Dubai International Film Festival 2013 Review - Part 1

Opening night party of Dubai International Film Festival 2013

Opening night party of Dubai International Film Festival 2013

The 10th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival ended on 14th December and for the past few days I have been recovering from post DIFF blues and adjusting my eyes to normal light (I watched a total of 30 films). 

I have been attending this festival from is first year, and this special 10th edition was outstanding, one I will remember for a long time. I watched a lot of very good films and a few excellent ones. I only disliked one out of the 30 I watched. I will be posting separate review of the films I watched. But for now, here’s an overall review of this year’s DIFF. 

Quality of films

As mentioned earlier, this was a stellar year for DIFF because of the quality of films that were screened. A lot of the films from this year’s DIFF received awards in the week leading to, and during the festival like New York Film Critics Circle 2013 Awards (12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, Fruitvale Station), Asia Pacific Screen Academy 2013 Award (For Tracks, Ilo Ilo, The Lunchbox, Omar, The Past), European Film Awards 2013 (The Great Beauty). 

And considering the region we're in, DIFF pushes the boundaries when it comes to sex, politics and religion in film. None of the films screened at the festival are censored. So if you missed out this year or never been to DIFF because you think everything will be censored or think the festival includes non-challenging films, make sure you don't miss it next year. 

Based on conversations I’ve had with film critics/filmmakers and observations I made, DIFF has earned the respect it deserves and is an important festival in the film festival calendar, especially in the region. I can only hope it maintains its standards and continues to get better every year. It manages to cater to the people after the glitz and glamour, the cinephiles and everyone in between.  

Duration and schedule

This year the festival ran for nine days over two weekends, from 6th-14th December (its duration has normally been one week), which I think is a good move. It meant people who struggled to attend mid week had a chance to attend during the two weekends.

Having said that, I did find the scheduling quite tight (and this probably only effected fellow cinephiles who like me were on a film marathon mission during DIFF). I found the schedule this year not to be very generous. There was a lot of overlap, which made it difficult to watch as many films as I personally wanted to. I also noticed there weren't enough late screenings like last year. Not sure if this was for logistical reasons, but it would have been great if at least on weekends there were morning and late night screenings. 


The core venues remained the same, Madinat Arena (for opening/closing and all gala screenings), Madinat Theatre and Vox Cinemas in Mall of the Emirates. Burj Park was a new addition for Screen on the Green where a free outdoor screening was held every night of the festival. I think that's a great venue and hope it will be included every year. It’s central enough for most people to get to, lots of free parking space and the luminescent Burj Khalifa in the back drop is an attractive bonus (a huge improvement compared to the outdoor screenings at The Walk, Jumeirah Beach Residence a few years ago).


Screen on the Green, Burj Park

There was a very convenient bus service between Mall of the Emirates and Madinat Arena/Madinat Theatre, and if you were in Mall of the Emirates for hours or all day like me, you didn’t have to worry about the parking fee. There was free parking for all DIFF attendees if you showed your tickets to the box office in exchange of a free parking pass. This is a great service that I hope DIFF and Mall of the Emirates will continue to offer every year. 

Lack of Arabic sub titles 

Despite having all the non-English language films with English subtitles, it is unfortunate (and shameful) for a film festival in an Arab country not to have Arabic subtitles in all the non-Arab films (including films from North Africa where the dialect is difficult to understand by anyone not from that region). It ends up looking like the festival is limiting Arabs who don't speak/read English (yes, they do exist) to watch Arab films only and practically alienating them from watching a lot of other films and genres. 


The Past

I've made this plea before, and heard others complaining during the festival, especially journalists that write for Arabic language publications. I really hope DIFF takes this into consideration for their future editions. 

The Commercials and the Lights

Before each gala screening, we had to sit through commercials that were mostly annoying. I know it's what needs to be done to promote the sponsors, but sitting through 15-20 minutes of commercials is too much, especially if they're not very good commercials, the kind that makes you cringe. There's enough corporate branding across the festival, so the last thing we need is getting bombarded with more commercials right before the film.

I did like the idea of the "snippets" featuring filmmakers before each film, which had some fun and interesting quotes, but they looked like clips taken from previous editions of DIFF and the quality looked shoddy, not something worthy of the big screen. So if this will be done again, the filming quality needs to be a lot better. 

And after each screening, regardless of venue, the bright lights came on very quickly, which just spoils the mood and the experience of watching a film, especially if it's an intense film with an intense ending. I always thought it was bad cinema etiquette to turn on the lights right away, and if you have to because people can't see where they're going, then how about slightly dimmed lights? 


DIFF’s website this year is a huge improvement compared to previous years (something I've complained about before) and I really liked the “My Schedule” feature which I found very useful. It helped me decide which films to watch as I was able to see at a glance the overlaps and which ones I had to drop.


"My Schedule" feature on

But I heard from friends they still had to go to the box office to buy packages like Friends of the Festival which weren’t possible to buy online. There was also a buy one get one free (for the same film) incentive for Emirates NBD customers and Skywards members – which is good and bad. Good because of the savings, but bad because lots of screenings in the smaller halls were sold out very quickly – and on the day, the empty seats got filled by people on stand-by. So think DIFF needs to reconsider when to offer free tickets. Maybe a certain amount of film tickets should be bought first by an individual and after that offer a free ticket to one or two films, instead of a free ticket for every film purchased. 

Speaking of full screenings, the blocking of an an entire row (or two) by the DIFF team for filmmakers/jurors needs to be questioned because 90% of they time remain empty. I wish there's a way to co-ordinate with the cinema team looking after each hall to know if an entire row or just a few seats are needed. (I've been attending this festival long enough to know cinemas in Mall of the Emirates would rarely need the entire row for filmmakers/judges.) 

Top 100 Arab Films

To celebrate the 10th year of DIFF, a survey was conducted which included 475 regional and international prominent film critics, writers, novelists, academics, and other arts professionals (including yours truly) to vote for their top 10 Arab films. The result is a compilation of the Top 100 Arab Film in a book titled Cinema of Passion, which also includes some relevant film essays.


I have yet to see this book, or get my hands on a copy, but I’m glad this survey took place and hope it is something that can take place every 10 years, similar to the Greatest Films of All Time survey which also takes place every decade (I was thrilled when I was asked to take part in the last edition in 2012).

You can see the results of the Top 100 Arab Films here. There is an official website but it doesn’t include decades before the 1970s on the homepage which I hope gets rectified soon (and I also hope the site incudes where you can find the book). I strongly suggest you read this review of the book "The Diff film poll focuses on reality but misses the funny and fantastic" by Joseph Fahim, a film festival friend from the past few years, and someone whose opinions on film I respect and admire.

I hope DIFF will make a concerted effort to screen these films over the coming year(s). What better way to celebrate the top 100 Arab films than by screening and watching them, right? 

That's it for my overall review of this year’s DIFF. Be on the look out for my second review soon which will focus on the films I watched. And once again, bravo DIFF on your 10th year and here's to many, many more years.

[first two images via Dubai International Film Festival Facebook page]