Dubai International Film Festival, has grown in size and strength over the last 12 years giving Arab Emirati cinema a distinct identity of its own on the global movie marquee, notes S Viswanath

Come December, and Dubai, Middle East tourist and business haven, wakes up to a whole new world. A world, wherein, the UAE’s Capital City, welcomes one to a magical mélange of mesmerising movies. 

From December 9 to 16, as Dubai plays host to the calendar event – Dubai International Film Festival, aka DIFF, films from far, wide and near, covet and regale cineastes with choicest of cinematic creations warming the cockles of cine buff’s heart. 

As DIFF Honorary Chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum puts it, DIFF demonstrates the power of art and creativity bringing the best of Arab and International Cinema.

In keeping with its signature tagline Infinite Perspectives, the 12th Edition of DIFF, proved beyond doubt it was a celebration of film-making throughout the region, as well as, an important showcase for new projects. 

With Madinet Jumeirah and Madinet Theatre playing host for the festival as the main screening venues, DIFF, features the best of films of the year from across the world and the international, art house, festival circuits, besides vibrant hues of novel and trailblazing titles from the region’s very own Arab film makers. 

Ensuring DIFF, is a true Bridging of Cultures and Meeting Minds., the eight-day film festival prides itself in bringing before audiences and auteurs drawn from near and far, what Arab – Emirati cinema has to offer and, how, the industry and its legion of budding, aspiring and past film-makers, make some of the most enterprising, engaging and entertaining movies, that stand scrutiny on par with the best in class, and sometimes even besting new benchmarks. 

As has been the tradition with DIFF, this time too, saw several Arab Emirati films being showcased, thereby stamping the regions own claims of Mecca of Film Making in its own right. 

Truly, since its inception in the winter of 2004, styled on the theme of Building Bridges Between Cultures, DIFF, dedicated to Emirati nation’s late ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Al Nayhan, as Festival Chairman Abdulhamid Juma rightly points out, DIFF was established at a time and from the inherent belief that cinema was a powerful enough medium to bridge cultures. 

DIFF, as Juma notes, is intended to engage Arabs and non-Arabs, in creating an impact that lasts well beyond the festival’s eight days of the festival of hope, for, cinema is that rare medium that offers infitine possibilities, for better understanding amongst people and for a better future for the world. 

Indeed, in keeping with its stated intent of being home to the Arab film, reaching out to rest of the world, through our voices and through images, Artistic Director Masoud Amralla Al Ali, observed that of the 134 films showcased at 12th DIFF, nearly half of them were Arab – Emirati films. 

Furthermore, true to its intent of promoting and catalysing cinematic creations within the region, Ali states, this year’s DIFF, saw as many as 24 Arab female directors – both in narrative and non-narrative, in and out of competition, showcasing their films, drawn from UAE, Saudi Arabia to Syria, Palestine and Iraq, explains Ali. 

The creative output from the region may be far cry from the rest of the world. However, those that are showcased no way pale in comparison with the much developed peers in the industry. 

As the 12th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) concluded this month, one evident development was the increased visibility of Emirati cinema at the annual event. Since 2006, the week-long festival that is held every December, has played a bigger role in not only showcasing but also encouraging the evolution of Emirati cinema.

One distinguishing feature in particular, being the prestigious Muhr Emirati Award, the most coveted and anticipated cinematic awards in the region. 

Started in 2010 to appreciate local filmmakers to showcase their talent, both DIFF, and the Award, has since succeeded in bringing international attention and acclaim to the festival and the region. To date, it has presented more than 250 awards to selected filmmakers and its growing interest in terms of films presented for competition testimony to the rapid growth of Emirati filmmaking.

While the Best Muhr Emirati Feature Award of the 12th DIFF went to Saeed Salmeen Al Murry for his heartwarming Going to Heaven, a touching coming-of-age tale of a child who hits the road in search of his grandmother, the festival saw as many as nine film in the Muhir Emirati section. 

However, the talk of the festival that simply swept every one of their feet was the UAE-Jordan production Zinzana (Rattle The Cage), a gripping thriller about a despotic and tyrannical prison warden Dbaan who takes his vengeance on Talal Mohammed his arch foe who finds himself behind bars. 

Virtually set within the cloistered confines of the prison the film, which almost never leaves its claustrophobic walls, is a cinema that has one in its thrall right through its 92 min with its ensemble cast providing a bravura performance.  

Aside of the Muhr Gulf Shorts and Muhr Shorts, the Muhr Feature consisted of as many as 19 films, each with a captivating tale to tell, and an oeuvre so delectably executed by its auteurs. 

For example, 3000 LYL or 3000 nights, a UAE, Qatar, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon production, by female director Mai Masri, is a gut wrenching narrative bringing to fore the plight of a newlywed Palestinian school teacher who is incarcerated for eight years in an Israeli prison. Set against the backdrop of Palestinian political prisoners being imprisoned along with Israeli criminal inmates, the film is a moving tale of the atrocities and how Layal, who gives birth in the prison, fights for survival among other harderned inmates. 

Likewise, As I Open My Eyes, a Tunisia-UAE production, by the woman director Leyla Bouzid, speaks of 18-year-old Farah who wants to strike on her own as a musician rather than don the habit of the doctor that her family has predestined for her. 

Thanks to a supporting and understanding mother, the film, speaks of Farah’s fight against the traditional society and its expectations from women who ought not to cross the boundary, and how she rebels against this patrilineal and mysognist society. 

One of the most outstanding in the Muhr Feature section was the El Clasico, a Iraq-UAE road movie about two dwarf Kurdish brothers who set out from Iraq to meet their soccer idol Cristiano Ronaldo in Spain. The film is a joi de vivre as also tugs at one’s heartstrings as it brings to the fore the trial and tribulations of the daring duo who meet up with several interesting characters enroute their perilous sojourn to Spain. The film also as a weaves a poignant cupid saga of a normal girlfriend falling for the short man. 

Similarly, Go Home, a Lebanon-UAE production by another female director Jihane Chouaib, with the favourite actress Golshifteh Farahani in the lead, speaks of a young ballet dancer, who leaves the safe and security of Paris to return to her ancestral home, now in shambles following bombing, to Lebanon in a remembrance of things past. While she wills to protect her ancestral property, he quest to know more about her grandfather and a search of self identity evokes mixed reactions from people around her. 

The Algerian film Let Them Come by Salem Brahimi is another film with militancy and purgatory as the backdrop and the story of survival of a father and daughter in a country adrift and at war thanks to the ruthless barbarity of extremism ending on a very tragic and moving note. 

Each of the Emirati film evoking myriad of emotions with their eclect dilenations of struggles, survival and tales of endurance and engagement. 

Even the Arabian Nights section with the string of nonet films coveted seasoned cineates with their aesthetic and artful auteur works. 

Indeed, DIFF, has been a hot spring for the Arab Emirati cinema that is slowly, but surely, carving a special niche of its own in the world cinema firmament. Viva DIFF, Viva Arab Emirate cinema!