Searching for the Mideast’s Hollywood: Where is the Arab film industry heading?

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

Movie professionals across the Arab world were taken aback by the announcement that the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), regarded as the region’s Cannes, will be held once every two years, hence its 15th round will take place in 2019 instead of 2018.

While such shift could not be technically seen as drastic, what it forebodes is what matters the most for a considerable number of experts in the industry argue that such a step is a prelude for the festival’s closure. If this proves to be true, a fatal blow is bound to be dealt to the entire film scene in the region not only because of the number of movies it screened every year, but also the initiatives it launched to support independent cinema and filmmaking in general. True the Arab region is far from lacking in film festivals, but will they be able to make up for the losses incurred by the partial withdrawal of DIFF from the entertainment landscape?

The DIFF announcement immediately brought to mind the fate of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF), which closed in 2015 after eight rounds. The ADFF-sponsored Sanad Fund, which supported the projects of emerging Arab filmmakers in both the development and post-production stages, was not to be affected according to the announcement. However, the fund was discontinued the following year. The Dubai-based Gulf Film Festival, which started in 2008 and was dedicated to films from the Gulf region, also closed in 2014. First, the 7th edition was announced to have been postponed and that was it.

Exciting news from Saudi Arabia has recently refueled some industry hopes in the region, with an end to a decades-long cinema ban and the kingdom's first industry body launched at the Cannes Film Festival last month. Earler this year, the Saudi Film Council also announced the launch of several programs that aim to benefit both local filmmakers and film industry development in the kingdom.

Syria and North Africa

Apart from the Gulf region, one of the influential film festivals that ground to a halt in the Arab world was the Damascus International Film Festival, which started in 1979 and has been officially cancelled since 2011. The biennial festival, which was held alternately with Carthage Film Festival, initially screened films from the Arab region, Asia, and Latin America then in 2001 started included films from all over the world. In 2017, the General Cinema Authority in Syria declared that the festival will be resumed in November 2018.

North Africa is not an exception when it comes to uncertainty about the fate of film festivals. The Marrakech International Film Festival, established in 2001 and held annually, cancelled its 17th edition, scheduled for December 2017, citing the need to put together a new organization committee that would better serve the purposes of the festival. Concerns about resuming the festival in 2018 as stated in the announcement dissipated as several Moroccan media outlets declared this May that the exact dates of the 2018 edition are to be announced soon. The festival is known for hosting big names in the film industry. In its 13th edition, director Martin Scorsese was head of the jury while Marion Cotillard and Patricia Clarkson were members. Sharon Stone and Juliette Binoche were honored in the same round, which is said to have initiated the festival into the international arena. Director Francis Ford Coppola was head of the jury in the 15th edition where he spoke of his North African origins.

Egypt still on the map

Egypt’s issues with film festival are quite different. The Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), established in 1976, is held annually except in 2011 and 2013 due to political unrest. Egypt’s decades-long reputation as “the Hollywood of the East” consolidated the festival’s status as the most prestigious in the region for years until it recently started facing competition from other festivals as well as financial obstacles. In addition to not having the budget for inviting international figures, interest in CIFF has been gradually declining among Egyptians. This was demonstrated in the screening of the opening film The Mountain between Us, where Palestinian-born director Hany Abu Assad expressed his disappointment at the lukewarm reception. However, the recent change in CIFF presidency is seen by cinema professionals as heralding a new era for the festival. The launch of the Gouna Film Festival in the Red Sea resort of the same name saw the emergence of a new competitor, yet offered a promising opportunity for keeping Egypt on the film industry map. Despite its glamorous inception in the first round, it remains to be seen whether the festival will be able to claim the position once occupied by CIFF or will urge the latter to reclaim that position.

While it might be assumed that the closure of one festival is beneficial for other festivals, Gouna Film Festival president Intishal al-Timimi disagrees. “It’s not good for any of the festivals in the region when a festival closes down like that. It complicates things for El Gouna because there will be a lot of films that were earmarked for DIFF that will be submitted to us and we won’t be able to take all of them,” he said. “People won’t be happy.” Alaa Karkouti, co-founder of the Arab Cinema Centre agrees and comments on the disadvantages of cancelling the DIFF 2018 round. It’s a big loss. It was the biggest festival in the Arab world. At the very last edition we had 25 films, between official selection and the market,” he said. For Karkouti, DIFF was not only a festival where filmmakers compete, but also an important cinematic event. “DIFF was an event where you could get a sense of what was coming up across the region for the coming year. Everyone would present their highlights in terms of projects and upcoming releases,” he said. “Now the focus will be split. Filmmakers and their producers will have to go to several different events to achieve the same thing until another festival comes to the fore again.”

‘Will they take us seriously?’

Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy, the new CIFF president, said that cancelling several rounds in different festivals gives a negative image of festivals in the region in general. “We are getting a reputation for never completing what we start and this will affect all film festivals in the region. Will they take us seriously?” he said, adding that festivals in the Arab world complemented each other so if for example DIFF had a bigger budget than CIFF, the latter is a class A festival whose awards are prestigious worldwide and so on. “One festival cannot replace the other.”

With all those uncertainties, a question about Arab film festivals outside the Arab world becomes inevitable. The Paris-based Institute of the Arab World is launching its Arab Film Festival, whose first round is scheduled in June. The Malmo Arab Film Festival in Sweden, which started in 2011, has also been the mecca of a considerable number of Arab filmmakers. Whether those festivals can steal the limelight from their Arab-based counterparts is a question that remains unanswered.