripe for filmmakers to explore. It has excellent locations that can be exploited, from iconic landmarks, high-rise structures, major hotels and outlets and long stretches of highways. Crucially, you can film on location by the beach, in the desert and in urban areas. Guerilla filmmaking, the dedicated film buff's art form using personal equipment and props, skeleton cast and crew, and practically nonexistent budgets should, in theory, thrive here.

At the moment, however, censorship and lack of funding remain major obstacles for local filmmakers, dissuading many from expressing themselves.

There are positive signs however. A welcome feature of the Gulf Film Festival, DIFF's smaller sister event, earlier this year was the number of Emirati film students, mostly female, whose work focused on culturally taboo subjects. Topics like unaffordable dowries, the rise of plastic surgery in the country and Emirati boys' obsession with their cars were all humorously considered.

These short films were created with modest equipment and no funding at all, hence a small victory for guerilla filmmaking.

Others have taken the fast track to success. Nawaf al Janahi nabbed the most promising filmmaker award last year for his film Al Dayra (The Circle) and this year screenings of The Philosopher, by another Emirati filmmaker Abdulla AlKaabi, is drawing attention.

Ali Mostafa, the director of City of Life, has predicted that within five years local cinemas will be offering three Emirati features a week.

Whether, and when, this tipping point becomes a reality remains to be seen, but Mr Mostafa and Mr al Janahi have certainly offered some hope to a new generation. De Niro, the muse to the peerless director and one-time guerilla filmmaker Martin Scorsese, would surely approve.