Ibrahim El Batout, the war documentarist and director of the drama Eye of the Sun, didn't have a clear idea of what to expect from the Dubai International Film Festival. He's from Cairo, and had told me that he had been very disappointed by the recent film festival in his home town "It's chaos," he said, so apparently functionality has come as a bit of a surprise. We're sitting on the terrace of the Al Qasr hotel, surrounded, in the words of the Dubai Film Connection's catalogue blurb, by "the creme de la creme of Arab filmmaking talent". The talent part is spot on: there are a lot of very smart people here, schmoozing for all they're worth. A moment ago I chatted to Chadi Zeinaddine, who has been signed by Disney to direct their first ever Arabic feature. Abdellatif Ben Ammar, the director of Noria Song, is floating about somewhere.
My companion El Batout has a line on what attracts them. "Any festival has to have two sides, one public, one organisation," he says. "In the screening of my film, I had a very good public, very good comments and interesting questions, and people who really wanted to come and see the film. So I was very pleased with that. And also, on the organisation side, they were very organised in every sense." He adds: "I've been to the London Film Festival, for instance, and of course it was A-class - and other film festivals in the region, like Ireland, Italy, Hamburg. They're all very fine festivals. And to come to an Arab country and find the same professionalism - I am happy."
Indeed, this Dubai Film Connection event is one of the finest things about a festival with no shortage of merits, insofar as it actually helps films get made. It was created to foster a community of Arab filmmakers and financiers and to airlift in support for works in progress. "It's introducing people and networking," says El Batout. "It has let me see my project in a different light. It opened perspectives so I can change some stuff in my script so I can get co-producers. It's really very useful."
Along with an instant peergroup, the DFC also offers a series of prizes for unfinished film projects. There's a scrum at the bar and some inaudible speechifying as the winners are announced. It's difficult to make out who gets a nod in the acceptance speeches over the buzz of people asking what's going on. A ramshackle event, then - unusually so for Diff - and it must be admitted that the prizes are not large; three helpings of $25,000 (Dh92,000) and a $10,000 (Dh36,700) shot in the arm for projects in development. An Italian journalist scoffed to me outside on the terrace: "$25,000? With the current exchange rate I have it in my pocket right now."
But the awards are not to be sneezed at. Annemarie Jacir, the Palestinian director of Salt of This Sea, explains: "$10,000: that's casting, that's locations, that's getting things off the ground." Jacir has actually won the award, so this is a budget, not a wish list. The aforementioned Lebanese director Zeinaddine will receive another of them for a comedy called Barbershop Trinity, about three brothers who inherit a haircutting business. Actually, its screenwriter, Bassem Nasir, claims it's about nothing: "Have you ever seen Seinfeld? It's like that." Dima el Hurr and Mahmoud al Massad, Lebanese and Jordanian respectively, complete the podium.
I ask Jacir what the prize means to her. She takes a deep breath. "For me as a Palestinian filmmaker, it's the first time I received Arab money for a project," she says. "Always, always we have to go to Europe, we have to apply to European funds, it's always looking towards Europe. And it's the first time I've had Arab support for a project, and I hope that it continues." The film she wants to make has the working title When I Saw You. It's about an autistic boy in 1960s Jordan. Jacir plans to shoot the piece with a real autism sufferer in the lead role. A cerebral palsy sufferer of her acquaintance once told her that seeing able-bodied actors in disabled roles was like seeing white actors in blackface, so that was that decision made. Jacir is delighted by her win, yet dismayed at how Eurocentric the industry crowd still is. "The truth of the Film Connection" she says, "is that we've met with a lot of European producers, TV stations, sales agents... It's like a film market in Berlin. We're meeting the same players, but these are the European players, not the Arab players." Something to strive for next year, then. For now, as the sun sets and the Al Qasr is sunk in convivial darkness, all the talk that floats up on the evening breezes is of plans and collaborations, big visions and infinite possibilities.