NEW YORK: When the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) recently announced that it was canceling what would have been its 15th edition in 2018, promising to relaunch the festival as an event once every two years with a greater focus on regional films in 2019, it was met with disappointment by film fans throughout the region.
Though the festival was a cinema-goer’s dream for 14 years, it was perhaps most significant to the Middle East’s filmmakers, for whom the festival was an essential part of the development of the region’s film landscape. For the leading filmmakers in the region, the news has cast uncertainty on what was a guiding light for the industry.
“All I can say at this stage is that it’s sad news,” says British-Emirati filmmaker Ali F. Mostafa, whose 2009 film “City of Life” was one of the high watermarks in the history of festival.
“I was quite shocked, I didn’t see it coming. It was quite devastating because it’s been the same management for the last 14 years. Kudos to them. They kept an amazing brand together. They created a brand that no one knew and now everybody knows. That speaks big volumes especially to DIFF’s chairman, Abdulhamid Juma,” says Nayla Al Khaja, CEO of Nayla Al Khaja Films and winner of DIFF’s Muhr Emirati — Special Jury Award in 2015 for her film “The Neighbour.”
Filmmaker Faisal Hashmi, founder of Dubai’s Hashmic House Films, is concerned that the new schedule will mean fewer opportunities for the region’s talent to develop and shine.
“It means that filmmakers from the region now have half the amount of chances to showcase their films on a screen in the region. Half the opportunities to network with other creative professionals and foster new collaborations with them. Half the opportunities for them to watch the work of other peers and learn from it,” says Hashmi.
Al Khaja is unsure that the new schedule will allow the festival to compete with other festivals worldwide.
“No film festival in the world operates that way. You could lose momentum. What if you have a film that could potentially be an Oscar-nominated film for the UAE but that year there’s no festival? That person could end up losing out,” says Al Khaja.
Hashmi would support a more regionally focused festival that forgoes the big international screenings of films such as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which premiered at DIFF in 2015.
“I’m all for ditching the red carpet and the more glamorous aspects of the festival if that helps bring down the cost. That’s not what a film festival is about anyway,” says Hashmi.
Al Khaja disagrees, believing that bringing in Hollywood A-listers helped connect Middle Eastern filmmakers with top talent.
“Some people say it’s glitz and glamor and PR, but it’s not. That’s how we meet international producers, that’s how we network, and that’s how we have access to these people. The festival has been an incredible platform for us to go and meet that caliber of people.”
The biggest question for Hashmi is whether this will lead to increased funding for Middle Eastern filmmakers.
“If removing an international festival means a marked improvement in support for funding and exhibiting regional cinema, then that’s a trade-off I would be okay with,” says Hashmi.
“I really hope that whoever takes over in the future, the management should keep it to the same level, add to it and do not subtract from it. You have a solid brand, and you don’t want that brand to start shaking,” says Al Khaja.