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Middle East Film & Comic Con proves the Force is strong in Dubai

A cosplayer attends the Middle East Film & Comic Con in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The convention, in its fifth year, has seen its attendance increase dramatically since its inception.
(Ali Haider / European Pressphoto Agency)

The glitzy boulevards of this Middle Eastern Shangri-La are better known for over-the-top cars and construction projects simmering under the desert sun, but this weekend it was Geek Culture that took center stage.

Legions of self-proclaimed nerds, comic-book addicts and manga maniacs descended on Dubai for three days ending Saturday to take part in the Middle East Film & Comic Con, or MEFCC, widely proclaimed as the region’s top pop-culture convention.

Although the event is in its fifth year, 2016’s MEFCC was a special one: The UAE is still flush from the excitement of being one of the shooting locations for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” where Abu Dhabi’s rolling sand dunes filled in for the desert planet Jakku.

That excitement brought out more Reys, Obi-Wans and Kylo Rens than you could shake a lightsaber at, even though the “Star Wars” saga’s penchant for black-robed, masked villains made for moments of confusion alongside the traditional black covering, the abaya, donned by women in the Emirates.

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This year’s con is also the biggest one to date, with an estimated 60,000 people to have made their way to Dubai’s World Trade Center.

“The journey we’ve taken is incredible in the five years since this began, but it’s all down to the fans and the enthusiasm,” said a visibly exhausted Ben Caddy, chief executive of the Alliance, the convention’s promoter, at a news conference Friday.

The sentiment was echoed by screenwriter and director Max Landis, who attended the MEFCC for his fifth year in a row and hosted the cosplay competition.

“The commonality of this con has always been the sheer level of enthusiasm of the people here,” he said, “and how not jaded and not rude and not cynical this con is compared to cons in America.”

Landis reminisced about the days when Dubai’s convention was held in what appeared to be “a backyard” and the attendees numbered “less than those at this press conference.”

“There was this vibe that was electric,” Landis said. “I’ve watched this con grow exponentially, but the energy is the same.”

Landis also talked about the cosplay experience in a country like the Emirates, where the conservative wardrobe habits of the locals may grate on the country’s sizable expatriate population, not to mention the more risqué elements of some superhero costumes.

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“Stateside, there is a cosplay community that is very exclusionary and very intense and competitive, but here you see girls in hijab with Darth Vader masks,” he said. “That’s moving.”

Also on hand was Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” He spoke about the “hunger and passion” he saw at the MEFCC.

“There was a kid, 15 years old, and he just gave me a little book he made, a comic book.... It just blew my mind,” Coster-Waldau said.

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One of MEFCC’s mandates is to give a platform to local and regional talent. As such, many of the convention’s booths feature local artists who, like their comic-book heroes, have “normal” day jobs and alter egos, relegating the use of their “superpowers” to nights and weekends.

“I went out shopping three years ago and couldn’t find any cool T-shirts that were local,” said Jacob Varkey, a 33-year old engineer and unapologetic nerd who works in Dubai.

He took matters into his own hands, joining forces with his wife, Priyanka, and starting Juswearit, a design house that makes T-shirts and cellphone covers aimed at “introducing Dubai to geek culture.”

“The demand was always there,” explained Varkey. “What it lacked was the entrepreneurial activity we now have.”

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Juswearit now has competitors (including one clothing purveyor who put a Darth Vader head with “Luke, I am your Sheikh” on the front), but “that’s a good thing for the community,” Varkey said.

Others have pioneered an independent gaming industry in the Emirates, like 29-year old Fakhra Al-Mansouri, head of the Abu Dhabi-based games studio Hybrid Humans.

“When I went to the municipality office, I was told I was the first gaming company registered in the Emirates,” she said, smiling at the memory.

She decided to make games because “they can change a person, send a message, and also entertain.”

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Although the Emirates has been successful in attracting big-budget Hollywood productions to the country (“Star Trek: Beyond” wrapped up shooting in Dubai in December), MEFCC also brought Arab film industry professionals working on local productions.

“We want to give local talent a chance to work in the industry here,” said Abeer Abu Shmeis, a marketing executive for “The Worthy,” an action-thriller from the Emirates-based production house Image Nation Abu Dhabi.

“The Worthy,” which features actors from Arab countries and is set in a dystopian future where clean water has become virtually impossible to find, was meant to attract local audiences who wouldn’t necessarily be attracted to big-budget Arab films.

“Let’s face it, a lot of people here don’t really watch Arab cinema and have a bad impression of it,” Abu Shmeiss said. Image Nation Abu Dhabi, she said, has also launched an awareness campaign aimed at encouraging moviegoers to support their local film industry.

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For the Record

An early version of this article said Abu Smeiss worked for Seven Media. She works for Image Nation Abu Dhabi.

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But for many, MEFCC was really about one thing: Meeting the stars from some of their favorite shows and movies, many of whom had no clue they had such a loyal fan base in the tiny emirate.

“All this is news to me, and it’s really exciting to be here,” said Coster-Waldau when asked if he expected the enthusiasm he encountered at the convention.

But the undisputed king of the celebrity guests was Christopher Lloyd, famous for his role as Emmett “Doc” Brown in the “Back to the Future” trilogy.

One fan, nervously toying with the microphone before he asked Lloyd his question, could barely contain himself.

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“You’re one of my childhood heroes,” he gushed. “Seeing you here, it’s a dream come true.”

calendar@latimes.com


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