Appreciation: In memory of Sheila Whitaker

The late Sheila Whitaker brought a rare mix of passion and professionalism to her job at the Dubai International Film Festival, writes Marie-Louise Olson

The late Sheila Whitaker brought a rare mix of passion and professionalism to her job at the Dubai International Film Festival, writes Marie-Louise Olson.

"She was a remarkable person," says Abdulhamid Juma, the chairman of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF).

Juma is reminiscing about his old friend, Sheila Whitaker, 77, who died on July 29 from motor neuron disease.

Born in the UK, Whitaker served as the director of international programming for DIFF since its inception in 2004. She also worked as the director of the London Film Festival from 1987 to 1990.

Juma says Whitaker was chosen to be part of the team because she was someone who could get things done. "We needed good people, who speak their soul, and who could help us put this festival together," he says.

Whitaker was known to have a deep insight into the Hollywood film world and of emerging cinemas, particularly Latin, Iranian and Middle Eastern.

"She didn't only love cinema, she loved the people who made the films. She knew the political scene, she knew the culture - she loved them, and they loved her," says Juma.

"It was a very different type of relationship with film she brought with her, and she brought all of that with a lot of professionalism, passion and love."

Whitaker was not just enthusiastic about film but was also dedicated to women's rights and supported the Palestinian cause. She was the founding editor of Writing Women, a journal devoted to women's prose and poetry between 1982 and 1984. In 2008, she was a board member and one of the founders of the Palestine Literature Festival (Palfest).

According to the artistic director of DIFF, Masoud Amralla Al Ali, Whitaker was "meticulous, clear, understanding, opinionated, professional and passionate".

"She engaged with the people of those regions, with their culture and true nature. She knew them well and she formed so many friendships."

These relationships extended far beyond DIFF, and included the film industry circles in Abu Dhabi and worldwide.

According to Teresa Cavina, the director of programming for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF), Whitaker was "a special person" to those who managed to get behind the surface.

"She was very polite, and at first seemed a little distant. But if you got to know her better, she was sweet with a fanta tic sense of humour and sharp intelligence."

Cavina added: "To talk about cinema with her was fantastic. We spent every hour when we were selecting films, having fun, heated conversations. She had very strong opinions."

According to Cavina, Whitaker had exactly what the industry needed: "She was brains and heart, which is what it takes to connect to films."

Whitaker's 45 years in cinema had earned her respect and admiration around the world, which Juma said brought credit to DIFF. "When Sheila went after a film for Dubai, not many people would say no, because of the respect in the industry for her."

"If you're a newcomer, and Sheila wants your film, it's big."

The 10-year anniversary of DIFF this December will be dedicated to Whitaker, he says.

"People think that now she is gone, DIFF will suffer. But that's not true. In those 10 years, she passed on her knowledge and that will stay in the team."

Juma says many of the films in this year's programme were chosen by Whitaker, and so there will not be a replacement for her until next year's festival.

"She really, really wanted to be here for the 10th edition, so let's use that as our energy to put our effort into it, for her," he says.

There will be a private cremation for close friends and family with a memorial to be held in October. Instead of flowers, Whitaker requested that donations should be made to Palfest (via

Cavina says she will forever be left with one memory of Whitaker, driving through London traffic in the 1990s in her red Cabriolet. "She was singing, like a child with her birthday cake, and she was so happy."

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