Live from the Dubai International Film Festival: Dec. 12

December 13, 2012

It’s the ninth year of the Dubai International Film Festival – and Abdulhamid Juma takes that as a mandate to consider the decade ahead.

“We’re going into our 10th year, which is a short time in the festival world,” says Juma, DIFF chairman since its beginning. “So it’s a good time to stop and ask ourselves what we’re going to do for the next 10 years.”

The idea of a film festival in Dubai had been discussed since the 1990s, says Juma, who was CEO of Dubai Media City when it opened in 2001. But the true impetus came after the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

“The eyes of the world were looking at the Arab world,” Juma says. “The idea of the film festival was to help bridge the cultures between East and West. We wanted to give Arab filmmakers a chance to tell their stories for themselves.”

So the festival has created its own niche: as a platform for Arab film and to encourage and promote Arab filmmakers. Meanwhile, the festival has also become a cultural institution taken increasingly seriously by both the residents of Dubai and the film industries around the world, from Hollywood to Europe to Asia. The numbers Juma offers speak to its growth.

“In 2004, our first year, we had one world premiere – and this year we have 50,” he says. “The first year, we had one international premiere; this year there are 16. The first year, 13,000 Dubai residents attended the festival; this year we expect 50,000. And this year we have 75 Arab films.”

Even more revealing, though DIFF comes at the end of the festival year, it has developed a track record for sending films to other festivals after their Dubai debut: “There is something happening – I believe we haven’t scratched the surface yet,” Juma says.

He points to a partnership with Film Society of Lincoln Center, which showcased 19 DIFF films this past August. That program gave him a new understanding of the potential audience for Arab film.

“My thinking was that these films would attract 90 percent of the Arabs in New York,” Juma says. “But it was the other way around. At Lincoln Center, the audience was 90 percent Americans who were seeing an Arab film for the first time. That was an eye-opener. It showed me that people are hungry to see those films and what they have to offer.”

In the next 10 years, Juma hopes to see an expansion of filmmaking in Dubai and the Persian Gulf region. Dubai has created its own film commission to encourage filming, and Juma would like to see greater opportunities to train people in such specialties as sound design and other technical crafts, for which there is no program now: “We need to go a long way to create a film industry here,” he says. “But things are really coming together.”

Beside my chat with Juma, I saw three films on Wednesday: a dismissable Argentine film called “I Love You All”; a chillingly over-the-top Korean revenge film called “Pieta”; and “Valley of Saints,” a film shot in Kashmir that won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Written and directed by Musa Syeed, “Valley of Saints” focuses on Gulzar (Gulzar Ahmed Bhat), who has a tourist boat that he paddles around Dal Lake, a resort attraction. He becomes involved with a scientist named Asifa (Neelofar Hamid), who is doing a project on the pollution levels in the lake, which are drastic – both in terms of garbage and sewage – and which threaten the lake itself.

It is a beautifully subtle and quiet film of both deep emotion and understated horror at an ongoing man-made disaster. Bhat and Hamid have a natural grace and restraint, and Syeed uses Gulzar’s growing feeling for Asifa as the underpinnings of his awakening to the plight of a resource he has always taken for granted. To call it an eco-romance is going too far, because the subject is never really discussed – yet Syeed captures the sense of Gulzar having his eyes opened to something he has never noticed before in a way that changes his world.

“Pieta,” written and directed by Kim Ki-duk, won the Golden Lion at Venice this year. It’s a ripe, violent tale of a loan shark named Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), who lives in a squalid apartment and collects from debtors in even more squalid surroundings. His gimmick: When he makes the loans, he forces the borrowers to sign an insurance policy. If they miss a payment, Kang-do will cripple them and the insurance policy will pay the loan in full.

He’s heartless and violent; most of his clients seem to be machinists, who are then punished with their own machines. But his world changes when a woman (Jo Min-su) shows up on his doorstep, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him at birth. At first suspicious, Kang-do eventually comes to believe her – and to try to have the kind of familial relationship he’s never had.

Dark and gruesome, Ki-duk’s film is violent without being particularly graphic. And it takes a sharp twist about two-thirds of the way through that veers into the melodramatic – though it is never less than compelling, if in a lurid way.

Another day dawns as I write; my schedule includes three films, as well as moderating a panel for the film festival and, if the scheduling works out, an interview with director Michael Apted, who is receiving a lifetime achievement award from the festival. Stay tuned.

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