The early 2000s witnessed an unprecedented growth on the UAE cinema scene coupled with the establishment of a number of film festivals. In 2009, only ten years ago, the UAE celebrated the second edition of the Gulf Film Festival, the third edition of the Abu Film Festival and the sixth edition of the Dubai International Film Festival, which for the first time premiered with a big budget Emirati-made movie. This feat was all the more impressive considering the 2007—2008 global financial crisis that had negatively impacted fundraising.
A decade on, things can’t be more different. The Gulf Film Festival was ‘postponed’ in 2014, never to return; the Abu Dhabi Film Festival was scrapped in 2015 and last year the Dubai International Film Festival announced somewhere in a long-winded press release the cancellation of the 2018 edition and the adoption of a “new strategy” that will see it turn into a biennial event.
Recently, as part of my current appointment as a lecturer at Yale University I showcased the Emirati movie City of Life, the very same movie that ten years ago premiered at DIFF. Watching this movie, written and directed by Emirati filmmaker Ali Mostafa, which I had not seen in a decade, made me realise how important the film industry is in portraying the story of a young country like the UAE, with a small population.
This was evident in the Q&A session that followed the movie. This cancellation of the festival is all the more puzzling at a time when the UAE has embarked on a massive soft power campaign regionally and internationally. What more conveys soft power than a burgeoning movie industry and series of film festivals?
A value beyond profit and loss
Perhaps the reason behind the cancellation lay with the cost of mounting this event I wondered. I understand that the amounts that were spent flying in stars in first class were quite burdensome.
However, festivals such as Sarajevo, Cairo and Marrakech aren’t able to spend vasts sums of money and yet they’re still going strong with major stars in attendance. DIFF certainly achieved that recognition in the past decade and few doubt that it could have carried itself with a reduced budget with stars in attendance based on its own merit.
In its last iteration, the DIFF lasted for eight days and showed 140 films. Perhaps rather than cancel it outright, an alternative was to decrease the number of days and films being shown. I understand that most film festivals either don’t make a profit or make just enough money to survive. However, the value of the DIFF extends beyond the basic understanding of profit and loss.
The DIFF became a meeting point where filmmakers, financiers, actors, critics and fans came together for a few short days to celebrate human creativity. It is no wonder that the DIFF easily attracted 700 volunteers annually in its past editions.
The DIFF cast a global spotlight on Dubai as a centre of cinema in the same way that the Dubai World Cup positions the city as a global centre of horse racing.
Upon the announcement of the news of the cancellation of the festival, condemnation came not only from those working in the industry — such as film directors, actors and critics — but also from political scientists such as Dr Abdul Khaleq Abdullah who tweeted, “The decision to cancel the Dubai [International] Film Festival is the worst decision I heard this week. After 14 successful editions and after it became the tenth most important film festival in the world it needed support, not to be stopped for financial reasons that do not consider its cultural or artistic value. The decision to cancel is not worthy of Dubai, the capital of modernity and enlightenment in the Arab world.”
It’s not all bad news, however, Emirati filmmakers continue to make films, while Sharjah hosts a film festival dedicated to children and youth. Dubai’s independent movie house Cinema Akil, run by Butheina Kazim, for the past few years, has finally gotten a home on Al Serkal Avenue. Today, the number of Emirati filmmakers — from Nayla Al Khaja to Nawaf Al Janahi, Nujoom Al Ganem to Ali Mostafa, Amal Al Agroobi to Abdullah Al Kaabi and many others who were part of the movement to create a film industry — are a testimony to the importance of these festivals. Credit must go to Abdul Hamid Juma and Masoud Amralla Al Ali who were the engines behind this cinematic movement that, before the lights went out, had the potential to turn into a full-blown industry.
The fate of these festivals is rather an unfortunate development that must be reconsidered. Simply, it is not good enough to have the DIFF held every two years as a best-case scenario. It is time for Dubai to commit to reviving the festival in all its glory and maintain it as an annual event worthy of the emirate’s global ambitions.
Without our anchoring annual film festival, other cinematic advances will serve as a bitter-sweet reminder of what was once the golden age of Emirati cinema.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a UAE-based writer.