SBS senior programmer Brennan Wrenn reports back from The Dubai International Film Festival, where he was scouting for films to acquire for SBS.
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18 Dec 2009 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 3:30 PM

It might be bookended by Rob Marshall's musical Nine and James Cameron's sci-fi extravaganza Avatar, but the Dubai International Film Festival is hardly a Hollywood affair. Featuring sidebars including 'Arabian Nights', 'Gulf Voices' as well as the top prize; The Muhr Award for best Arabic feature, documentary and short film; the focus is well and truly on the region.

The 6th edition of The Dubai International Film Festival, which this year presented 168 films, including 29 world premieres, has not been without its problems. Financial crises aside, Dubai has faced increased competition from not only the deep pockets of sister Emirate Abu Dhabi, with its Middle East International Film Festival, but also from the newly established Doha Tribeca Film Festival. Not surprisingly, the result of more festivals competing for the prestige associated with regional premieres has meant that there were some notable absences from the program; Elia Suleiman's The Time That Remains springs to mind.

Having attended the festival and accompanying Arab Film Market since 2006, it was refreshing to see an all-Emirati management of the festival has led to a softening of censorship. It could be argued that the previous administration were more cautious or self-censoring when it came to programming titles that might cause offence. This year's edition led by Creative Director Masoud Amralla Al Ali, certainly appeared more progressive in the inclusion of titles that in previous years might have been deemed too risky.

Of the films presented at this year's DIFF particular standouts, all of which will be pursued by SBS, included Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, Francois Ozon's Le Refuge, Philippe Lioret's Welcome and Merzak Allouache's Harragas.

In Audiard's gripping and uncompromising prison drama A Prophet, newcomer Tahar Rahim (in one of the best performances in recent memory) plays an illiterate French-Arab thug who rises through prison hierarchy. Ozon's latest, The Refuge ticked many of the boxes as far as provocative elements were concerned. Isabelle Carre stars as a heroin addict who discovers she is pregnant after a near overdose and her boyfriend's death from the same drugs. Stealing away to a cottage on the coast, and entering a methadone program, she is eventually joined by her late lover's homosexual brother. This is a moving drama about unconventional relationships and family with beautifully drawn characters.

Lioret's poignant illegal immigration tale Welcome (which is due for an Australian theatrical release next year) is the story of a man who becomes increasingly involved in the plight of 17-year-old Iraqi refugee stranded in Calais with the intention to illegally enter the United Kingdom. Welcome is a credible and emotionally complex film on a topical and serious current issue. Another illegal immigrant story was Allouache's Harragas which at last nights' DIFF Awards ceremony picked up the inaugural Human Rights Film Network Award and the Muhr Special Jury Prize. Harragas is set in the Algerian port city of Mostaganem, 200 kilometres from the Spanish coast and centres on a desperate collection of refugees tackling the perilous crossing to Spain. Although somewhat uneven, Harragas often skilfully and evocatively depicts the serious problem of emigration.

As far as the films that didn't hit the mark; billed as the first multi-lingual feature film to be written, produced and directed by an Emirati with UAE funding, City of Life unfortunately missed. Starring Alexandra Maria Lara and Jason Flemyng, City of Life was sadly not the legitimate exploration of race, ethnicity and class in contemporary Dubai that it set out to be. But the grandest miss would have to go to The Last Flight. Starring Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and Guillaume Canet, this 30s set tale of a spunky female pilot searching the Sahara for her downed British lover with the help of a principled Army Lieutenant was certainly the most pointless and meandering production I saw during the festival.