Ex-Dubai Film Festival president explains his dismissal, discusses festival inadequacies

Joseph Fahim
8 Min Read

The regional film circuit was taken by surprise when the Dubai International Film Festival committee announced that Neil Stephenson, the Canadian founder of the festival, submitted his resignation on Feb. 26, 2007.

Recently, Stephenson held his first press conference in Cairo to explain the shady, undeclared events surrounding his acquittal from the position.

At the beginning of the conference Stephenson stated that he didn’t actually resign but was, in fact, released abruptly by the new festival management for no justifiable reason.

Stephenson came up with the idea of establishing a film festival in the Emirates en route to Dubai shortly after Sept. 11, 2001 He envisioned that an international film festival held in a cosmopolitan Arab location like Dubai could act as a “cultural bridge on the world stage to heal the divide between East and West.

The first Dubai International Film Festival (Diff) was held in December 2004, clashing with the older, revered Cairo International Film Festival. It caused outrage among Egyptian film professionals who accused Diff of trying to steal the limelight from the first film festival in the Arab world, in the Egyptian capital.

Commercially, the festival was a hit, attracting major Hollywood superstars such as Morgan Freeman and Orlando Bloom among others. Critically, the festival was a disappointment; all glitz and no substance.

Despite Stephenson’s claims, the films screened at the festival over the event’s three year history thus far were considered to be of average quality. On an international level, the same films were overlooked by major, and even small, trade publications around the world.

In 2006, an Emirati entrepreneur called Abdulhamid Juma was hired as the festival s chairman. He quickly took on many key festival functions and usurped Stephenson’s role as festival director.

Juma allegedly prohibited his staff from communicating or taking orders from Stephenson. According to Stephenson’s claims, Juma went on to distort numerous facts and behaved in a “dishonest manner with him.

“The truth is that, since last August, I had to put up with regular workplace harassment, verbal abuse and completely unprofessional conduct from Juma, Stephenson told reporters in Cairo. This culminated in a sudden termination notice from him on February 26 when settlement discussions were still ongoing whereby I was trying to make a dignified and amicable departure from the festival.

The festival offered Stephenson compensation equivalent to a three months’ pay. Although Stephenson repeatedly stated that money is not the issue behind his disgruntlement, he explained that the amount of money he was offered didn t match his accomplishments and efforts. He says that it undermines the successes he felt he had achieved for the festival during the last five years.

Stephenson had tried to tell his side of the story to the Dubai press last month but was stopped from doing so by Juma, who allegedly intervened with the media and pressured them not to run Stephenson’s story.

“Juma’s actions in interfering with my right of free expression have forced me to go outside Dubai to tell my story, he said. For me, there was only one place to do this – and that is Cairo, as it is the center of the Arab film world.

Since his dismissal, Stephenson retained the services of a top Los Angeles law firm to ensure the injustice he believes to have been inflicted upon him is corrected.

Stephenson’s primary request is for the festival to acknowledge his work, grant him an open invitation to Dubai and the festival annually, and to bestow him with the title of honorary president – to be published in the festival s future press releases and history section of its web page.

Stephenson also took the opportunity to express his concern about Juma s capability of running and operating the festival to local reporters.

He cited examples of poor decision-making: Charging extra money for film screenings proved to be a big flop after tickets failed to sell. Stephenson expressed his concerns that giving way to censorship and authorities who interfere with the content of the participating movies have not only undermined the credibility of the festival. They have also confirmed that the festival is a commercial tool to publicize Dubai internationally rather than a really genuine attempt to establish and enrich the cultural life of a city many intellectuals deem to be lacking an identity.

The Q & A session held after Stephenson finished his speech received mixed reactions from Egyptian critics and reporters, some of whom were palpably hostile to a man they felt was unsuitable for the role in the first place. Some critics wondered why a foreigner, with little knowledge, experience and understanding of the Arab world and films, had been given the helm of such a major Arabic cultural event, while others suggested that an Egyptian should have been offered the position.

Esteemed Egyptian critic Samir Farid shocked the attendants later when he unveiled the actual document Stephenson s lawyer has sent to the Diff management.

Farid – who stated that he never attended the festival and is not intending to in the future due to the below average quality of its movies – criticized Stephenson s lawyer for threatening the festival s administration to unearth the dirty laundry unless his client receives the satisfactory compensation. The lawyer also argued that the festival has become a cash cow chiefly due to Stephenson s hard labor and wide network of connections. Such a claim, as Farid later commented, is unfounded as Dubai is too wealthy to depend on a festival like Diff.

On a different note, Stephenson denied the widespread rumor concerning the fat paychecks paid to Hollywood s stars to appear at the festival. We never paid the stars any money, Stephenson asserted to the stunned journalists, raising several unanswered inquiries regarding the failure of the Cairo Film Festival PR machine to attract superstars of the same ilk as those who have attended the Dubai festival.

Finally, reports surrounding the mistreatment of Egyptian stars and press were indirectly validated when an Egyptian reporter claimed that the festival never invited the Egyptian press, and intentionally humiliated and insulted those who went to cover it.

The reporter added that Egyptian stars weren t treated on equal terms with their American and Indian counterparts. According to the reporter, Egyptian celebrities were given half-board accommodation, unlike the full-board services offered to international celebrities. Meanwhile the Dubai press conferences and media insisted on ignoring Egyptian performers from day one of the festival.

Stephenson didn t deny those allegations, confessing that indeed there have been some missteps he tried to undo in subsequent years, before his discharge.

The Diff refused to comment on this article at time of publication.

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