Arabia to Ireland for film fest

We preview this week's first Dublin Arabic Film Festival, a four-day celebration of cinema from the Arab world.

Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif in a scene from Lawrence of Arabia, 1962. Courtesy Columbia Pictures
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When the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) invited the acclaimed Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan to head up its jury last year, few were likely to have known the Oscar-nominated director would be secretly using the trip as a reconnaissance mission.

Four months on, and the proof of Sheridan's time in Dubai are plain to see. Today sees the start of the first Dublin Arabic Film Festival, a four-day celebration of cinema from the Arab world being held in his native city. And while the My Left Foot director may have mentioned he was planning this event long before he set foot in the Madinat Jumeirah last December, he did manage to bring back with him no fewer than three films from the line-up to screen in the Irish capital.

“We really just want to show that particular part of the world to a wider audience,” he explains, adding that he wants to overturn the stereotypical depictions of the region generally seen in Hollywood. “Originally, back in the day, the Arabs were the exotic seducers, like Rudolph Valentino, which was all right so long as you lived in the desert and had camels. But as soon as they found oil their image totally changed and they became the bad guys.”

Source of inspiration

Sheridan admits to being a longtime fan of cinema from the Arab world. "Lawrence of Arabia was the first film that really shook me," he says, adding that The Battle of Algiers, Gillos Pontecorvo's 1966 classic about the Algerian war of Independence, has always been "among his favourite films" and a source of inspiration for his multi-Academy Award nominated 1993 drama In the Name of the Father.

As it happens, Lawrence of Arabia will be screening at the Dublin Arabic Film Festival, along with another classic: Lion of the Desert, the 1983 epic shot in Libya starring Anthony Quinn and Oliver Reed. The breakout star from Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif, will be the festival's special guest, introducing a screening of his charming 2003 drama Monsieur Ibrahim on the opening night. But the rest of the line up is somewhat more contemporary, and features some of the most exciting Arab talent around.

From the Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch comes Horses of God, a drama in which residents of a Casablanca slum are enticed towards radicalism, and They Are the Dogs, chronicling the story of an old man released from prison after 30 years. They Are the Dogs is a DIFF 2013 alumni, along with Homeland, Mohamed Hamidi's light comedy about a student who returns to Algeria, and – of course – Omar, Hany Abu-Assad's Palestinian thriller that picked up an Oscar nomination and DIFF's main narrative prize. Abu-Assad will be attending the event, as will Ahmad Abdalla, the Egyptian director of 2011 Egyptian revolution drama Rags & Tatters, which screened at last year's Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Oscar-worthy Arab films

“It’s very interesting, because on the one hand you’ve got this huge change from the Arab world, and then you’ve the this fact that cinema is reflecting it,” says Sheridan. “And for the first time, three Arab movies got nominated for the Oscars. Now, I didn’t plan the festival before they were nominated, but I just think I felt something was happening.”

While much of the festival is taking place in Dublin's Light House Cinema, two films – Lawrence of Arabia and The Yacoubian Building, the hugely successful Egyptian adaptation of Alaa Al-Aswany's novel – will screen at the Chester Beatty Library, which Sheridan reveals has a huge link to the region, housing the biggest collection of Holy Qurans outside the Arab world.

Sheridan hopes to continue the festival each year, perhaps broadening out into music, dance and art. “Next time we might have, say, four movies along with some other events,” he says.

Given the growing film output from the region, selecting these four could be a difficult task. So if you see Sheridan lurking at DIFF this year, you know what he’s up to.

• The Dublin Arabic Film Festival runs from today to Sunday. Visit