The Dubai International Film Festival finally responded to weeks of growing rumours of its own demise this evening, with a tweet stating that the festival would be moving to a bi-annual slot, with the next festival taking place at an unspecified date in 2019.
The festival took a positive slant on the announcement, citing a “changing” industry and a “new approach,” though cynics would struggle not to recall the Gulf Film Festival, which was put out to pasture on a similarly optimistic note in 2014, never to be heard of again.
Confirmed details are scant at the moment, at least until DIFF itself finally responded to the rumours tonight with confirmation that, at the very least, changes were taking place. Our own sources have suggested that several key staff have already been relieved of their positions, though no one at DIFF was available for comment. The National's last official contact with the DIFF team was on April 10 when, ostensibly at least, business seemed to be continuing as usual.
What is confirmed is that the UAE Pavilion will not be in its usual seaside slot at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Admittedly, the UAE Pavilion is not DIFF per se, but in recent years it has become, de facto, the DIFF Pavilion, as entities such as twofour54 Abu Dhabi, Image Nation, and The Sharjah Children’s Film Festival have significantly downgraded their activities at the event. We also understand that the DIFF365 programme, which brought indie and world cinema to Vox Cinemas, Mall of the Emirates, in Dubai, has not been extended for another year.
The shake-up seems in large part to be as a result of well-publicised changes in management at Dubai Holdings, DIFF’s ultimate parent company. Sources quote one senior member of the new management as having described DIFF, in private, as “costing too much,” while a further anonymous source within Dubai Holdings has claimed the festival will be closing outright, contrary to DIFF’s own tweet.
If the closure, or even downsizing, rumours are true, the timing would seem strange. Funding had apparently been guaranteed to the festival until 2020, following a similar spate of rumours in 2014, while the sudden appearance of a potential regional rival in the shape of a newly cinephile Saudi Arabia would seem to be a prime reason for the UAE to retain the undisputed leading festival in the region. It would seem unusual, to say the least, for the entire region to concede Saudi cinematic dominance on the back of one Black Panther screening, good though the film is.
If DIFF is to go, we can only say it will be a sad loss to the regional industry, and the sad loss of a global flagship event. How many other times do international celebrities such as Samuel L Jackson, Werner Herzog, Emily Blunt and Colin Firth all descend on the UAE to turn the world’s eyes on the country in one swift eight-day period?
The loss to the Arab film industry, meanwhile, would be almost undescribable. The festival gives more premieres to Arab film makers than any other in the world. Its coveted prizes and Oscar-nominating status are unique in the region. And its tireless work with international partners such as the Dublin and Malmo Arab Film Festivals help spread regional cinema across the world. No replacement in Riyadh, Raqqa or Ras Al Khaimah could hope to swiftly achieve the status that DIFF has over a distinguished 14-year history.
We’d like to think this is a resurgence of the biannual “DIFF is closing” rumour that has become something of a standing joke within the regional industry. Sadly, the sources we’re hearing it from on this occasion suggest not. In the absence of further official statements, we can only wish our friends and colleagues at DIFF the very best.
*In a press release late on Wednesday night, Jamal Al Sharif, chairman of Dubai Film and TV Commission added "The Festival will continue its significant contribution to the development of the industry, as we look forward to celebrating with the public, film lovers and industry professionals in 2019. We will announce the final dates, details and the new programme as soon as confirmed.