CELEBRITY Obituary: Sheila Whitaker was passionate about the Middle East
The film scholar and Dubai film festival programmer died on Monday in London
British film scholar Sheila Whitaker, who was also the Dubai International Film Festival’s international programmer since its inception, was a passionate film lover and an activist who had a special place in her heart for the Middle East, friends and colleagues said.
Whitaker died on Monday in London after a long unspecified illness.
“At the hospital she was in, she was listening to Fairuz and Umm Khultum, much to the surprise of her nurses,” said Abdulhamid Juma, the chairman of Diff. “While she was our eyes to Western films, her knowledge of Arab cinema and culture was unparalleled. She loved anything to do with the Middle East.”
In a heartfelt tribute posted on Diff’s website, artistic director Masoud Amrallah Al Ali said Whitaker dedicated her life to understanding cinema from emerging industries.
“From the Arab world, Iran and Latin America, she engaged with the people of those regions, with their culture and true nature. She knew them well and she formed so many friendships,” he wrote.
Whitaker worked as the director of the London Film Festival from 1987 to 1996 and head of programming at the London’s National Film Theatre from 1984 to 1990. She joined Diff for its first festival in 2004. She is also the recipient of the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres or the Order of Arts and Letters from the government of France, an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of Newcastle and an Honorary Doctorate of Law by the University of Warwick.
“She was an integral part of the team since day one and we are incredibly fortunate and honoured to have benefitted from her remarkable wealth of knowledge, integrity, passion and enthusiasm over the years,” Juma told tabloid! on Tuesday.
He said she taught him how to look at films from a different perspective.
“When her and Masoud and I travelled to watch films we are considering for the festival, my favourite times were the discussions I had with her. Even if I looked at a film a certain way, she would start talking and shake my entire perspective. She gave me that ability to watch films differently.”
Whitaker was a hard bargainer and was never afraid to speak her mind, said Juma.
“She would fight for her ideas and what she believed in and would make sure to say what she thinks. But she was also flexible and always had a solution for conclusion.”
Her background and connections were essential to Diff’s success when she was just starting out, added Juma.
“When she asked for a film from somebody, whether it’s a huge studio or an independent producer, it was very difficult for them to say no. That’s how respected she was in the industry.”
In one of her many interviews with tabloid! during her time with DIFF, Whitaker shared the details of her job.
“It is a difficult job, because I have to choose films from some of the biggest movie industries in the world. I watch hundreds of films throughout the year and then have to select just 25 for DIFF. It really isn’t an easy task,” she said. “When I watch a movie it is important for me to think about all the aspects of the movie and film making.
“I must consider the budget, the time it took and really try and understand what the director is trying to say.”
Tributes poured out on social media following the news of her death.
Qatar’s Doha Film Institute tweeted: “DFI offers its sincerest condolences to family, friends & colleagues of Sheila Whitaker, director of the International Program at @dubaifilm”.
Egyptian author and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif, whose bestseller The Map of Love was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999, posted: “Sheila Whitaker, my very good friend and brave comrade. RIP.”
The Palestine Festival of Literature said Whitaker, a board member, was “motivated by a longstanding commitment to justice for Palestine”.
“Sheila was a veteran of the film industry,” the organisation posted on its Facebook page. “She volunteered with the International Solidarity Movement, before joining the team that put together the very first PalFest. Sheila gave unreservedly of her time and her effort to PalFest and to Palestine over the past six years. We shall miss her.”
Diff’s Juma said Whitaker was looking forward to this year’s festival, its 10th anniversary, in December.
“The last time I spoke to her, she was really excited about the landmark for us… But now her soul will be with us.”
He said a special tribute will be organised for her.
“It’s still too early to plan anything because it’s a very sad day for all of us. But the team will deliver a beautiful festival to remember Sheila,” he said.