'Mary Shelley' is an Irish, American and Luxembourgish co-production.

Participating in the Luxembourg City Film Festival as a jury member of the international documentary competition, I somehow had the feeling of being at the Dubai International Film Festival (Diff).

Even before my arrival, I had the feeling that I would find myself in a very organised environment. But what I found at the festival exceeded my expectations. The team of collaborators and volunteers led by the festival’s artistic director Alexis Juncosa is worthy of all the praise, not only for the dedication with which they face their work, but also for the ability to be present anytime they were needed. All this brought back memories of Diff, where cinema is the real protagonist, and where guests are sacred and are treated with the utmost respect and warmth.

Luxembourg City Film Festival is still young but it is destined to grow progressively, accompanying a growth in cinema-going in this tiny city-state that contains more than 170 nationalities: another similarity with Dubai.

“I was asked to handle the festival only three months before the beginning of the first edition. They needed someone to fix things and to clarify the concept. So I accepted,” says Juncosa, the energetic and omnipresent artistic director. “But the composition of the population in the city made everything easier. We have here around 170 different nationalities and all of them are potential audiences. That pushed me to have a worldwide panorama programme to correspond to the audience request and create a tie with the specificity of the city, which is a kind of a Disneyland, with people coming from all over the world. There are no problems... no violence or crime.”

With a record number of 29,300 visitors in 2017, a 34 per cent increase from 2016, the Luxembourg City Film Festival has established itself as the nation’s leading cinema event. Since its inception in 2011, it has been one of Europe’s fastest growing festivals.

“It is a very hard moment for arthouse film,” says Juncosa. “We know that there is a hyper centralisation on products like Marvel and there are few films that target the new audience, but maybe that will give us the opportunity to screen something different, and apparently there is a high acceptance from us to screen fresh and unique films.”

Beyond its ability to create an audience, especially of younger people, another similarity with Diff is that it acts as a driving force for local films by becoming a partner in international co-productions.

The “Shot in Luxembourg - Shot With Luxeumbourg” project is already hoisting the country’s flag in many films, just like Dubai and its festival has become a formidable locomotive for Arab producers and talent to realise their work.

“I am very happy and proud of this comparison to a big festival like Diff,” says Juncosa. “I hope to cooperate with Dubai to promote projects and talents, not only through the presence of Arab films in the various programmes of our festival, but also through the support and promotion of Arab talent.”

He adds: “On the other hand, being a festival that makes up 99 per cent of its programme with first and second films, we can only encourage and support young talents, and Arab countries are full of them.”

In collaboration with the Arab Association for Cultural Exchange, the festival is preparing an annual event for Arab cinema as well as bi-monthly screenings of feature films in the film library.

This was announced by the president of the association, Nizar Al Rawi, who said: “We had a first round of public appreciation with the screening of the film In The Last Days of the City by Egyptian director Tamer Al Said. The hall was packed and many audience members sat on the floor. The screening was followed by a long debate with the director and the film’s protagonist, Iraqi actor Haider Al Heloo. There is a great demand for Arab culture because people cannot stand anymore the stereotypes that the media and social media throw on them every day.”

In fact, the screenings of the four Arab films in various programmes of the festival have received great attention.

Amal by Egyptian director Mohammad Sayyam and Fathers and Sons by Syrian director Talal Dereki competed for the documentary award, while Raid (or Razzia) by Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch and Mary Shelley by Saudi director Haifa Al Mansour competed in the fiction selection.

The former three films touched on the political situations in Arab countries, the spread of fundamentalism and the consequent war in Syria that continues to reap death and destruction; while Al Mansour’s film recounted the scandalous love story between the young author of Frankenstein Mary Shelley and Irish poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, which rocked 19th century English high society. The film is an Irish, American and Luxembourgish co-production, just like The Breadwinner by Irish filmmaker Nora Twomey, an animated film screened during the opening night of the festival, telling the story of Parvana, an 11-year-old girl who lives in Afghanistan in 2001. After the wrongful arrest of her father, Parvana cuts off her hair.

In its 11 days, the festival presented 83 films, including 10 in the international feature film competition and six in the international documentary competition. But the awards that the films will receive are four: two for the competitions, one from the critics’ jury and finally an audience award. The international jury of the fiction competition was headed by the Armenian-Canadian director Atom Egoyan, while that of the documentary was preceded by Mimi Plauche, artistic director of the Chicago Film Festival.

In 2012, the Luxembourg City Film Festival became competitive with awards for the best international fiction film (€10,000, Dh45,199), best documentary (€5,000) and best young audience film (€2,000).

The festival’s director says: “The Luxebourgish audience is very attentive to cinema, so we started selecting groundbreaking works and looking for new types of cinema. Then we decided to work on documentaries. At that time, in 2011, there were so many strong documentaries and most of them were abandoned by TV broadcasters. Soon after we thought about an educational programme to prepare future viewers to understand cinema. And the last thing we added is what the Luxembourgish productions have to offer. There is more than one thousand people working in 21 film companies in Luxembourg.”

The festival becomes a mirror to let the country be known. “People, the world, don’t know Luxembourg,” says Juncosa. “People here don’t care about your nationality. They evaluate if you are good or not for a certain job. This is what I like about this country. I’m a foreigner, like you are, but the society is really open minded and people abroad don’t know that. They know about banks and finance, and they ignore many great and positive aspects of the country.”


— Erfan Rashid is an Iraq-born journalist and film critic based in Italy. He’s the former director of Arabic Programmes at the Dubai International Film Festival.