Dubai: Once a central player in Dubai’s ambitions to be a major world city, its international film festival kicked off this week with the shadow of the emirate’s debt troubles hanging over it.
Over 160 films from around the world—many of them by Arab directors—play over seven days in the Gulf Arab emirate that shocked global markets last month with its announcement that a state-linked conglomerate was seeking a delay in debt repayment.
The festival was launched to great fanfare in 2004, when Dubai—a member of the United Arab Emirates federation—was a boomtown on a mission to become a Singapore-style global trade and tourism center where money was easy and living was fast.
But the tone was more downbeat on Wednesday night.
Gulf Arab, Egyptian and a few Indian actors walked down a red carpet graced in previous years by stars such as George Clooney and Goldie Hawn as Dubai—promoted as the ‘vision’ of its ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum—sought Hollywood’s eye.
The stars who turned up, including Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan who received a lifetime achievement award, were in defensive mode about the city of 1.7 million Asians, Arabs and Europeans that has reveled in excess and opulence.
“This festival is something Dubai should be proud of. Everything that’s being said about Dubai is not true. We are living in comfort,” Emirati actress Hala al-Khatib said.
“It has such energy, this city. I very much enjoy the ’yes we can’ attitude in Dubai,” said British actress Natalie Dormer, who stars in ‘City of Life’, a drama in English and Hindi about life in Dubai that premieres this week.
The organizers—who declined to say how much money they were spending this year—said that the festival’s aim remained building bridges between cultures of the world.
“We have 200 nationalities here and Dubai goes on with its people and its residents,” said artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali.
“This is not a city of ghosts, everyone is here. Dubai has so much movement it’s tiring, it’s not a deserted city,” he said.
At a lackluster after-party on a windy beach next to the iconic sailed-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel, conversation centered on Dubai’s debts of at least $100 billion.
“Everybody’s talking about it,” said a Lebanese hotel manager, clutching his champagne glass and complaining that festival costs had been pared back. “What’s this?” he said kicking the green felt carpet, suggesting it was gaudy.
A few fireworks went off in the unseasonably chilly sky, as hired dancers pranced around the thin crowd—a contrast to the extravagant launch costing millions of dollars last year for the Atlantis Hotel on the man-made Palm Jumeirah island.
“They still have some money,” an Arab television executive said. “It’s like the Weimar Republic,” a local journalist answered wryly, referring to the doomed German state that collapsed in the 1930s amid skyrocketing inflation and economic ruin. Mandy Moore, the only American name to show, said that she was thrilled to be in the enigmatic city. “This is my time in Dubai and it’s beautiful,” said the singer and actress, wearing a black Escada dress and Cartier jewellery.