The tallest building in the world is threatening to overshadow a film festival.Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol stars the 828-metre Burj Khalifa (and some actor named Tom Cruise) and premiered in Dubai last week. As an example of how feverish the United Arab Emirates press has become for the film, The National, an Abu-Dhabi-based broadsheet, ran a story interviewing extras, crew and even craft services, anyone it seems who had even a tangential local link to MI4.
MI4 is opening the Dubai International Film Festival with 170 other movies from 55 other countries. It remains to be seen whether the media hype for the blockbuster will have a spillover effect for other films in the festival or if everything is downhill after Cruise scales the Burj.
The film certainly stands in stark contrast to DIFF’s previous openers — best picture nominee Michael Clayton in 2009 and Oscar winner The King’s Speech last year — a sign, perhaps, that Dubai has recovered from its economic troubles and is ready to bring back the bling. In fact, a report yesterday in the Dubai-based Gulf News notes that the city’s growth should rise by 3 percent in the next year as it benefits from instability in the Middle East.
Whether the growth carries over to the film industry is uncertain. Dubai’s government sees MI4 as proof that filmmakers can trust the city’s services. “Dubai reaffirms its commitment to the advancement of the local, regional, and international film industries,” a spokesman at the media office said. But a report from the BBC during the shooting of MI4 found the city’s film industry “immature. A lot of the market’s necessary production [services] just don’t exist.”
DIFF began eight years ago as an attempt to promote production. It is unclear if it has been successful in this regard. In Introduction to Cinema in the Arab World, author Samir Farid notes that in 2009 about 50 short films were produced in the UAE, “the annual rate since 2001.” There have been 17 features produced since Hani Al Shaibani directed the country’s first, A Dream, in 2005. Nawaf Aljanahi, who was a child actor in A Dream, directed the latest Emirati feature, Sea Shadow, which was released in theatres three weeks ago and is the first local film to be funded by Imagenation, the US$1-billion film fund that has helped produced Oscar contenders The Help and Contagion, but also lost $US100-million on films such as Peter Weir’s The Way Back (starring Colin Farrell) and Robert Rodriguez’s Shorts.
“The market is getting bigger and bigger,” says Aljanahi. “But the UAE suffers from stereotypes, which are not true when you come and live here.” This echoes what Tom Cruise mentioned in his press conference last Wednesday: “We think Americans will feel like we do when they see this film. We were amazed at the treatment we have all received, and how exotic the place is.”
Sea Shadow has not had the same box office success as 2009’s City of Life by Ali Mustafa, which took in AUD$132,000 in its opening week, and continued to place in the top five at the box office for weeks after, but both could be considered pioneers in the UAE film industry.
“One of the founding objectives of DIFF has been to promote UAE-based filmmaking talent,” Masoud Amralla Al Ali, DIFF’s Artistic Director, says. “The diversity of themes and genres, the quality of filmmaking, and the presence of new talent as well as returning filmmakers spreading their wings with new works is a positive sign for our nascent film industry. It proves we are doing something right. These are interesting and thought-provoking films.” Amralla Al Ali’s vision is an academy that has less to do with theories and is more dedicated to specific fields, such as sound, editing, and producing.
To this end, DIFF created the Muhr Emirati Awards, three prizes totaling US$75,000, which 13 local films will compete for. Among the contenders this year is Nujoom Alghanem, the female director of Hamama, which took home a Muhr award last year. Her 2011 entry, Amal, follows a Syrian expat who moves to the UAE but faces a dilemma when her one-year visa expires. Baseera (Foresight) played at last year’s Gulf Film Festival, but a longer, reedited version will compete for a Muhr this year. Ahmed Zain and Nasser Al Yaqoobi tell the story of a Ras Al Khaiman fisherman who has lost his eyes, but continues to fish every day, serving as a source of inspiration to his friends and crewmates, but also warning of the dangers of modernization on traditional ways of life.
Another documentary of note, which takes on a new significance in light of the Occupy movements that sprung up across the United States recently is Surviving Progress. Inspired by Ronald Wright’s 2005 bestseller A Short History of Progress, directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks picked the brains of the likes of Stephen Hawking, Margaret Atwood and Jane Goodall for potential “progress traps,” that might lead to the end of our civilization.
If you think tracing the history of the UAE’s film industry is a difficult task, imagine charting the entire life of cinema itself? Yet, that is exactly what Mark Cousins does in Story of Film: An Odyssey, a 900-minute epic, which will be screened in 13 episodes at DIFF. Subjects in the film include screenwriter/director Paul Schraeder (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo), Lars von Trier and actor Norman Lloyd, who has acted in everything from Hitchcock’s Spellbound to the sitcom Modern Family.
The Dubai International Film Festival runs until Dec. 14.
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