When speaking with Abdulhamid Juma, founder of the Dubai International Film Festival, (DIFF) one begins to recognize a common narrative that weaves in and out among the ideas, events and cultural mediums that have shaped him: the creation of something beautiful from amidst the rubble of disaster.
I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down and speak with Mr. Juma, despite the fact that he is extremely busy in his leadership role at the DIFF, preparing for the opening night of the 11th year of the Dubai International Film Festival, which debuts on December 10, 2014.
Although the festival has become an acclaimed event that has surpassed the imagination of all involved, Abdulhamid Juma believes that the upcoming 2014 festival is by far the best, and is awaiting with great anticipation the feedback of the viewers and attendees. He states that while he enjoys all aspects of chairing the festival, from planning the smallest detail to watching in amazement the transformation of the city into a glittering vision of a cultural utopia, what he finds most personally rewarding is how the festival continues to build bridges, connections, communication and understanding through the medium of visual storytelling.
Juma believes in a fundamental interconnectivity within all circumstances, no matter where they occur, or on what scale. Be it a seemingly insignificant moment within daily life, or an event of great magnitude that reverberates throughout the globe, Juma maintains that any experience carries inside it a human element which harnesses the potential to transcend biases and ignorance by creating bridges of knowledge and tolerance.
The cultural divide between the Middle East and the West was possibly never more visible nor vulnerable than within the shadow of 9/11. Juma notes that in the days, weeks and months that followed, “a lot of people wanted to know more about this part of the world, about Islam, about Arabs, like who are those people?” Believing in the universal language of film, imagery, and visual storytelling, Juma and his fellow collaborators devoted themselves to bridging dialogue and global understanding by way of the DIFF. As a result of their tireless efforts, the Dubai Film Festival is now internationally hailed as a cultural link that fosters communication and awareness between the East and West.
The 2004 event debut drew a crowd of 13,000 people and featured 76 films. Last year, more than 56,000 attendees clamored to the event throughout Dubai and Dubai Media City. In 2014, the DIFF is expected to once again surpass attendance records and features 118 films from 48 different countries in 34 languages.
Despite his many professional and humanitarian accomplishments, Abdulhamid Juma is a self-effacing man who considers himself, “lucky to be in Dubai and supported so passionately by the government, community and citizens.” He further credited those around him for his success, stating, “I am fueled, humbled and inspired by the creative energy that transpires when so many people are dedicated to the cause of cultural awareness using the medium of visual storytelling.”
Juma’s innate nature of fostering understanding and reconciliation is reflected when asked about his personal film favorites. The film The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick which featured stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, resonated with him so deeply that he recalls walking the streets of Dubai for hours after viewing it because he was so overcome by the message within it. The film takes the viewer along an emotional journey of a disillusioned man seeking to find a semblance of meaning about life and religion as he recalls his childhood raised by an affectionate, loving mother and distant, detached and emotionally unavailable father.
He also noted the biographical film Gandhi, in which Ben Kingsley portrayed Mohandas Gandhi, as a movie that inspired him to seek out wider avenues for dialogue via cinematic channels. Juma remarked that Gandhi’s embracement of other faiths and cultures are the very embodiment of his own personal beliefs with regard to cultural acceptance and awareness.
Despite his eclectic tastes and exposure to vast societies and ways of life, Juma remains grounded with the simple joys in life: each morning he enjoys swimming in the Arabian Gulf, buoyed by the message of connectivity among the waves that travel from shore to shore, day in and day out, continually returning to the coasts of Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran and Iraq.
You may think that a man as open-minded and thoughtful as Juma may not hold any absolutes, but you’d be mistaken. When asked what he considered the best dining in the world, he states with conviction and without hesitation, “My wife’s cooking.”
The Dubai International Film Festival runs December 10-17th, 2014.