The Rise of Arabian Cinema

in 10th Dubai International Film Festival

by Müge Turan

In its tenth edition, the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) reaffirms itself as both a blockbuster film event and a place to discover the best of cinema from the Arab world. The founding purpose of the festival was to raise the profile of Arabic films, and make their presence felt at an international level. Apparently it is working: there are now more Arabic films than ever, with over 100 in total this year.

DIFF opened with Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, probably the first fiction featureto be exclusively financed by the Palestinian cinema industry. This film, which looks at the Israeli-Palestine conflict, won the Muhr Arab Feature competition as judged by Jim Sheridan’s jury. Highlighting the growing film culture in the region, each titlein the festival’s competition questioned the relationship between identity and history. 

Asproducts ofcountries which have a difficult political reality at present, the competition films mirror the symbols and images of that reality. They display what the directors have to say about concerns and changes in the Arab world, including the themes and criticisms articulated in the recent Arab Spring.

Some highlights should be mentioned briefly: Palestine Stereo, the most expensive film ever made in Palestine, is a dark comedy following two brothers left homeless after an Israeli bomb hits their home.Amor Hakkar’s second feature The Proof (La preuve) deals with changing marriage and gender roles in Algerian society through the story of an infertile taxi driver. Rock The Casbah is like a French family saga, portraying an upper-class familyin Tangiers. Syrian auteur Mohamed Malas, in his Ladder to Damascus (Soullam ila dimashq), presents a poetic and abstract meditation shot during the current conflict; bombs exploded near the film’s set. The veteran Moroccan filmmaker Hicham Lasri’sCasablanca-set drama, They Are the Dogs (C’est eux les chiens) tells the story of Majhoul, an old man imprisoned in 1981 during massive demonstrations for reform in Morocco. Egyptian director Mohamed Khan won hearts with his working class melodrama, Factory Girl (Fatat el masnaa); the film’s emotional power comes from the fascinating performance by its lead actress, Yasmine Raees. Premiering at this year’s DIFF, Factory Girl collected the FIPRESCI award for Best Feature. 

It is promising that about 40 percent of the filmmakers in the program are women. This could be related tothe success of Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda, the first ever feature froma Saudi Arabian woman, which is the country’s official nomination for the 2014 Oscars.Considering that Wadjda was one of the productions of the festival’s market project, the Dubai Film Connection (DFC), DIFF is an industry-changing festival. DFC’s aim is to stimulate the growth of film production in the Arab world.To celebrate their tenth edition this year, the festival released the book Cinema of Passion,listing the top 100 films of Arab cinema. As an attempt to nurture Arab cinematic culture and preserve its memory, thisbook presents100 films compiled with input from over 475 film critics, academics and writers. At the top of the list is Shadi Abdel Salem’s only feature film The Night of Counting the Years (also known as The Mummy or Al-Mummia, 1969), which marked a turning point in Egyptian film history.

Edited by Lesley Chow