The Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), initiated in December 2004, is an international film festival held yearly in the Persian Gulf Emirate of Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Owing to the Emirate’s beneficial patronage, the festival has quickly established itself as one of the top 3 film festivals in the Arab World, along with those held in Cairo and Marrakesh. Under the motto “Bridging Cultures, Meeting Minds,” the Festival with its various programs and initiatives pursues the dual mission of establishing Dubai as a major international creative hub, while also promoting the region’s indigenous culture[1]. As such, the Dubai International Film Festival is a strategic public diplomacy move on the part of the Emir for both Dubai and the Arab World at large.

Since the Festival’s inception and after the conclusion of last year’s round, which ran from December 9-16, 2007, over 250 films have now been shown and 48 countries represented in Dubai, making it one of the most visible advances of Arab culture on the world stage.


The Arab World has a rich film tradition, with over 4000 films having been produced in Arabic-speaking countries since 1908, the majority of these from Egypt [2]. However, since the 1970’s the industry has been in relative decline, in large part due to the lack of resources and therefore publicity available to Arabic filmmakers. As a result, two types of films have emerged from Arabic studios: artistic films made with European funds that have little domestic appeal; or cheap, formulaic films that garner large Arab audiences but have thus far failed to achieve any meaningful artistic innovation.

The two main film festivals in the Arab World (Cairo & Marrakesh) are similarly underfunded, and as a result have tended to do little for Arabic films in the way of publicity for a larger international audience. The Cairo festival in particular has suffered a number of gaffes in recent years that undermine its international credibility, like its inability to produce a comprehensive pamphlet with film schedules and its poorly designed website [3].

The Dubai Film Festival began in 2004 as a result of collaboration between His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the former Emir of Dubai, and the Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority [4]. Dubai, which in recent years had emerged as a financial and service industry mecca, was beginning to look towards patronage of the arts as a way to project a more rounded image abroad. After the first Dubai International Film Festival was criticized by Arab filmmakers for not engaging them sufficiently, the Festival took a decidedly more favorable stance toward Arab cinema and established the Dubai Film Commission whose primary goal was to support Arabic film producers. As a result, today Arabic films are heavily emphasized as the Festival’s major focus [5].


The 2007 Film Festival features a total of nine programs, each dedicated to a certain cinematic category: The Cultural Bridge, Arabian Nights, A Celebration of Indian Cinema, The Cinema of the World, The Cinema of Asia, The Cinema of Africa, Destination Documentary, Emirati Voices, and Children’s Cinema. In addition to these programs, the Festival also hosts an Arab Film Competition called the “Muhr Awards” [6]. Of the Festival’s 10 categories, three are open exclusively to Arab entrants (Arabian Nights, Emirati Voices, Muhr Awards), and a fourth is dedicated to Islamic-Western relations (The Cultural Bridge). The Destination Documentary category, however, is restricted to only non-Arab productions.

Although the various categories noticeably emphasize and favor Arab cinema, the Festival offers ample space for international films as well, reflecting, as a press release puts it, “Dubai’s cosmopolitan and multicultural character” [7].

Branding Dubai

The Arab World has suffered from a poor image in the West over the last few decades which has tended to stifle Western popular interest in the emerging states in the region. Further, many Arab countries themselves have neglected the development of their tourism potential, and as a result have spent very little on bettering this negative image abroad. Dubai, on the contrary, has seized upon tourism as the key to its economic development and is working to lure Western visitors. The Dubai International Film Festival, thus, is a central part of the campaign to “brand” Dubai as a culturally sensitive and friendly destination. This intention is palpable in many of the Festival’s various programs, but particularly in “The Cultural Bridge” that aims to “break down the walls of inter-racial prejudice and intolerance, thereby helping stimulate dialogue and building cross-cultural bridges”[8]. This program was further supplemented with a panel on cross-cultural dialogue issues.

A number of the Festival’s programs deal with other aspects of the Emir’s cultural diplomacy campaign. Through the Emirati Voices program [9] he attempts to raise the profile of the United Arab Emirates within the Arab World, despite their miniscule numbers (500,000 Emiratis among 350 million Arabs). With Arabian Nights and the Muhr Awards programs [10] he aims to help Arab filmmakers gain ground within the international artistic community [11]. The goal here, as stated by Abdul Hamid Juma, the head of Dubai Media City (a cosponsor), is to change the perception that Dubai is a place for film-makers “to come here and shoot the desert or terrorist movies," and to promote instead a legitimate, world-renown film industry. [[12]]

Humanitarian Goals

Besides film promotion, the Dubai International Film Festival has undertaken a number of other initiatives. The most recent of these being the “OneMinutesJR” program, held in coordination with UNICEF. It consisted of a series of film production workshops for adolescents in Mumbai, Cairo, and Dubai, the results of which were shown during the Festival. In addition, the Festival held a fundraiser “Cinema Against AIDS Dubai” Gala to support AmFar, an AIDS research and public policy advocacy group [13]. These programs demonstrated the Festival’s commitment to humanitarian goals, a focus not commonly seen in previous film festivals in the Arab World.

Up-coming Projects

Since the completion of the successful 2007 Festival, the DIFF’s coordinators announced the creation of two more categories for the 2008 Festival, one focusing on animation and one focusing on cinema from Asia and Africa [14].

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