MUMBAI: The founder and former CEO of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) has filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against two senior officials of the festival “for their deplorable and despicable behavior,” charging they illegally conspired to engineer his ouster-after which they tried to ruin his reputation by branding him a “racist” and an “Arab-hater,” despite the fact that he had lived and worked in the Arab world for 10 years.
The suit charges DIFF chairman Abdulhamid Juma and DIFF Managing Director Shivani Pandya with defamation, intentional interference with contractual relations, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and conspiracy for their roles in forcing DIFF founder and CEO Neil Stephenson’s exit last February from the film festival that he originated and turned into the most prestigious event of its kind in the Middle East.
Stephenson is seeking at least $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages from both defendants.
“Motivated solely by his affection for Dubai and his desire to build a ‘cultural bridge’ between the West and the Middle East, Neil Stephenson conceived and created a new cultural institution that put Dubai on the film festival map. Mr. Stephenson has not only been deprived of his position, but also of the credit for what he has accomplished. Because of his love for Dubai and his many friends in the UAE, Mr. Stephenson is not taking any action against the festival itself or any Dubai organization. But he cannot and will not accept the acts of those responsible for his exit and defamation of his character,” said Liner Yankelevitz Sunshine & Regenstreif LLP, Stephenson’s attorney, Michael Weinsten.
According to the lawsuit, Juma went to extraordinary lengths to undermine Stephenson’s position and discredit him professionally in an effort to take credit for DIFF’s success-even though the festival was Stephenson’s idea and it was Stephenson who actually ran it from the beginning.
Among other things, the complaint states, Juma arbitrarily stripped Stephenson of authority over DIFF staff, barred him from introducing films at the festival, forbade him to speak to the press on behalf of the festival, and repeatedly subjected him to hostile behavior and personal insults in an effort to induce his departure.
Juma even commissioned an outside consulting firm to conduct a management survey in the hope that it would validate Juma’s hypothesis that Stephenson was an incompetent manager who had lost the respect of his colleagues. Ironically, the survey results gave Stephenson a favorable evaluation, finding that the only executive at DIFF who had any problem with him was Juma.
Eventually, the complaint notes, Juma banned Stephenson from the DIFF offices and then issued a press release falsely announcing that he had resigned to pursue other interests. When Stephenson attempted to hold a press conference to set the record straight, Juma had his representatives tell the media that Stephenson was a “racist” and an “Arab-hater” who routinely mistreated Arab guests at the Dubai festival.
Juma and Stephenson first crossed paths early in 2003, nearly a year after Stephenson proposed the idea of a Dubai film festival to a senior member of Dubai’s royal family. The Sheikh liked Stephenson’s idea of the festival as a “cultural bridge” that could foster mutual respect and understanding between the West and the Middle East and he agreed to serve as its patron.
Upon learning of this, Juma, who was then CEO of Dubai Media City, announced his own plans for a commercial, for-profit Bollywood/Hollywood film festival for Dubai, to be run in partnership with Mahmud Sipra, a Pakistani film producer who was CEO of Premier Event Management. Rather than compete with each other, the two festivals agreed to join forces under the Sheikh’s patronage as the Dubai International Film Festival, with Mr. Stephenson serving as CEO and Festival Director, reporting to Juma under the aegis of Dubai Media City’s parent company, TECOM (Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority). When it was later discovered that Premier Event Management was connected to a bank fraud case in Britain, TECOM terminated its contract with Premier, discarded Juma’s idea for a commercial event, and fully adopted Stephenson’s “cultural bridge” festival.
Using the cultural bridge theme, the first Dubai International Film Festival was held in December 2004 and was generally regarded as a great success. Several months later, Juma departed the organization, leaving Stephenson in sole charge of the festival. According to the lawsuit, Juma later acknowledged to Stephenson that he had no clue how to run a film festival and that the successful inaugural festival would never have happened without Stephenson.
The second DIFF, held in December 2005, was even more successful than the first one. In praising Stephenson for his efforts, the Director General of TECOM referred to him as the Godfather of DIFF and noted that DIFF was his baby.
Nonetheless, TECOM created a Media Commission in May 2006 to oversee DIFF — and in August 2006 it brought Juma back to serve as TECOM Deputy Director General and DIFF Chairman.
Juma wasted no time in making his intentions clear. The press release announcing his return described him as the founder of DIFF, and he told Stephenson that he regarded their relationship as a one-way street, asserting: “I am the boss.”
Juma’s campaign to force Stephenson out, launched with the assistance of Pandya, whom Stephenson had appointed DIFF Managing Director in May 2006, began shortly thereafter.
Prior to founding DIFF, Stephenson was Director of Business Development at Turner Broadcasting and based in Atlanta, Georgia. Prior to that, he had worked as a lawyer in Canada and Dubai. He holds four university degrees, including a law degree from Canada and an MBA from INSEAD in France. He is currently developing a new cultural project and speaks frequently at film industry events.