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Dubai's disappointing film festival

Budget cuts and a lukewarm selection made the latest Dubai International Film Festival the weakest in recent memory, raising questions about the festival’s future and Arab cinema in general.
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - DECEMBER 17:  A general view of award winners with DIFF Chairman Abdulhamid Juma ahead of the Closing Night premiere "Into The Woods" during day eight of the 11th Annual Dubai International Film Festival held at the Madinat Jumeriah Complex on December 17, 2014 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for DIFF)

The Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) is struggling. Most observers wholeheartedly acknowledge it, yet refrain from discussing the topic much. While the 11th installment of one of the biggest film festivals in the region was not the disaster Dubai’s detractors declared it to be, it was far from successful. Budget cuts and a lukewarm selection made the latest DIFF, which ran Dec. 10-17, the weakest in recent memory, raising questions not only about the festival’s future, but also regarding the general state of Arab cinema.

When the DIFF began in 2003, the cinematic landscape in the region was quite barren, the industry stagnant and funding opportunities sparse. Dubai changed all that, offering generous funds, co-production opportunities and a solid platform for young directors from every corner of the region. It started a revolution for Arab cinema, paving the way for other organizations such as the Doha Film Institute, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and the Royal Jordanian Film Commission to emerge and establish a solid foundation for new Arab cinema.

There have long been reservations regarding DIFF’s Arab film selection, which has always been inconsistent. Yet, the festival’s ardent support for young voices and new experiments continuously overshadowed these misgivings. The excellent sidebars, including the Asia/Africa competition — widely regarded as the festival’s best feature — gave the DIFF an edge over its competitors.

Glamour and art abounded in the DIFF, a festival that has steadily marched from one success to another. That’s why what happened this year was quite jarring and baffling. The cancelation of the Gulf Film Festival, part of the DIFF franchise, in April 2014 fueled reports of drastic budget cuts. A month later, the DIFF administration denied the rumors, stressing that what occurred was restructuring rather than budget setbacks. During the festival, the press learned that the prizes for acting, directing and screenwriting had all been axed.

The shrinking of activities and the shift from production aid to distribution represent a major blow to the Arab filmmakers who have relied on the DIFF initiatives to realize their projects and break into the international film market.

The debate about the future of Arab film funding, however, was overshadowed by complaints about the quality of Arab films. For the first time, the documentary and narrative film sections merged, leaving the Arab Muhr competition dispiriting to say the least. Of the 17 competing films, only one truly stood out: Hisham Zaman’s third feature, “Letter to the King,” a deeply moving, perceptive multicharacter drama chronicling the plight of five Kurdish refugees attempting to carve out new lives for themselves in Oslo.

The rest of the pack ranged from the mediocre — Bassem Fayad’s “Diaries of a Flying Dog,” a self-indulgent self-portrait tracing the psychological impact of the Lebanese Civil War and Rashid Masharawi’s “Letters from Al-Yarmouk,” a lazy, ham-fisted documentary about the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria — to the downright abysmal — Tala Hadid’s “The Narrow Frame of Midnight,” a hollow, self-important chronicle of three grief-stricken characters crossing paths in Iraq, Morocco and Kurdistan and Yacine Mohamed Benelhadj’s “I Am Dead,” an obnoxious, amateurishly constructed crime thriller that had the largest number of walkouts I’ve ever seen.

The great hopes of the festival, Daoud Abdel-Sayed, one of Egypt’s greatest living filmmakers, and Hicham Lasri, the luminous Moroccan enfant terrible, turned out to be gigantic disappointments. Abdel-Sayed’s “Out of the Ordinary” is a shapeless, intellectually inept fable about the quest of a doctor searching for individuals with supernatural powers, while Lasri’s “The Sea Is Behind” is an narrativeless, attention-seeking, creatively bankrupt shock-fest that essentially recycles the aesthetics of his otherwise stunning debut feature, “The End.”

The less said about the Gulf films the better. Mohammed Rashed Buali’s well-intentioned, ambitious “The Sleeping Tree” from Bahrain and Waleed Al Shehhi’s dull, pointless “Dolphins” from the United Arab Emirates both suffer from the common ailments that plague Gulf films: laughable dialogue, clichéd and underdeveloped relationships, terrible acting, frustratingly limited worldviews and modest aesthetics. Gulf filmmakers have been trying to shake off the TV soap influence, but judging by the six features screened last year, it continues to linger.

The noncompetitive Arabian Nights sidebar contained more promising works: Liwaa Yazji’s bruising Syrian documentary “Haunted” and Hajooj Kuka’s uplifting musical nonfiction feature “Beats of the Antonov” — two radically different films focusing respectively on how the Syrians and the Sudanese deal with their civil wars.

The real jewel of the section — of the whole festival, as a matter of fact — was Ghassan Salhab’s “The Valley,” a vastly intelligent, enigmatic and unsettling Lebanese tale of a man who loses his memory in a car accident and is consequently adopted by a family of narcotics manufacturers. A deliberately paced allegory of the anxiety lurking in a lawless present-day Lebanon, “The Valley,” which had its Arab premiere in Abu Dhabi and was thus ineligible for competition, is an exquisite piece of filmmaking, carefully framed, beautifully photographed and brilliantly realized. It towered over every other Arab film in Dubai and is, by a long margin, the best Arab movie of 2014.

The success of “The Valley” — which had its world premiere in Toronto and will probably feature in next month’s Berlin International Film Festival — highlights the drawbacks of the DIFF and Arab cinema in general. Finance is imperative for any festival, and although the dissolution of the DIFF market is a huge loss for Arab cinema, the most problematic aspect of the last Dubai edition was the Arabic selection, a large part of which was co-funded by the festival. In other words, it’s not a question of why these films were selected; rather, it’s a question of why these films were backed in the first place.

Arab filmmakers are constantly torn between two forces: the personal and the public. The most successful are those who have found a seamless union between the two by throwing interesting twists into the genres they operate under. Arab documentaries are light-years away from the aesthetic revolution rocking nonfiction filmmaking at the moment, while narrative features continue to disappoint in various departments, hampered by inexperience in some cases and fruitless, meaningless experimentation in others.

The vast majority of the Arab features seen in Dubai are familiar stories told in exceedingly familiar fashions with no hint of originality or urgency. Technology has democratized cinema, allowing for more talent in the region to be heard. But good intentions or worthy subjects don’t necessary translate to good filmmaking, and that’s what institutions like the DIFF must realize soon when choosing the local and regional films it supports. The Dubai International Film Festival must stay and it will surely weather the current storm, yet serious changes must happen, not only for the sake of its credibility, but for the benefit of Arab cinema.

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