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Committed to Making Dubai
a Top Global Film Destination

Meraj Rizvi / 10 December 2008

DUBAI - As Abdulhamid Juma, Chairman of Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), walks into the beautiful ‘majlis’ of his office located in the Dubai Media City, determination and confidence were writ large over his face.

“The idea is to make DIFF 2008 an unforgettable experience for film lovers,” he sets the tone of the interview.

“This is our fifth season and a milestone year for DIFF, which is reflected in the number of films to be screened at the festival,” he makes his point.

“When we started out in 2004, the festival showcased 76 films from 24 countries. This year, we have 181 films from 66 countries,” says Juma, as he settles down in a corner of his room, with the new black and red DIFF images overlooking the lush green lawns.

Juma, however, denies the picturesque location of the office at DMC has been any inspiration in putting the DIFF events with great finesse year after year. “I hardly have the time to sit back and enjoy the surroundings,“ he says.

“Cinema is my passion. I love to travel to various film festivals around the globe, both in official and personal capacities. This helps learn and introduce some new flavours and elements into the festival each year,” he reveals.

The DIFF 2008, which opens tomorrow (December 11) and runs until December 18, promises to unveil a milestone version of Dubai’s favourite cultural event and one that is increasingly prominent on the world stage.

“The film festival first took off in 2004 and since then there has been no looking back,” quips the man who is now synonymous with DIFF.

Aside from a galaxy of stars set to grace the fest, including Nicolas Cage, Brendan Fraser, Salma Hayek, Goldie Hawn, Laura Linney, Danny Glover, Abhishek Bachchan, Preity Zinta, Anil Kapoor,  a heavy concentration of filmmakers will also be making their presence felt this year. The award-winning director Oliver Stone (Batman Begins) and The Dark Knight producer Charles Roven, Oscar-nominated director Deepa Mehta and Rang De Basanti director Rakesh Omprakash Mehra are just some of the top brass who will bring their expertise to the country, and maybe, even a few film projects in the near future.

Taking pride in DIFF’s popularity with filmmakers and stars, that has perhaps surpassed many a film festival in the region, the DIFF chairman notes:  “We’ve been able to successfully put together a professional team of around 700, comprising full-time and part-time staff as well as volunteers. With the support of the Dubai government, we have succeeded in putting through the film festival with all its glamour and seriousness. “The idea of hosting a film festival in Dubai first took seed in the minds of people in the 90’s. In 2003, when the idea came from a man called Mahmoud Sipra, who was then heading a company called Premier, I immediately took it up and started to put plans together in my capacity as the CEO of DMC,” he says, disclosing how he got involved with the festival.

With no experience at film making himself, Juma says, he is a big believer in destiny and firmly believes that nothing happens in life without a reason.

Initial struggle

“Once the idea of the festival was approved, we faced lot of resistance.  They said to us: Was there a need for another film festival? Why does Dubai, or for that matter the UAE, need a film festival when the country doesn’t have anything to do with film production?

“On the other hand, it was the challenge of producing the best since Dubai is synonymous with the biggest, tallest and greatest of things and events.  So the expectations ran pretty high,” Juma says.

What next? “I immersed myself in doing the best with the available resources. I was clear from day one that a film festival was not just about glamour, red carpets and stars, but rather an event which has the respect of filmmakers and the entire entertainment industry. “So we strived hard to provide the filmmakers with a platform in the region. This is our fifth year and like everything else in Dubai, our learning curve has been very steep.”

He believes DIFF has successfully introduced a culture of films and has sown the seeds for a dialogue between the UAE filmmakers and the various nationalities living here. “It has created a better cultural understanding, says Juma, adding, “This is just the beginning. Festivals usually take very long time to shape up. But, it’s only in Dubai that we have cut the 15 years period to five years.”

The DIFF has also helped create better understanding of filmmaking in the UAE and the Arab world in general. The festival also aims to enhance learning among the Emirati filmmakers. “We ensure the students spend all their time with their mentors throughout the festival and learn from their experiences of filmmaking. Simply talking to the mentors is gaining knowledge. We also give scripts to UAE nationals and help them shoot their films with an initial fund of Dh 50,000.”

The DIFF Chairman, however, expresses an urgent need for setting up a funding body by the Dubai government. “Abu Dhabi already has a funding body. In Dubai we are still pushing for it.”

Commenting on what is new at DIFF this year, Juma notes that apart from a strong focus on Arab cinema, “We have set up a Dubai Film Market...Content buyers from around the world will now be able to browse an electronic library of regional work that will benefit from the prominence and convenience of this new platform.”

Now in its third year, the Industry Office will build on the success of its Dubai Film Connection. Year 2008 will see a new roster of 18 productions paired with international mentors.

“It’s only four years but I can see the DIFF’s visible outcomes,” Juma claims.

Some interesting films are now coming to UAE cinemas. Besides, people are looking at different films and this is obvious with a good response to the sale of tickets at the box office on its first day for the film ‘Australia’.

Big stars are back 

“Even big stars and filmmakers who earlier came as guests are back at the festival to showcase their films. George Clooney came to the UAE to shoot his film and last year he was here to show his film.

“Oliver Stone was only a guest with us last year and this time he is here to open the festival with his film ‘W’.”

A confident Juma hopes the DIFF will join the ranks of the world’s premier film festivals in the region, and the world, in the next 10 years. “I want DIFF to become the destination for the best films produced globally. I want to also see it as a place for young talents not only from UAE, but globally,” he adds. DIFF 2008 will present three commemorative projects: Focus 2008, an industry booklet in collaboration with the Marché du Film- Festival de Cannes. In addition to the information on world film market trends, DIFF has also commissioned the Nielsen Company to include a dedicated segment on emerging trends in the Arab world; a collectors DVD of eight Emirati films screened at DIFF over the last four years; and a limited-edition book celebrating the golden years of Egyptian Cinema.

With several new initiatives in the mix, the Muhr Awards for Excellence in Arab Cinema will also see the birth of a new family member, christened Muhr AsiaAfrica. “The diversity of films has increased at DIFF this year due to the addition of the new Muhr AsiaAfrica competition, which has added films from unexpected markets like Pakistan and Afghanistan to the mix, in addition to award-winning cinemas from Japan, Turkey and Iran.”

Complementing the Muhr AsiaAfrica competition will be the Cinema of AsiaAfrica programming element, as well as eye-catching animation works from around the world.

Very inspired by LOVE...a small film festival in Belgium this year, Juma hopes that someday he will introduce a section of films only focusing on Love at DIFF. “This year, my programmer did not agree; so we introduced a section on animation. This year we are also focusing on Italy and the Indian cinema. Last year, we did not give enough attention to Indian films, but this year we decided to go back and focus on Indian cinema which is very popular both in the Arab world and globally.”

On the liberal policy adopted on censorship, Juma stressed that films at DIFF 2008 will not be censored. “DIFF will not bring films that are obscene and vulgar since we respect the people of the UAE and the sentiments of the Muslim world. However, I respect the audience in the UAE and believe strongly that the families should be given the freedom to choose what is good for them,” he notes.

Commenting, whether the global meltdown would impact DIFF, Juma says, “On the contrary, a study says that the entertainment business goes up resulting in rise in sales of popcorn and chocolates globally during economic crisis. People end up eating more chocolates when depressed and watch more films. “The film industry, I personally believe, is not affected,” he explains.


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