Mahsa Motamedi, Executive Director – Operations, Dubai International Film Festival has her hands full. The festival this time will have 60 world premieres and is all set to beat last year’s attendees, a whooping 55,000 people! Manju Ramanan chats with the film buff who is waiting to watch some films with her children as well
Tell us about yourself and your association with DIFF that starts from 2004?
I joined DIFF back in 2004, so I have been here since the beginning. I started with overseeing the marketing, sponsorship and events strategy. My role now includes the operations of the festival, so everything from registration through to box office.
How do you map the growth of DIFF over the last 11 years?
DIFF has grown exponentially and even more than we could ever have dreamed possible. We began back in 2004 with one World Premiere and this year we will have over 60! 13,000 people attended in our inaugural year and last year we welcomed over 55,000. I believe we find ourselves where we are today because we had a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve and how we could differentiate our festival from other festivals. Firstly, we wanted to focus on Arab cinema and the understanding demand from people wanting to know more about the Arab world. From an organizational perspective it was crucial that we did our homework and understood how Film Festivals function. With that knowledge, we created a team, which included some key professionals from leading festivals that we could learn from. We secured a fantastic team of programmers who choose the best of cinema from the year because no matter what you do as a film festival you have to have good films. The success we experienced over the years wouldn’t have been possible without the encouragement from the community and their involvement each and every year, and the unwavering support we have received from the Dubai government and our dedicated sponsors. From the beginning we have stayed true to ourselves – supporting filmmakers, promoting Arab cinema to the rest of the world and being the best festival for the people of the UAE– that is why we are here.
What is the core strength of DIFF according to you?
The strengths of the festival are firstly offering an invaluable cultural event to the people of Dubai and the UAE. By bringing the most anticipated films of the year from around the world, which inspire, educate and entertain our audiences. Films spark conversations, they give us a window into other cultures, open our eyes to prejudices and conflict. A film can move you to tears or make you laugh out loud, a film brings people together and the value of this is immeasurable. In addition to bringing a festival to the city, we are about much more. DIFF works hard to develop a thriving film culture within the region and foster the growth of the industry, providing greater opportunities for regional filmmakers. Promoting Arab cinema to international audiences is key to all we do. We also have our business arm of the Festival, The Dubai Film Market which is a platform for Arab cinema and over the years we have supported over 270 projects; and co-produced over 100 films which have gone onto enjoy critical acclaim and find new audiences across the globe.
How do you deal with the work life balance a position like yours demands?
It’s a busy job and as we approach the festival it gets crazy, but I love it. I think when you really enjoy what you do it doesn’t feel so much like work! Of course that’s not to say that following closing night, I don’t enjoy some time off.
Do you have any favourites in terms of films? What is your choice?
I know my children are looking forward to Peanuts, the movie, which is part of our Children’s Gala screening. They love to dress up and walk the red carpet. For me, there are so many to choose from and during the festival it’s impossible to watch any films as we are so busy! This year, we have around 130 films from over 40 countries, so our audiences will be spoilt for choice. From sneak previews of giant-budget Hollywood films to no-budget films that are breaking new ground, films from first-time filmmakers through to the greatest directors of all time. The slate includes the most talked about films of the year that are being tipped as early frontrunners for awards season glory including an impressive selection of Foreign-Language Oscar Entries and from the Arab world a showcase of the latest rich and diverse works from the region’s leading filmmakers and newcomers.
What has been your most memorable moment with DIFF?
Every year feels very different at DIFF, each festival presents a new set of challenges. This is my 12th DIFF and there has been a wealth of memorable moments. What is always so rewarding is working with a team that through during very stressful, sleep deprived months, present a beautiful festival that we can all stand back and be proud of.
What are your plans with DIFF 2015?
We will be rolling out the red carpet to celebrate the best of Arab and international cinema, with world premieres, daily gala screenings, a variety of community and family-oriented events, industry workshops and informative panel discussions. The festival will see thousands of cinema-goers, actors, directors, producers, writers and industry experts descend on Dubai to enjoy the world’s best films in one of the world’s premiere locations. We will once again be hosting an exciting selection of screenings in a magnificent complimentary event beneath the stars for eight nights at THE BEACH, opposite JBR. The Muhr Awards are another unique DIFF offering; a competition for feature fiction and non-fiction; and short films that recognises the best in inspiring, inventive and distinctive filmmaking from the Gulf Region and the Arab world. We are looking forward to welcoming back filmmakers and filmgoers, and meeting with those who are going to be part of the Festival for the first time this year.
Does DIFF plan to have outreach activities all year around? What are they?
Yes, each year we reach out to promote Arab films around the world and this year has been an exciting one. During May, in partnership with the Marché du Film (Cannes Film Market) we presented an exclusive screening of five Arab films in post-production amongst the works-inprogress line-up at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Films part of the ‘Dubai Film Market Goes to Cannes’ showcase was screened to sales agents, distributors and festival programmers in Cannes. This is an essential platform to show their projects to a massive audience, pitch future projects, and make many important connections with industry professionals from around the world. We also took the competition winners from two initiatives we ran with Samsung and #MyDubai which were launched to support budding amateur filmmakers in the UAE. In addition Hany Abu Assad’s ‘The Idol’, Mai Masri’s ‘3000 Nights’ and Leyla Bouzid’s ‘As I Open My Eyes’ all of which were supported by the Dubai Film Market’s initiatives were screened at the 40th Toronto Film Festival (TIFF). Throughout the year we also showcase Arab filmmakers work at different cities around the world, including screenings in New York, Los Angeles, London, Berlin and Paris.
How do you see DIFF as an integral part of Dubai? Does it enhance its tourism potential?
I am very proud to say that earlier this year DIFF was part of a list of the world’s top 15 film festivals for the second year running, reaffirming its status as a leading international film festival. In addition the festival has been voted as the best cultural event in Dubai. Every year, DIFF invites key leaders and decision makers to the city, which is beneficial to the industry as a whole and promoting the incredible city we live in. What’s always wonderful to hear is how impressed our guests are with our city. Morgan Freeman described Dubai as ‘the most exciting place’ he had ever been to and Tom Cruise was overwhelmed with ‘the warmth, hospitality and generosity of spirit from the people of Dubai’. During the last 11 years, DIFF has worked hard to promote the culture and talent of the region to international audiences through the power of film and created a world-class, entertaining, educational and cultural event for the city to be proud of.