Live from the Dubai International Film Festival: Tuesday, Dec. 10

December 11, 2013

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Having worked with the Dubai International Film Festival since its inception in 2004 – and as its managing director since 2006 – Shivani Pandya has seen the festival expand and grow, beginning with 76 films the first year and welcoming 174 in 2013, its 10th anniversary edition.

“But we’re not looking at increasing the number of films we show,” she says, sitting in a quiet press conference room in the Madinat Jumeirah conference center, which serves as festival headquarters each year.

Rather, the festival has made its goal to expand the global market for films from the Arab world – and to develop the resources to help Arab filmmakers get their movies made and seen.

“Clearly, we’ve developed market position as the gateway for Arab films,” she says, “as well as films from Asia and Africa. Our strategy has been to try and curate the best of Arab cinema. From our perspective, the festival is a great showcase for all of those.”

The festival’s reputation has grown with each passing year. This year, it received the distinction of being named a qualifying festival for the Academy Awards. Winners of two short-film competitions in DIFF will now automatically become eligible for the Oscar shortlist.

Hollywood in general has come calling with increasing frequency, sending its best seasonal product – and, often, the filmmakers and stars – to be showcased at DIFF. This year, those films include “Saving Mr. Banks,” “Frozen,” “Nebraska,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “August: Osage County.”

“In the last couple of years, a lot of the Hollywood studios and producers have come to look at Dubai as one of their stops,” she notes. “We come at the end of the year, and some of these films have already played several festivals. But when they look at launching a film in various regions, Dubai is becoming part of their planning.”

shivani

It works both ways: “A lot of the Arab films at Dubai have traveled really well,” Pandya says. “They’ve played at various festivals and won several awards.”

She points to “Wadja,” which won two awards at last year’s DIFF, before hitting the festival circuit and opening in the U.S., and “Omar,” which opened the Dubai festival’s 2013 edition, after winning awards at Cannes and playing festivals in New York and London, among other places.

“A few years ago, there were four or five Arab films at the Toronto Film Festival – this year, there were 12-15 of them,” she says. “In terms of visibility, Arab film is in the spotlight.”

To that end, DIFF has worked to expand the opportunities for Arab filmmakers, supporting organizations that provide development, production and finishing funds for filmmakers.

“Out of the five Arab films selected by their countries to be submitted to the Academy for the foreign-language Oscar, four of them are titles we supported in some fashion along the way,” she says. “There are more and more local and regional institutions helping with funding production.”

There’s still work to be done, of course: “I’d love to see a proper film school open here,” she says. “There are a lot of media programs in the schools that are starting to incorporate film. Filmmaking is not part of the integral culture. But a proper degree program in film would attract people not just from the United Arab Emirates but from all around.”

Looking ahead to the next decade, Pandya says, “I’d like this festival to become a bigger market, with more business being done. Dubai is a great crossroads for business. One of Dubai’s significant trading partners is India; another is China. Being able to replicate that with film is my goal.”

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