Looking back on this year’s Dubai International Film Festival

Dubai International Film Festival is over for another year, leaving us with many memorable moments.

Martin Sheen was one of the biggest stars to attend this year's DIFF. Pawan Singh / The National
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The Dubai International Film Festival launched with a tense screening of the Palestinian drama Omar, a film that went on to capture the coveted Muhr Arab Feature award. Omar also set the standard for an abundant line-up of more than 100 Arab titles in a programme of 174 movies screened in 43 languages over nine days.

In a testament to the growing influence of the festival on the global stage, 70 of its offerings were world premieres. The action concluded with last night’s closing film, which was riding high after nabbing seven Golden Globe Award nominations: David O Russell’s 1970s-era caper American Hustle.

On the festival’s first weekend Cate Blanchett presented the IWC Filmmaker Award and a cheque for US$100,000 (Dh367,300) to the Emirati director Waleed Al Shehhi and his movie Dolphins.

“I have been waiting so long for this moment, now I can finally make my dream happen,” Al Shehhi said.

The same night, Champ of the Camp, about a yearly singing competition for UAE-based labourers, screened in the park at the foot of the Burj Khalifa.

“I grew up in the UAE so I have always been fascinated by what hard work the builders put into my city,” said the film’s director, Mahmoud Kaabour. “I wanted to break down the barriers between the labourers and the people who live here.”

The fight against racism was a powerful theme running throughout the festival, which screened the brutally graphic 12 Years a Slave and the tragic Fruitvale Station, starring Michael B Jordan, both of which left barely a dry eye in the house. And of course, Nelson Mandela died ahead of the DIFF screening of his life ­story, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. As the South African leader’s official memorial service was being held, the red carpet was closed to photographers and bathed in candlelight. Later, the film’s star Naomie Harris asked a spellbound audience to hold a minute’s silence in his memory.

On Wednesday Harris and fellow A-lister Mark Ruffalo helped to raise more than $1 million for Syrian refugees at the One Night to Save Lives charity gala dinner and auction, organised by DIFF, Dubai Cares and Oxfam.

Between the festival’s glamorous parties – beginning with surprise fireworks at the opening gala – were a plentiful crop of warts-and-all features shining a spotlight on the lives of ordinary folk.

The Singaporean film Ilo Ilo (which was awarded the Muhr AsiaAfrica award for Best Film and Best Actress for Yeo Yann Yann) struck a chord with UAE audiences, for its heartwarming take on family life through the eyes of a Filipino nanny.

Factory Girl, which tells the story of working class sisters at a clothing factory in Cairo, won the Fipresci Feature Award, as well as a Best ­Actress Award for its pregnant star, Yasmine Raees.

But the excitement proved overwhelming for Raees, who after the awards ceremony started hyperventilating and, convinced she was going into labour several months early, sought the help of an emergency medical team. But she wasn’t in ­labour and has since recovered.

Khalid Al Mahmood was the unexpected winner of the Muhr Emirati competition for his wistful film Don’t Leave Me, about two girls who are connected by their past but no longer recognise each other.

“There were some big-name directors participating with some amazing films, so the fact I won is a complete surprise,” said Mahmood.

One of those directors was Amal Al Agroobi, whose film about two autistic boys undergoing music therapy, The Brain That Sings, scooped the Emirates NBD People’s Choice Award.

The DIFF chairman Abdulhamid Juma said he had wanted to bring films to the festival that close the gap between nationalities in the UAE. “People in this country work with each other every day and don’t know enough about each other’s culture,” he said. “But meeting cultures and minds is a big thing to put on the shoulders of a film festival. Everybody in other areas of life and industries have to also work hard to bring different cultures together.”

And Juma’s mission for DIFF 2014?

“To open the festival with a UAE-made film,” he said. “It is the wish of the filmmakers based here and I am talking to them – we are ready, and they are ready now, too.”

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