The maiden edition of the Dubai International Film Festival got underway on Monday. Until December 11, Dubai will get to see the best of the best movies made worldwide, and meet face-to-face the biggest of movie stars and moviemakers.

By Pradeep Kumar (Staff Reporter)

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Published: Tue 7 Dec 2004, 4:55 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 12:33 AM

It has taken more than 18 months of hard work to put together this mega event. City Times caught up with Neil D Stephenson, CEO and Festival Director, Dubai International Film Festival on the opening day of the festival, to know more on the first film festival of Dubai. A lawyer by training, Stephenson, who was previously associated with the Toronto International Film Festival, seemed contended with the preparations for the festival, but is certain that "there is always scope for doing better".

This is the first time that Dubai is hosting a film festival. What are the challenges that you faced in putting together the festival?

There were many challenges. The first challenge is in pairing of the right people. We need to bring the right set of people — the programmers, the print people, the marketing chaps and other professionals. The next challenge was to select the right venues — we needed to be in a good part of the town and the venues selected had to be not far away from one another. We had to negotiate with the venue owners.

Another challenge was to select the right dates for the festival. We had to ensure that our festival does not clash with any other film festivals being held in the region. This year the Cairo International Film Festival is being held at the same time as ours (the Cairo festival ends on December 9). We have talked to organisers of the festival in Cairo and have ensured that this sort of thing does not happen from next year. They may advance their dates and we may push our dates by couple of days.

Was it difficult for you to sell the festival abroad?

Dubai International Film Festival does not have a track record. You have to hardsell the idea, which we did. And we have come as far as this. But these things do take time. I am sure the Dubai International Film Festival will sell with time. In the years to come, it would attract many more people and much more international attention.

You were quoted recently as saying that the purpose of organising DIFF was not trying to outdo any other festival. Could you elaborate?

Cannes Film Festival has been there now for over five decades. Most of the established film festivals have been existing for some time. We looked at most big time film festivals — London, Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, Edinburgh and many others. We have tried to learn from all those festivals. We are trying to put whatever we have learnt from all those places in the Dubai context. We need to be ourselves. We do not have to copy others to be successful. We can create a new product only by being ourselves. And to an extent, I guess, we have achieved that with the first edition of DIFF. This region does host some film festivals and we want to ensure that we are not in there for competition with any of them.

In such a scenario, was it difficult for you drawing up the objectives of the festival?

If you do not have objectives, you are directionless.

DIFF has three main objectives. First, to be the showcase of Arab cinema. Second, to act as a cultural bridge between the East and West. We want the festival to act as vehicle for dialogue and understanding between the two sides of the globe. Third, we want the festival to be a public service to the people of Dubai. Our objective is certainly not to bring filmstars from world over to Dubai, make them walk down the red carpet and click pictures of them. This will not serve any purpose.

Are you happy with the arrangements of the first edition of DIFF?

You can always be better. There is always scope for doing better. Next year, the event will be much better than it is this year. And this would follow year after year. To answer the question, yes, I am happy with the programming of the event, especially this being the first edition of the event.

In festivals such as these, who is your target audience?

Being a multicultural society, people here seem to have a good knowledge of cinema. And our programming section has ensured that every category of cinema lovers are taken care of. The section Arabian Shorts will showcase works of moviemakers from the UAE and elsewhere in the region. These filmmakers may not be in a position to showcase their movies elsewhere. DIFF is creating a platform for them to showcase their talents. We certainly do see audience for the documentary films that will be screened during the festival. The documentary films that are selected for the festival discuss a wide range of issues.

Why is that DIFF does not have a competitive category?

We want to walk before we run. We want to grow from small to big. This is the first time we are organising a film festival here and we do not want to begin by doing everything at the same time. We do not have to try out everything in our first venture itself.

In an event such as this, everything may not go on smoothly. There are last minute changes and hurdles even at the Cannes festival. We want to learn from our mistakes and be much better next time.

We are however not ruling out the possibility of a competitive category in the festival next year, or years after that.

Is it true that with a competitive category DIFF would have attracted more movies?

That is not true. Without having a competitive category, we were flooded with movies from filmmakers from around the world. At least 200 requests came from filmmakers asking us to accommodate their movies in the festival. The programmers of the festival had a tough job in selecting the movies.

The movies that will screened during the festival will not be censored. How important a decision was this for the festival organisers?

Cinema is a mode of communication. In a free marketplace, there needs to be scope for free expression of ideas. And the organisers of DIFF understand that quite well. We did not want people to interfere with the ideas expressed by filmmakers.

Censorship at a film festival may not work well for the event in the long term.

Being free of censorship was a challenge for the programmers of the festival. The programmers had to ensure that only those movies go well with the ethics and beliefs of the society. Just because there was no censorship, it certainly did not mean that any kind of movie could be shown at the festival.

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