"An International Film Festival with an Arab Heart": Masoud Amralla Al Ali Opens Up About Dubai Film Fest

12/11/2016 03:33 am ET Updated Dec 11, 2017

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Good things come to those who wait, they say. And wait I did, gladly, for my chance to interview the understanding, cinema-loving, intelligent, poetic and kind Masoud Amralla Al Ali -- the Artistic Director of the Dubai International Film Festival.

Since my very first edition of DIFF, I knew I really needed to speak with Al Ali, I felt his insight would illuminate me on everything about this seventh art that brings me so much joy and yet remains in many ways a mystery. His gentle presence I encountered around the world, at press screenings in Cannes, early in the morning at Berlinale, and during the Venice Film Festival. It's a reassuring sign I am sitting in a movie theater waiting for history to be made, in one way or another, when Al Ali is there. Why do I feel this way? It's not something I can put into words -- strange that statement coming from me -- but I know his interview below will make you feel the same way.

So, let me try to explain, a little. There is a sense of wonder in what Al Ali, along with the wondrous DIFF team put together year after year. Eight days and nights of uninterrupted cinema magic, a pulsating passion for cinema with a conscience that unites, by bringing together cultures from around the world, different cinematic genres and an array of stars, filmmakers and media that create a perfect storm of creativity. Throughout it all, Al Ali introduces films with what I've come to appreciate are his poetic prefaces, spoken in Arabic then translated perfectly by Reem Owais. In his preludes, Al Ali often talks of bridges and journeys, uses the language of dreams and his unrelenting faith in humanity speaks to me perfectly.

For years I've dreamed of sitting down with DIFF's Artistic Director and hearing his own words, asking him the questions I've felt since that first festival for me. Finally, it happened, and as I imagined, it was perfect. So grab a nice cup of tea, snuggle on the couch with a blanket and join me on an interview adventure you'll remember forever.

I think what draws me back to DIFF time and time again is what I feel when you talk about films and you talk about how this is a journey. When you introduce films you speak in poetic terms, and I think poetry relates so well to cinema, particularly what I call "cinema with a conscience". What is the way that you look at cinema when you are thinking of bringing it to DIFF, what do you look for in a film?

Masoud Amralla Al Ali: I look at it in a very simple way, what is human. What talks to the inner side of you, the inner energy you feel. I started with poetry, a long time back, I have written two books. For me, I look at the details, and by details I mean in everything. In the way the director is presenting the film, in the way he framed the film, in the way he chose the dialogue, in the way he picked the subject of the film. Altogether I think a good film imposes itself on you, more than you choose it. Most of the films in the festival, they chose us. Because they have something that really makes you think that this film or this talent will be something in the future.

To go back in the history of DIFF from the beginning, we chose so many short films from who today are the permanent directors of the Arab world. So you feel from the beginning that that director has this touch, which is indescribable but is a secret language that you understand without having it be very obvious, And it makes you bet on it. Maybe by watching a lot of films in my life, I have seen tons of films...

I would dare say, hundreds of thousands?

Al Ali: I'm not sure, my collection at home is almost 80 thousand films.

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It's interesting to me that you talk of filmmakers more than you talk of stars. DIFF's star power is undeniable, but we were reminded by Thierry Frémaux (pictured above) the other day that Martin Scorsese said something to the effect of when you know the actors in a film you are an audience member but when you can name the filmmakers you are a movie buff. Filmmakers really feel like the stars of this festival, in a deep way. So when do you think "this is something we'll pass on for DIFF"?

Al Ali: Maybe if I didn't find that thing, that spark I think it may not be for DIFF but maybe for other festivals or other places. When that comes, you think the festival will go in this direction and will support this type of filmmakers and films and topics. Sometimes you have films that don't have this topic, but they have other elements that help. For example some of the films from the Emirates. They may not always have that touch but you also want the industry to grow. So each film is picked for a reason.

You touched on the industry, which is so important, because the film industry in this part of the world came after the festival. You started this vision -- just as Dubai began forty-five years ago with a vision of building something in the middle of the desert, now a mecca of tourism. What was the vision for the festival?

Al Ali: So, the business side has grown, but then you need the culture side to grow as well in conjunction with what is happening. Dubai is moving fast, I feel like somehow we are losing some of our traditions, some of our identity, but then you go through the medium of cinema and you preserve them, you bring them back and you screen them to the wider audiences. Dubai is a cosmopolitan city, you have lots of nationalities living here, but I noticed there was no connection between the locals and the expats. It seemed like they were all in one city but different, they did not communicate. Maybe because it's the nature of the Emiratis themselves, somehow they are not connecting with the others.

They are beautifully private is how I see it. In contrast to many cultures of the world including my own, where we are all busybodies, Emiratis are private.

Al Ali: That's where cinema comes in, it can break into that privacy. You can see them on the screen and you can understand better how this community is. I think cinema is a powerful medium. It's important to see our stories also. I don't think we should just import the films, we need to send our stories, our images. And not just the media image which is totally different.

That media image which throws the entire Arab region into one big pot, without differentiating at all.

Al Ali: Exactly. And the stereotypes, are everywhere. The Egyptians have their stereotypes and the Gulf also. Once you have a real filmmaker and you have real stories coming from the heart, from creative people, from "thinkers". I call always filmmakers thinkers, more than just technicians. You bring those stories to the wider audience to watch a real story, that's our role in having this festival. In Dubai you now have both, the business and the culture.

There is also the Dubai Film and TV commission, which is bringing Hollywood and Bollywood productions here.

Al Ali: And the Dubai Film Market is doing a great job, bringing here producers, developing scripts. Many films started from the Dubai Film Connection as a script and I think this is our role, this how we saw it from the beginning, we thought what could be our niche? There are lots of film festivals around the world. There is one every day, the total number is around 5,000 but in Dubai what could we do. We thought we should focus on our identity, that's the secret to being unique, otherwise we'd be just another film festival.

And then how to put this Arab content that we have into a context that is international so both can benefit. I always say this is an international film festival with an Arab heart.

Something else that is different in this festival, even more in this edition I feel, is the strong presence of female filmmakers, great women's stories and female roles. So the Western media likes to say the Arab world doesn't have great women's rights and all that propaganda, but the reality I find here is very different from that narrative. Do you make a conscious choice of having so many women filmmakers or is it just the way it works out?

Al Ali: You know it's very strange that when I go to an international festival, they complain that they don't have enough female filmmakers or on the juries, while as you said correctly, they look at this area thinking women are covered, we abuse them etc. The number of filmmakers who are women is enormous. I started the Emirates Film Competition in Abu Dhabi, the first film festival of the UAE, and most of our filmmakers were female and UAE nationals, which was breaking the tradition. I remember at the first edition, families came to me saying "please cut the credits because we don't want our daughters, their name to be exposed on the screen." That was only in 2001. Today the families they are encouraging them to come to the festival. I think there is something natural happening, the growth of female filmmakers and there is a movement -- not a movement that is organized but of women who want to express visions and their identity.

It's undeniable that their presence at this festival is double or triple what it is at other festivals.

Al Ali: There are reasons behind it, maybe one of them is being a young society, they are more daring, more educated, more understanding and they want to prove themselves in a way. They didn't face the challenges that we had in the past. For example, for me cinema was forbidden in the family. If I'm a male and I couldn't watch films because they were "haram" so I understand for women it would be even harder. But nowadays when everything has been changed and more educated young generations are coming out, I think cinema has become something in your blood, in your normal life. You are holding your mobile to record this interview, but you can also film. So the tools became easier. At the same time for me when I see a film I don't see the identity of whether it's female or male. But sometimes you feel like, wow! In this edition we have three short films directed by female Qatari filmmakers, four films by Saudi female filmmakers, more films from Emirati female filmmakers. That only shows that societies are changing and it's not the West or the East, it's about creativity and how open you are and how ready you are. I was always questioning myself, why we don't have these strong female filmmakers in the West. Why?

It's so much harder to break that glass ceiling in the West.

Al Ali: Why?

Perhaps because there is a glass ceiling that is not present here. Perhaps as you said cinema was "haram" for everyone and both girls and boys, as they came forward faced the same challenges and broke that barrier at the same time...

Al Ali: That leads me to another question. If you have freedom and you won't be creative, that's also a problem.

But I think freedom may not always be the best environment for creativity. Throughout history, great works of art have come out of persecution. I've seen it in my own family. Creativity is fueled by a sense of struggle.

Al Ali: I agree. That reminds me of a question that Louis Malle was asked, asking if he had unlimited freedom and an unlimited budget what film would he make. And he said "nothing".

What is the first film you remember watching?

Al Ali: Let me tell you, my father in the '70s was really open minded. I don't know what happened in our society that all of a sudden in the early '80s they became more conservative -- they didn't used to be like this. So my father used to take me on his back, walking down the dark alleys to go to the movie theater to make me watch movies on a very bright big screen theater. I remember this relationship between shadows and light since I was six or seven years old. I don't remember which one, but I remember very well Star Wars.

How appropriate that you are closing this year's festival with Rogue One! I remember Dumbo, on a Super 8. And Ludwig by Luchino Visconti.

Al Ali: And then later on, when Betamax came into homes, cinema stopped in the UAE totally. It died. Until the mid-Nineties. I was unlucky I was in that period. I could not watch movies on the big screen, I used to watch them on tapes. It was a struggle. In my childhood, I remember when I used to go to cinemas, before they shut down, there was an open air cinema in Satwa. And there smoking was allowed. My relationship with film was totally disturbed. I used to watch films through smoke. There were people in front of me smoking and you would see the film through clouds of smoke, the screen behind. I would look for the image, where is the image... Then everything stopped, and I had to watch films on video and at that time we didn't have copyright laws and films had been pirated, bad quality. All my relationship with cinema was this disturbed image, not clear, not real cinema. Until I started traveling to festivals and watching cinema around thirty years ago.

Cinema wasn't my goal, it was always poetry. But then I discovered in cinema the ultimate poetry, which I didn't know, I thought poetry could only be in a text.

You have virtual reality here, episodes from Westworld, all these different medium living side by side with the films. Where do you see us watching films in five years at DIFF?

Al Ali: In theaters. Cinema will remain this medium, what is happening with the technology will only benefit cinema, give more possibilities to create. Personally, I'm not against VR but I'm not a fan of VR. It's like digital, when that came, everyone was against it and now everyone is shooting in digital.

Is there a film you go back to when your soul needs a little bit of healing and you need a reminder of the good of humanity?

Al Ali: I have a couple of films but one that still shakes me, it's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by [Sergei] Parajanov. This film I have always had a connection with, and I don't know why.

Photos by Getty Images, courtesy of DIFF and used with permission.