Stories of suffering, pain, violence, identity, tolerance and humanity unfolded before viewers' eyes last week during the Gulf Film Festival (GFF). For one week, viewers could claim that they had seen authentic views of life in the UAE, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. What's more, they saw it through the eyes of the Arab youth in the section for student filmmakers.

A total of 146 films from 25 countries were shown at the six-day event held at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre. Twenty-four were student films that ran in two segments: documentaries and shorts. Six of the 15 short films were by UAE nationals; three from Saudi Arabia; two from Oman, two from Iraq and one each from Kuwait and Bahrain.

The documentary segment received six entries from Iraq and three from the UAE. At the closing ceremony six winners in the student section were crowned. The youngest filmmaker in the competition, Dubai Abdullah Abulhoul, was recognised for her debut animation movie Galagolia. Talent, among other criteria, not age qualified winners across all sections.

Daring ideas

Young student filmmakers from the UAE showed films that tackled various issues ranging from media censorship in the UAE, to speeding, living with AIDS in an Arab society and growing up as children to parents from different religions.
Aisha Al Muhairi and Asma Ahmad produced Mission of Hope, which won second prize in the documentary section.

"This was a purely humane film. . . . How is a person who served his term in jail received in society?" she told Notes after she was named a winner. "Even after they serve their term and change into new people, they face difficulty in reintegrating."

The directors filmed the movie inside prison cells. "I was not scared," said Aisha. "I am glad the message was delivered."

Applied communications majors Hafsa Al Mutaiwe'e of Dubai Women's College (DWC) and Adel Al Jaberi of Dubai Men's College produced End of a Victim, a social drama about a teenager infected with AIDS, his suffering, the rejection by his family and society and his unfortunate death.

"This is a social issue that exists in society. My idea is daring and I may receive criticism but I want to find answers for my questions. We're trying to raise awareness on this issue and show that they must be treated well.

People sympathise with cancer patients but not with AIDS patients," Hafsa said. Nawar Al Shamsi, a DWC student, was recognised for her documentary on media censorship in the UAE. For her film Access Denied, Nawar had interviewed media consultants, sociologists and figures in authority and questioned them about the degree of censorship on the media and the reasons behind it.

Iraqi haul

Early in the week, the student competition started off with an Iraqi theme with the showing of A Candle for the Shabandar Café. The film, which took third prize in the documentary segment, relates the story of an old Iraqi café on Al Mutannabi Street where intellectuals would meet every day to discuss literature, history and politics.

On March 4, 2007, a massive car bomb destroyed the café as well as several stores on the street, killing scores of people. The film director, Emad Ali, is a recent graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad.

He had shot most of his film by 2006 but resumed filming after the explosion. As he was leaving the site of shooting one day, he was shot in the chest and legs and his camera was stolen. He is in dire need of surgery to save his foot from amputation.

"There are armed groups that target minds that want to advance the country," Ali said. "But when creativity stops, we die. . . . That is why we should innovate more."
Bahram Al Zuhairi, Iraqi director of Leaving, won first prize in the same segment for directing a film on the relocation of an Iraqi family from Baghdad to Syria.

"I am so excited and I want to thank my team for all their help," he told Notes. Other Iraqi movies dealt with issues of displacement, insecurity, poverty and deprivation in one's own land, terrorism and sectarian strife.

Understandably, a sense of pride swept the Iraqi group as they left the ceremony hall after the film festival, having won a number of prizes in several sections.

Films from other parts of the region covering similar themes won prizes in the shorts section.

Omani directors Dawood Al Kiyumi and Yasir Al Kiyumi won first prize for Realism Beats, Iraqi Bashir Al Majid took second place for Personal Calendar, and Saudi Arabian director Badr Al Homoud won third prize for White and White, which highlights the reaction of society towards split personalities.

Students learn from the pros

Masoud Amrallah Al Ali, director of the Gulf Film Festival, told Notes that the festival is an opportunity for students to meet experienced filmmakers and learn from them.

"Students can benefit from other filmmakers' experiences. The interaction between stars and students and the transfer of expertise is beneficial for the students. They will be the ones making movies in the future," he said.

He added that students could also cite their participation in the festival when looking for jobs. "The festival puts them in the spotlight," he said. Students will work harder because they want to show their films not only in college but also in festivals like the GFF, he said.

This proved to be true with the students. Some walked out with trophies and others with a smile and the hope to participate and win awards in future festivals.

Most of them agreed that the experience had been worth it and that the student prizes were well deserved.
"We are satisfied with the results because other students really did a great job, too," said Adel Al Jaberi, co-producer of End of a Victim.

As for the current status of cinema in the UAE, Masoud Amrallah Al Ali said that the industry needs to be developed into an independent programme.

He acknowledged that there are many more opportunities today than there were before. "One hundred and sixty films are produced annually in Dubai, which is very different from the previous situation," he said. "Much more money is being spent on film."And that holds ample promise for the future of cinema in the country.

Student winners

Documentary section
- First Prize: Leaving by Bahram Al Zuhairi (Iraq)
- Second Prize: Mission of Hope by Aisha Al Muhairi and Asma Ahmad (UAE)
- Third Prize: A Candle for the Shabandar Café by Emad Ali (Iraq)
- Special Mention: Access Denied by Nawar Al Shamsi (UAE)

Shorts section
- First Prize: Realism Beats by Dawood Al Kiyumi and Yasir Al Kiyumi (Oman)
- Second Prize: Personal Calendar by Bashir Al Majid (Iraq)
- Third Prize: White and White by Badr Al Homoud (Saudi Arabia)
- Special Jury Prize: The Sea Hides by Hamad Abdullah Saghran (UAE)

Children can make movies, too!

Children had their own segment at the GFF, in which they revealed their innovative minds through short animations.
Dubai Abdullah Abulhoul, the youngest filmmaker at the festival, was congratulated for her debut animation short, Galagolia.

"I am so excited; I didn't expect it," said Dubai with a big smile on her face. She was surrounded by her friends and unable to contain her enthusiasm. "I got my inspiration from Harry Potter films. In the animation movie, I tried to show a place outside our universe and imagination."

Other animations included The Snowman by Josef Samuel depicting the life of a warmth-seeking snowman; the Butterfly by Roujieh Emad about a butterfly looking for a bride; The Buckbeat by Maikki Kantola representing the after-effects of a violent thunderstorm. The clips had a simple plot and illustrations but received a good audience.

Three of the clippings were the results of a special animation workshop held for 13- to 16-year-old teenagers during the 2007 Dubai International Film Festival.