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Middle East International Film Festival: Abu Dhabi and the Dubai Internaitonal Film Festival

By Joan Sekler

The seven-star Emirates Palace Hotel, site of the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi

With its bleached sands and sparkling waters of the Arabian Gulf and its glistening white skyscapers dotting the landscape, the city of Abu Dhabi––the capital of the seven United Arab Emirates––played host to the first Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) and Film Financing Circle. The festival was held in the magnificent seven-star Emirates Palace Hotel last October, and over 80 films were screened within various sections, including competitions for the Black Pearl Trophy and for a future production grant for the winning directors of the best narrative, documentary and short films; a showcase of films by Middle Eastern directors, and Arab cinema featuring women directors; and the Hayah Film Competition, comprised of five-minute films produced by Middle Eastern filmmakers.

Nashwa Al-Ruwaini, the executive director of MEIFF, secured festival veteran Jon Fitzgerald, co-founder of Slamdance and past director of AFI Fest, to assume the role of festival director. Both international and local organizers were assembled, teams of juries were formed, over 700 film entries were received and over 250 volunteers were recruited to ensure the success of this new festival. In addition, over 350 accredited press representatives attended, and most of the films were well received and sold out.

The international documentary competition was comprised of six feature-length films from the US, the UK, North Africa and the Middle East. I Love Hip Hop in Morocco tells the joyous and heartwarming story of a group of Moroccan hip-hop artists who struggled for funds to organize the country's first-ever hip-hop festival. US directors Jennifer Needleman and Joshua Asen spent a year in Morocco with these artists and were instrumental in helping them secure funds for their successful festival. Salata Balati is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic film about Egyptian director Nadia Kamel's family, whose history of mixed marriages dates back over a century. Director Michael Apted's latest documentary, The Power of the Game, examines the social impact of soccer across the world, following six stories in five continents and culminating with the 2006 World Cup.

Hear and Now, which won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2007, is Irene Taylor Brodsky's story about her deaf parents who, at the age of 65, decide to acquire surgical implants that will allow them to experience sound for the first time. New Years Baby, by Socheata Poeuv, opens a window into the lives of six Cambodians who escape the Khmer Rouge genocide and become Americans. Finally, the winner of the Black Pearl Jury Prize for Best Documentary was We Are Together, Paul Taylor's moving story of a group of children in a South African orphanage who use music to overcome their hardships as they rehearse for a series of concerts in London.

A unique component of MEIFF was the inaugural Film Financing Circle, comprised of financiers and executives from international investment and entertainment companies who participated in panel discussions on finance, production and distribution of predominantly narrative films. The emerging theme was applicable to documentaries as well: It's the story you tell that is key, and it's the passion that gets the film made!

Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of the Weinstein Company, was the keynote speaker. He remarked that financiers should invest in filmmakers who have a vision and a plan for distribution and attracting audiences. He also noted that the rise in documentary production worldwide will necessitate an increase in cable television channels and ancillary markets to pay for and air these films.

The Film Financing Circle also unveiled two funding opportunities: the New Film Fund, designed to foster global co-productions, and the InCircle Pearl Grant of $100,000, awarded to the winner of a competitive pitch program for narrative features.

A special treat at this Circle was a master class with director Paul Haggis (In the Valley of Elah), who commented that the world needs to hear more independent voices that haven't been heard before, and that filmmakers need to attract worldwide audiences with their stories. He went on to say that the most important element you need is compassion for those with whom you don’t understand or agree. In real life, he continued, we are both heroes and villains, containing contradictions; and as filmmakers, we shouldn't judge the characters in our films, since one can't understand a villain unless one can see through his/her eyes.

This first Middle East International Film Festival was a real success and will add to the continuing expansion of film festivals throughout the Middle East.

II. Dubai International Film Festival

In one of the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan and multi-cultural places in the world, the 4th Annual Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) took place December 9 to 16, under the slogan "Bridging Cultures, Meeting Minds." This festival was conceived in 2004 as an event that would promote cultural understanding between the Arab and non-Arab worlds. Over 600 entries were submitted from around the world and 141 films from 52 countries were screened––of which 12 were documentary features in competition for the Muhr Award for Excellence in Arab Cinema. Additional documentaries screened as part of various programmatic sections of the festival, including the Cultural Bridge, Arabian Nights, a Celebration of Indian Cinema, the Cinema of the World, the Cinema of Asia, the Cinema of Africa, Destination Documentary, Emirati Voices, the Cinema for Children, and Rhythm and Reels—Celebrating Music in Film. 

The documentaries in competition included director Mourad Bucif's explosive The Colour of Sacrifice, which reveals how France recruited Algerian soldiers to fight the Nazis in World War II, put them in the front lines of battle and then refused to give them decent military pensions after the war ended. Living in deplorable conditions, these aging heroes continue their struggle for justice. 33 Days, by Palestinian filmmaker Mai Masri, was filmed during the massive Israeli attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006; Masri documents the daily lives of four young people who work in theater, media and emergency relief.

The winner of the Gold Muhr Award was Franco-Egyptian director Karim Goury's Made in Egypt, a personal journey in search of the filmmaker’s Egyptian roots. The Silver Muhr Award went to Palestinian director Buthina Canaan Khoury for Maria's Grotto, a disturbing look at the so-called “honor killings” of Arab women by family members who suspect romantic relationships or intimate affairs with men before marriage. Director Nassri Hajjaj received the Bronze Muhr Award for Shadow of Absence, which explores the anxiety that uprooted and exiled Palestinians are experiencing.

Among the compelling nonfiction films that screened as part of Destination Documentary were such 2007 festival circuit favorites as The 11th Hour (Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen, dirs.; Leonardo Di Caprio, prod.), A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman (Peter Raymont, dir./prod.) and War/Dance (Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, dirs./prods.).

The Dubai International Film Festival, which USA Today has picked as one of the top 20 film festivals in the world, has developed entertainment industry ties with a series of initiatives designed to enhance the Arab film business. One of these initiatives is the Dubai Film Connection, which introduced a co-production market in the UAE for the first time and where three out of 15 projects for films from across the Arab world won prizes of $15,000 each and a chance to participate in the 2008 Cannes Producers Network. One of the projects selected was The One Man Village (Simon El Habre, dir.; Beirut DC, prod.), a documentary about the sole inhabitant of a Lebanese village evacuated to protect its Christian population. In addition, the Arte Award, which comes with $7,200 in prize money from the Arte television channel, went to Palestinian director Raed Andori for Fix Me, an intimate psychological documentary.

For documentarians seeking support and interest in upcoming projects, Sean Farnel, the director of programming for Hot Docs, was available each day for consultations. He found that "there are some really good projects in the making... They [DIFF] really understand the role of the documentary here."

Throughout the week of the festival, industry-sponsored panel sessions took place, including Arab Broadcasters in Film, highlighted by a lively discussion between speakers from various Arab television networks and filmmakers in the audience over issues of funding and airing more independent works. One filmmaker lamented that networks don't invest in documentaries and don't schedule them in enough primetime slots because they don't generate a lot of revenue. Other filmmakers remarked that broadcasters needed to make an effort to change audience viewing culture by screening more independent films.

The one network that has aired many documentaries is Al Jazeera. Giles Trendle, the senior commissioning editor for Al Jazeera English, remarked that the network has a channel dedicated solely to documentary films—the only one of its kind in the Middle East. Panelist Fadi Ismael, general manager of 03 Productions (a subsidiary of MBC Group), said that his company has produced over 250 documentaries but, "It's an uphill struggle. The private sector, the government here, aren't really investing in documentaries because they are seen as controversial, as well as providing no financial returns. We work on a really small budget, and the only reason we make it is because our young directors are so dedicated and their prices are so low."

Considering that Arab filmmakers constitute a growing presence around the world, and that non-Arab filmmakers are beginning to focus on stories from the Middle East, film festivals and documentary production throughout the Arab world will continue to develop and flourish.


Joan Sekler is a former Board member of the IDA. She directed and produced, with IDA member Richard Perez, Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election and is currently producing an anti-Iraq war film.