Sixteen years ago, three friends sat in Abu Dhabi's Cultural Foundation and lamented the lack of opportunities to make or screen Emirati films. Deciding to take action into their own hands, they called everyone they knew, collated 58 rudimentary short films made by friends and screened them in the foundation over three days to audiences of fewer than 40 people.
The UAE film industry has undergone a remarkable transformation since then, which should come as no surprise when one looks at the calibre of that original trio. Masoud Amralla Al Ali is now the artistic director of the Dubai International Film Festival (Diff), Nawaf Al Janahi is a filmmaker and the founder of the Emirati Cinema Campaign and Ali Al Jabri helped pioneer the filmmaking movement in the capital, which has found its voice in Image Nation Abu Dhabi, producing homegrown and Hollywood blockbusters. What the three did was sow the seeds of a passion which has flourished into one of the biggest and most significant film festivals in the region. Diff has just wrapped a triumphant 14th year and its achievements are nothing short of extraordinary.
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For long after the red carpet has been rolled up and the A-list stars have left, the reverberations will be felt. Beyond entertainment, cinema provides a platform for open, honest and sometimes uncomfortable conversations, breaking taboos and providing a voice to those who do not always have one. That was particularly pertinent in a week when Donald Trump decided to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia lifted its 35-year cinema ban and the president of the Oscars announced he was changing the rules of the best foreign language film award to include more diverse voices.
Every year, the film festival opens a forum to discuss significant issues, with voices of this region, who are increasingly demanding to be heard and have found engaging and nuanced ways of expressing the things that matter. Those voices are showcased at the festival but echo around the world. For cinema reflects life and universal truths, whether that is by provoking difficult questions or giving its audience an uplifting example of heartwarming humanity. A whole new generation of regional filmmakers have been inspired to go on to make their own films as a result, pushing new boundaries and talking about the issues affecting them. That tiny sapling has grown into a blossoming tree and will continue to spread its branches.