As the Chairman of the biggest annual cultural event in Dubai, the Dubai International Film Festival, Abdul Hamid Juma, has a huge responsibility on his shoulders. Not only does he love his job however, he loves the fact that it promotes Emirati culture...
Abdul Hamid Juma has a tough job. As the Chairman of the Dubai International Film Festival, he has to balance the organisation of a huge cultural event, employing hundreds of people and showing thousands of films; with the glitz and glamour of an international film festival; while also attempting to promote a better understanding between the East and the West.
As if all this were not enough, the 48-yearold Juma is also the Deputy Director General of the Dubai Technology, Electronic Commerce and the Media Free Zone Authority (Tecom). His early career included roles in corporate strategy and marketing for Dubai Media City (DMC). He later became the commercial manager of the media zone and has been involved with the film festival since it first started eight years ago.
Since that time, DIFF has gained a reputation as an event of international status amongst both film industry heads and movie buffs and t has done much to promote Dubai besides.The last edition of DIFF attracted over 50,000 film-goers. According to Juma, it’s one of the most successful projects the city has ever undertaken and he’s understandably proud of the fact.
But then as an Emirati and one that happened to grow up in the Al Shindagah area of Dubai, he’s proud of many aspects of his culture. “One being the natural acceptance of the ‘other’,” he explains. “Tolerance and the beautiful mixture of nationalities living in this place in peace and harmony are also aspects that I am proud of.” He appreciates too the “choices and opportunities” that living here has afforded him. “I applaud the way we embrace change in this part of the world, while always trying to sustain our own culture,” he says, adding that the film festival has helped to improve understanding between different nationalities living in the UAE. “Ten years ago there was not enough dialogue between people here – they didn’t understand the way others lived; and there were different groups clustered together, but not mingling the way they should,” says Juma. “But the film festival has helped in this respect. When, for example, an Indian person watches a Pakistani film, and a Dutch person watches a UAE film, they learn more about different societies and that creates dialogue.”
The festival also encourages the production of better quality Arab films, which, when shown in the West, serve to educate about the lifestyle and culture of the East. At the same time, DIFF encourages the screening of non-Hollywood Western blockbusters here, which gives the UAE and the Arab world more generally, an opportunity to view how people in the West live.
Juma points out that the events of 9/11, have created a need for other countries to be educated about the Islamic world and film is the perfect means by which to do it. “It was thought that light could be thrown on what happened, with film,” he says referring to the 9/11 tragedy. When it comes to communicating with other nationalities, being an Emirati has helped him considerably. “Being an Emirati gives me a lot of confidence and opens a lot of doors in communicating with other nationalities, both here in the UAE and abroad,” he comments.
Indeed his ability with people is nowhere more evident than during the DIFF event, when he’s responsible for the organisation of more than 200 voluntary staff, made up of 54 nationalities, aged between 17 and 70 years old.
A film festival is an experience, Juma says, for both the people working at it and the people who attend it. “My job as chairman is to make sure it’s a positive experience,” However he points out that it is no small feat to organise. “You have to have a certain eye for detail.”
DIFF not only showcases films from around the world, it attracts huge audiences and offers film-makers a chance to take part in a number of film-making initiatives. The festival’s competitions include the prestigious ‘Muhr Arab’, ‘Muhr Asia- Africa’ and ‘Muhr Emirati’ categories, as well as an ‘Out-of-competition’ section. The Muhr awards are given to short films, documentaries and feature films and there’s a prize of US$600,000 (Dhs2,204,000) for directors of Arab origin, in the categories of ‘Asia’, ‘Africa’ and the ‘UAE’. The ‘Out-of-competition’ sections include ‘Arabian Nights’, ‘Cinema for children, ‘Cinema from Asia and Africa’, ‘Cinema of the world’ and an ‘In focus’ segment.
From the start, the organisers of DIFF decided not to pay celebrities to appear at the festival. “Once you pay,” Juma says emphatically, “It becomes a business. We made a very conscious decision not to pay people to come.” But this hasn’t stopped Hollywood heavy-weights attending, especially when they have a film to promote. The likes of Morgan Freeman, Nicholas Cage, Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Omar Shariff, Goldie Hawn, Colin Firth, Salma Hayek, Orlando Bloom, Ed Harris and Oliver Stone have all attended in the last eight years. No doubt Juma’s two teenage daughters Majid, 16 and Mira, 14 are impressed and he’s clearly proud of them, describing them as ‘beautiful’.
But how does the Chairman of such a huge event relax when he’s not working? By watching one of his favourite films, of course. In fact he has watched Gandhi so many times that the film is always next to his DVD player. “It’s as if Sir Ben Kingsley were born to make this film,” he says with enthusiasm. “When I feel down about something or when I’m angry, all I have to do is watch it for five or 10 minutes, and I calm down. I know it by heart,” he adds.
Ladyhawke (1985) an adventure fantasy film, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Rutger Hauer and a young Matthew Broderick, is another of his favourites. He was most impressed recently by Terrence Malick’s 2010 The Tree of Life, which starred Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. It really struck a chord with him. “I walked the streets of Dubai for hours and hours after watching it. I was so hit by the film,” he shakes his head.
But he’s equally passionate about Arabic cinema, having grown up watching Egyptian movies. And it was the Egyptian Director Youssef Chahine (credited with launching the career of Omar Shariff) who first caught Juma’s attention with his 1969 film The Land (translated as Al Ard). It’s no surprise then that Juma has a collection of more than 1,700 films at home, and he likes to “close the gap” on any he hasn’t seen, by going back through it and filling up his archive. “I grew up liking films regardless, but now I have amazing programmers to choose the movies for me,” he smiles. “I’ve also learnt not to judge a film by its title, but to sit through it until the end and give it a chance.”