By Joseph Fahim
The mastermind behind the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) is artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali. Mostly known for being the patron of young Arab filmmakers, the incredibly modest Al Ali is possibly the most accessible director of any festival anywhere in the world. Accompanied by no entourage whatsoever, you can always catch Al Ali having long discussions with critics, filmmakers and industrials. His passion for film is contagious; his belief in young Arab talents is unquestionable and in a region inhospitable to disagreeing opinions, his acceptance of criticism is refreshing.
In part two of our interview with Mr. Al Ali, he discusses the challenges behind the programming of the Arab film selection, reasons behind the low international profile of Arab cinema and the numerous rumors that continue to taunt DIFF.
The selection process of any Arab film fest continues to be the thorniest and most imperative stage of the organization. And like all Arab fests last year, Dubai’s selection raised many eyebrows.
“There is no infrastructure, no index, when it comes to the programming of Arabic films simple because the choices are very little.” Al Ali said. “You don’t have the luxury of comparing movies to each other with such little choice. You simply choose what’s available. We look for certain filmmakers and set a certain standard for movies to accept, but you don’t always find those names or meet those standards with the movies at hand.
“Perfection is very relative. The process of selection entails criticism and assessment, and assessment is always informed by personal, subjective opinions.”
Following the financial meltdown that hit Dubai hard, observers were curious to see whether the subsequent ripple effect will harm DIFF. Although DIFF continues to go strong, Al Ali admitted that the crisis did have an impact on the fest.
“The financial crisis didn’t only strike Dubai, it hit the whole world and Dubai is part of that world,” Al Ali said. “We were of course affected by the crisis, but not as bad as some people believe we were. We mainly depend on sponsors who have not stopped backing us. We still maintain our elegance and sophistication. And since our sponsors have a world-class reputation, they ensure that their status reflects on the fest and that it preserves its image.”
The rise of other fests in the Gulf, namely Abu Dhabi and Doha Tribeca, has intensified competition. I asked Al Ali if he’s concerned with this new-found rivalry.
“The presence of other festivals benefits everyone, especially Arab films,” he said; “They’re like libraries or schools. The more they are, the more education and knowledge is spread. Festivals are not only about extravaganza and glamour; their foremost priority is culture and film. Glamour is part of the equation and is an integral part of any festival, but it’s not everything.
“Each fest naturally wants to be the best, wants to be the main platform for films, but this competition is not only restricted to festivals, it’s the norm for any business. We want to be distinctive. All festivals want that, but each has different agendas and missions. You simply can’t compare one festival to another just like you can’t compare one film to another.”
Egyptian and Arab critics alike have blamed the Gulf fests for the hike in distribution price, for sealing screening rights for their respective fests by showering distributors with cash. Al Ali rebuffs these accusations.
“I don’t think the Gulf fests are the reason for any rise in distribution cost. The prices are mostly fixed as a matter of fact and I think all fests can afford paying the screening fees. Some distributors reduce the fees of their films are picked up for competition.
“There a widespread misperception that Gulf fests throw money right and left with their big awards, but that’s not true, although big monetary prizes is not uncommon. Rome Film Festival for instance is known for its generous prizes. Monetary prizes have a function, and that function is to facilitate things for filmmakers who struggle for years to make their films see the light of day. This competition of ours has been responsible for most of the major Arabic films produced in the past decade.
“Money or prizes are rarely the sole incentives for filmmakers. Take Ayam Beirut Al Cinema’iya as an example. A large number of filmmakers continue to flock to Beirut when it doesn’t even have a competition and doesn’t offer any monetary prizes. The reason why many filmmakers go to Beirut is because they have loyalty to it, because of their relationship to its culture.
“As I mentioned, our main priority is Arab film. If we wanted to have a big international festival preoccupied solely with glamour and extravagance, we would’ve had an international competition, but we didn’t. We wouldn’t have focused on films produced from developing cinemas, but we did.”
Despite the great effort exerted to bring world attention to Arab film, Arab cinema remains largely absent in the international festival scene. The co-productions that did make it to major fests like Cannes — Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel,” Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now” — are few and far between.
“I guess one of the reasons is that most Arab films usually target regional fests. They are usually edited and finished at around the time of the Arab festival season [in October].
“But the biggest problem is the fact that international festivals are not concerned with Arab films from the first place. Arabic films are usually catered for Arab cinemas, for Arab audiences. Co-productions, on the other hand, are a different story. Everything in co-productions is very calculated; scripts are presold before production begins. Post-production is finished at a certain time to catch the big international fests.
“The climate is extremely different now from the days of [late Egyptian filmmakers] Youssef Chahine and Salah Abou Seif whose films were widely screened in major festivals abroad. The nature of production and co-productions is different now. Foreign festivals are looking primarily for difficult movies and the problem is difficult movies cannot find producers in the Arab world.
“The one thing I’m curious about though is why the seal of approval has to come from the big European fests? Why does a movie have to go to Cannes or Berlin or Venice to prove it’s good? Arab filmmakers always complain about the Arab market, of the absence of producers or organizations willing to finance their films. Yet when we do offer them the finance and support they require, they back out the moment they get a shot at going to Cannes or Venice.
The last, and most contentious point, I talked about with Al Ali relates to certain backstage drama that ought to remain undiscussed. Without delving into petty details, a number of Dubai’s detractors have claimed that it essentially feeds on the leftovers of other Arab fests, accepting films that have been rejected by its revivals. For this particular rumor, Al Ali held nothing back in responding to Dubai’s detractors.
“I don’t find a problem in accepting films rejected by other fests,” Al Ali said. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of and that doesn’t belittle its value by any chance. By accepting a film, I make stance for defending it. Sometimes filmmakers lose their sense of intuition in making a film, losing grasp of their tools. That doesn’t mean the entire work should be dismissed and abandoned. I’m in the business of nurturing talents; it doesn’t concern me if a film is rejected by another festival. I don’t evaluate a film accordingly. I look for mood, for texture, for vision; with the film presents and how it presents it.
“Filmmakers should be daring, should be encouraged to experiment. It doesn’t matter if they fail or succeed; the most important thing is to try. I want to give the world different experiments from the Arab world. I’m not an academic; critical acclaim doesn’t concern me.
“Other fests may find this absurd, but I strongly believe in talent, and that’s what DIFF is essentially about.”