ABU DHABI (Reuters) - In a stunning gold and black dress and the highest heels you’ve probably ever seen, Hollywood ‘A’ lister Salma Hayek struts across the red carpet.
“I really like it, and I take it very seriously,” she tells reporters straining over the barrier for a comment about her role as a judge at this film festival. “It looks like they have built a great home for arts, culture and film.”
Who would believe she was talking about Qatar, a desert country of 1.7 million people, mostly expatriates, long seen as a cultural backwater even compared to its Gulf Arab neighbors.
Blessed with vast oil and gas reserves and tiny populations, Gulf Arab cities with cash to spare have been competing in recent years to establish themselves as cultural capitals.
Doha has a prestigious Islamic art museum and Abu Dhabi is building offshoots of New York’s Guggenheim and Paris’ Louvre.
But it is film festivals that have emerged as the prestige cultural event of choice since Dubai launched its version in 2004 -- poster child for its drive to become a glamorous destination for the international jetset.
A week before Hayek strutted her stuff at the second Doha Tribeca Film Festival, Uma Thurman graced the red carpet at the fourth Abu Dhabi Film Festival in the United Arab Emirates.
“For the first time I felt energy coming from a festival in this region,” she told reporters in the UAE capital.
The world’s third-largest exporter of oil, Abu Dhabi handed out prize money of nearly $1 million this year at a festival that boasted 13 world premieres. Dubai, beset by financial troubles that have taken much of the showy gloss off the city, will have its chance to hit back in December.
“The last time I‘m aware of this kind of cultural competition occurring was between city states during the Italian renaissance,” said Cynthia Schneider, an art history expert and professor in diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington.
At this year’s film festival, stars mingled at glamorous after parties in Abu Dhabi’s signature Emirates Palace hotel -- the UAE capital’s equivalent of Dubai’s sailed-shaped Burj al-Arab. The mood reflected a dramatic departure from the conservative profile Abu Dhabi maintained just a few years ago.
“I can’t believe this. Look at the crowd, the ambiance is as good as any Western film festival. Abu Dhabi has changed so much,” said Lina Bagersh, who teaches media studies in Dubai, sipping on a glass of champagne in the muggy night heat.
Yet the frenzy of cinematic premiers and after party clinking of glasses contrasts with the stark political and cultural realities that dominate Gulf Arab societies.
There are no cinemas at all in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam where the dominant Wahhabi school of Islam forbids men and women from mixing and strict censorship pervades.
Most Arab films that make it to film theatres in the rest of the Gulf Arab region, poorly promoted amid blockbuster American and Indian productions, are dramas and comedies made in Egypt.
On the cross-roads of Africa and the Middle East and across the Mediterranean from Europe, Egypt was already making movies a 100 years ago -- when many people in the Gulf still lived in palm frond huts, their traditional way of life as yet undisturbed by the discovery of oil.
Gulf drama is restricted to television series produced mainly in Kuwait and Bahrain. Even in that realm, more Arab TV dramas are produced outside the Gulf, in Middle East countries like Syria or Lebanon, which have more liberal societies and a longer history in the arts.
Peter Scarlet, executive director of Abu Dhabi Film Festival, said the festivals were playing a role in developing Gulf Arab arts, even if the region’s output remains lacking.
“In Abu Dhabi the only films people can see when the film festival isn’t on is mid-level Bollywood and Hollywood,” he said. “At least 10 days a year there are films from the rest of the world. There is an opportunity to sample some of film history that people can’t access and that has to be all to the good and that’s a necessary element in founding a film culture.”
Despite the obvious hurdle presented by the widespread censorship of political and sexual material in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi’s government is sponsoring a drive to produce more home-grown films.
“Sea Shadow,” the UAE’s fourth feature-length film, is currently in production. It addresses the crucial theme that Gulf Arab societies are grappling with -- rapid modernization that ruptures a world of sleepy fishing villages and pearl trading centers with futuristic cityscapes that for some are visionary but for others disturbing interventions.
The story moves from Ras al-Khaimah, one of the poorest of the emirates in the UAE, through Dubai and on to Abu Dhabi, the new metropolis -- discretely promoting a narrative of Abu Dhabi primacy within the UAE federation.
The film depicts a love affair -- romantic rather than physical in this conservative Muslim region -- between teenagers Kaltham and Mansoor.
“The aim is to reflect a completely Emirati atmosphere, from the towers, buildings and modern cities to the old quarters where Emiratis still live,” writer Mohammed Ahmed Hassan said.
Daniela Tully, vice-president of the production firm Imagenation, said the idea was to transfer the expertise of international film-making to the Gulf.
“We want to build up the local film industry. We want to have eventually an entire crew that is Emirati,” she said. “We want to bring Hollywood to the UAE and the UAE to Hollywood.”
The film stands in contrast to last year’s “City of Life,” a Dubai film that celebrated the city’s cosmopolitan mix of foreigners, which underwent some revision by the Abu Dhabi-based National Media Council that must approve all scripts.
Scarlet, in Qatar for the Doha extravaganza after comparing events during his Abu Dhabi festival, said rapid changes to the urban, demographic and economic shape of society in a country like the UAE were themes ripe for the silver screen.
“It’s clear that any film-making in the Emirates must deal with the fact that cultural change has been so instantaneous,” he said. “Everyone is concerned with taking a cultural past and adapting it to the rapidly changing face of now.”
He said film distribution was more of an issue than censorship in the region and held out hope that Gulf Arab attitudes to acting itself would change -- the leading lady in “Sea Shadow” is of Syrian origin.
“I’ve heard of young women who couldn’t be in films. Part of that is tradition and part of that is the kind of process that Europe and America went through when what was a side show attraction for the lowest levels of society suddenly won legitimacy as an art form,” Scarlet said.
Schneider also held out hope that the Gulf Arab cinema wars would turn out to be more than public relations stunts fixated on the prestige associated with luring Hollywood stars.
“It would be great if the proportion of money spent on bringing stars over and that spent on aspiring filmmakers were a little different, but the mentorship and competition aspects are both good things,” she said.
Additional reporting by Regan Doherty in Doha, editing by Lin Noueihed