Dubai — a thrilling megalopolis filled with soaring skyscrapers and the labyrinths of old souks, a place where the ancient and ultra modern meet in an improbable desert city by the sea.
The whole world has arrived on Dubai’s shores in the last few decades — thrill-seeking tourists, business moguls, architecture mavens and hordes of expats eager to find their fortunes in the bustling, ever-expanding urban mix.
But what it is like to be a child in Dubai, to call this place home?
Dubai’s children are a very diverse lot — people of 200 different nationalities live in the city, with only 15 to 20% of the population made up of United Arab Emirates nationals. The rest of the city’s residents come from India, Pakistan, other parts of Asia, UK, Europe and spots all over the globe.
So, if you a child in Dubai, chances are good you may have been brought to the city from somewhere else. You are definitely multilingual and must make your way to adulthood in a very multicultural city.
I was lucky enough to get a glimpse into this unique world when I served as a member of the international panel of jury members of the city’s Children’s International Film Festival (www.CIFF.ae) a few weeks ago.
Like seemingly everything else in the city, the festival is brand new, having launched in 2014 under the energetic and visionary leadership of the couple, Deepak and Jyoti Jain. The festival is conducted under the patronage of His Excellency Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development in the United Arab Emirates and Dr. Tayeb Kamali, a renowned educator, is the Chief Mentor to the festival.
CIFF 2015, powered by Nikon, was conducted in Strategic Partnership with Dubai Film & TV Commission and in association with VOX Cinemas.
With support like this, it is no surprise that this year’s festival attracted 20,000 audience members, who watched 67 international films chosen from 410 submitted in 54 languages from 64 countries.
But kids don’t only watch films at CIFF. They also make them. The festival, very importantly, includes a filmmaking competition, that this year included 53 short films made by children aged 12 and older. In the run-up to the festival, the organizers held filmmaking workshops at schools all over the UAE to train 2,300 students and then underwent an arduous selection process to decide which youth-made films would be put in the competition.
What were these youth-made films about? Of course, they tackled subjects important to kids everywhere — the pressures of school, the importance of friendships and family. There were also a few films with thrills and chills illustrating real-life childhood dangers. The youth filmmakers of Dubai clearly recognized the dramatic appeal of those dangers as well as their responsibility to educate other kids about such things a cyber-stalking and bullying.
But there were other more poignant and particular films, such as the one made by students at a training center for children with special needs. Their film, “I Am …”, depicted the perilous journey of one student as he navigated Dubai’s sleek new metro system. The film won a prize from our jury, and when we announced it at the closing ceremony, the entire audience leapt to their feet to give the young filmmaking team a standing ovation.
Another memorable, award-winning film — “Mind Bender,” by young John Rees — was a sophisticated science fiction yarn that dealt with a sinister teacher who dosed her students with a bio-formula to turn them into pliant, unquestioning automatons. Yet another award-winner was “Sprha,” a moving meditation about a girl’s grief over losing her grandfather, who lived in India.
And it is worth noting that a few young filmmakers, in a country known for its great wealth, chose to make films based on the theme that money cannot necessarily buy happiness.
Deepak and Jyoti have formulated a very unique and inclusive festival that not only is a platform for the best in international children’s cinema, but also a vehicle that will help drive the expansion of the UAE’s film industry.
And if that industry follows the explosive growth pattern of the rest of the city, watch out Bollywood, and watch out Hollywood. Thanks to an innovative children’s film festival, thousands of kids in the Emirates are learning how to make films, and they even have their own festival to champion those films. Soon, no doubt, the whole world will be watching.
— Elizabeth Shepherd, director, Children’s Film Festival Seattle