There are many things that the United Arab Emirates is famous for. Recent financial meltdown aside, the UAE is home to the world’s tallest building, gargantuan man-made islands and many a finely-tuned supercar. But few have pegged the UAE as the owner of an up-and-coming, burgeoning movie industry.
On the few occasions that Dubai, Abu Dhabi and their Emirate cousins have appeared in the world’s cinematic press, topics for discussion have usually been limited to yet another movie ban or censorship controversy. The theatrical release of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005) was delayed for four months while regional watchdogs combed the film for references to Dubai, despite having agreed to allow scenes to be shot in the country. Ridley Scott’s Body Of Lies (2008) was due to shoot in the UAE, but permission was rescinded for fear of tarnishing Dubai’s reputation, eventually reducing the city’s inclusion to merely a background shot and a poorly pronounced line of DiCaprio dialogue.
But that’s not the image that the UAE’s halls of power want to portray to the world and, despite the aforementioned brushes with the censors, there are those that have different plans for the Emirati film industry. Dubai’s very own film festival is now entering its seventh year and has, since 2004, been doing a decent (if relatively quiet) job of raising the profile of international cinema in a nation that thrives on the same multi-cultural melting pot.
Though it currently plays second fiddle to the likes of Cannes, Venice and Sundance, the Dubai International Film Festival has gained prestige and star attraction each and every year. Last December’s DIFF 2009 saw the likes of Gerard Butler, Matt Dillon, Omar Sharif, Amitabh Bachchan and many others ‘A-Listers’ in attendance. Nor, as chairman Abdulhamid Juma was quick to point out to journalists, are these attendees just for show. “These celebrities are not making a nominal appearance; most of them are an integral part of movies that are being screened at DIFF, making their presence even more relevant.”
But it’s not just Dubai that’s keen to get in on the action. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, is just as committed to the cause. Simon Hunter, president of the prestigious New York Film Academy in Abu Dhabi, recalls the day that the UAE government came calling. “[The Abu Dhabi Authority for Cultural Heritage] wanted to develop the next generation of Emirati filmmakers, so they could have a self-sustaining film industry.”
As wonderfully idealistic as that sounds, such a thing might also be a very pragmatic undertaking. For while Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE have been hit hard by the economic downturn, they’re still better off than other parts of the world, and that’s extremely attractive for foreign investors, as Hunter explains. “It’s a place that’s willing to invest in film. That’s why you’ll see people like David Hasselhoff coming through our doors looking for finance. Big budget films coming over here is, I think, the vision that the government has. But they’d also like to be able to tell Emirati stories that could be enjoyed by the world.”
While David Hasselhoff might not be the exact clientele they’re after, the UAE clearly has a game plan. So don’t be surprised if once the last of these ‘pesky’ economic considerations have faded away, the enduring legacy of the Emiratis is not skyscrapers, or sandcastles, but movies.