Does it matter that DIFF’s now a biennial film festival?

A still from Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir's feature "Wajib," winner of the best film and best actor prize at the 14th edition of DIFF in 2017. Photo courtesy of the Beirut Cinema Platform

BEIRUT: Change has come to the Gulf’s oldest international film festival, and brought with it a little more uncertainty for the region’s filmmakers. Earlier this week the website of the Dubai International Film Festival posted a brief press release announcing that the annual event’s 15th edition will not be staged in 2018. As of 2019, it said, DIFF will be a biennial.

The announcement capped a spell of feverish speculation about the festival’s future. Less than a week before, its social media had been sending up flares about the Arab-directed titles selected for next month’s Cannes film festival. Yet rumors had emerged that DIFF had been slow to renew the contracts of important members of its organizing team.

DIFF’s been a resilient festival. It survived the financial crisis of 2008, but was staggered by budget cuts in 2014 – forcing the festival to temporarily suspend Dubai Film Connection (its successful co-production market). DFC was revived for the 2015 edition but the place of the festival in the priorities of the emirate’s rulers remains unclear.

The press release was short on specifics. It promises a “strategic shift” to “embrace the significant changes taking place in the region’s creative and entertainment landscape” and leveraging “the emergence of exciting new talent and innovative new technologies that are rapidly transforming the content landscape in the region.”

“With the vast changes taking place both in the regional and global movie-making and content industry,” Dubai Film and TV Commission chair Jamal Al Sharif was quoted as saying, “we are seeking to redefine the Dubai International Film Festival’s approach toward nurturing growth, creativity and talent.”

Notably absent from Wednesday’s press release were DIFF chairman Abdulhamid Juma, founding artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali and managing director Shivani Pandya – festival stalwarts since its early years whose remarks are routinely quoted by DIFF press releases. The Daily Star’s efforts to secure comments from figures close to the festival were unsuccessful at press time.

The vagueness of the announcement will do nothing to dampen speculations about DIFF’s future, as noted in international trade magazines.

One of these suggests the restructuring stems from the TECOM Group, where an administrative shakeup has given festival president Juma a new boss. A renovated DIFF, Screen International’s sources suggest, will be relocated from its original site at the Jumeirah Beach hotel complex to a less touristic setting, perhaps Dubai Opera House.

Launched in 2004 as a top-tier exhibition platform for Arabic-language film and international cinema, DIFF has undergone a number of changes over the years that have made it a significant player in the region’s film industry.

The process began in 2006 with the launch of a solvent competition for Arabic-language feature films and shorts. Later DIFF’s signature trophy, the Muhr, was also awarded to films from the Gulf. By 2008 DIFF had expanded its African and Asian film selections and created a (short-lived) Asia-Africa competition.

DIFF has become, and remained, an important cog in the regional film production wheel because of the creation and of Dubai Film Market.

The first plank in DIFF’s industry platform was Dubai Film Connection, the region’s first international co-production market, in 2007.

Subsequent years saw the founding of Enjaaz, DIFF’s post-production fund. Most recently, DFM acknowledged changes in the international marketplace and embraced high-end television production.

The numbers released in this week’s press release speak volumes. In its first 14 years, DIFF’s Muhr awards have supported more than 200 Arab filmmakers, while DFM has “helped more than 300 films from the region reach completion [and] facilitated funding and partnership for a further 140.”

For filmmakers from countries whose states have negligible resources to support film production – Lebanon, for instance, and Palestine – industry platforms like those of DIFF have been immensely important. Accentuating their significance has been the relative retrenchment of Europe’s once-significant investment in the cinema of the Middle East and North Africa.

Before this week’s announcement, part of DIFF’s importance has been its stability. In the years after the festival’s 2004 launch it became the prototype for other film festivals in the Gulf region.

Just up the road from Dubai, Abu Dhabi launched an international festival of its own (first MEIFF, later rebranded as ADFF) that, bolstered by the emirate’s petro-economy, was able to create Sanad, a solvent film fund guided by a discriminating selection committee. A couple of years later, the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival was born, arising from a partnership between Doha’s Museum Authority and De Niro’s famed New York City event.

Both these festivals eventually folded. Abu Dhabi’s managers chose to focus their resources on content creation at twofour54, the emirate’s branded media zone authority. Doha’s government devoted its energy to creating the Doha Film Institute, which now runs the Ajial film festival and Qumra, its successful film incubation platform.

Changes continue to reshape the region’s film production landscape. The Western press has focused on the creation of the Saudi Film Council, and the kingdom’s ambitious plans to leap from a being a country without cinemas to one with a homegrown entertainment industry.

More quiet stirrings are evident in Egypt, where last September a new film exhibition and production platform was launched in the resort of El Gouna. Indecisively administered since 2011, the Cairo film festival has recently announced the appointment of energetic young producer Muhammad Hefzy as its new festival director.

It will be interesting to see whether DIFF can continue to play a role in the story of Arab film production, whether it will be eclipsed by other centers, or dissolve altogether

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 21, 2018, on page 16.




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