Last May, when Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun al Nahyan and Mohamed Khalaf Al-Mazrouei of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage announced the formation of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission to build a local film infrastructure and promote international investment — with a vision of business and art meshing cultural and political differences to promote a film industry in Abu Dhabi — the International festival community was met with another festival on its calendar. Abu Dhabi’s first Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) in the United Arab Emirates (October 14 – 19, 2007) leapt onto the circuit big time with a winning formula of big prizes, industry heavyweights and international programming.
After launching a film commission, film school and film fund, the fest was formed and the duo recruited established festival organizer Jon Fitzgerald, a veteran of Slamdance and AFI Fest to produce an event with an emphasis on the financial incentives and venture capital available to building a film infrastructure in Abu Dhabi. Fitzgerald’s international team began to program and most importantly establish the first annual convention of the Film Financing Circle (FFC) — an initiative to bring together filmmakers and film financiers from all over the world to Abu Dhabi. He was joined by LA producer Adrienne Briggs to tap industry insiders. Briggs opened up her little black book of contacts and convinced top-level executives to come and share their nknowledge with the Abu Dhabi investiment community and fledgling UAE producers, writers and directors. After the announcement of a major deal with Warner Bros., the International film business community knew that Mohamed Khalaf Al-Mazrouei was putting capital where it mattered.
Briggs organized an eye-raising assortment of powerbrokers to lend their expertise and ears, each hosted with first class airfare, all expenses paid at the seven star Emirates Palace hotel, not to mention the opportunity to meet with locals with checkbook power. An impressive list accepted the invitation to discuss finance and production including — Croatian producer Branko Lusting (“Black Hawk Down,” “Gladiator”), Warner Independent‘s Paul Federbush, Relativity Media‘s Ryan Kavanaugh (“The Pursuit of Happiness“), producer Deepak Nayar (“Lost Highway,” “The End of Violence”), producer Nansun Shi, BBC Films‘ David Thompson, Al-Arabia‘s Isaad Younis, and Harvey Weinstein on board to deliver the keynote discussion.
Weinstein was a powerful role model of how to do business in the Arab World, telling the gathering, “Trust your investments with producers with a track record. We will look to make films that start local but have a universal appeal.” Like the other participants in Abu Dhabi, Weinstein made ample use of the Emirates Palace, a three and a half billon dollar architectural wonder and site of all the Film Festival activities.
The programming team included Nancy Collet for International films. She put her emphasis on the festival’s Intentional outreach including a four film Indian spotlight, a tribute to Spanish Director Carlos Saura and an in memoriam tribute to Africa film pioneer Ousame Sembene. Her selections also highlighted the political reality of the Middle East. To this end she and Fitzgerald’s screened Brian De Palma‘s Venice award winner “Redacted,” the Jake Gyllenhaal topped “Rendition,” and Paul Haggis‘ “In the Valley of Elah,” a searing indictment of the American public’s ignorance of the consequences of the invasion of Iraq.
Competition films were an international mix including films from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Demark, Cambodia, France, Austria/Germany, Morocco, Mexico and the U.S. Responsible for the Arab division was the well-known Egyptian critic Samir Farid. His selection spotlighted Amer Al Zuhar‘s controversial, Kuwaiti-banned documentary “When the People Spoke,” about the face-off between the Muslin moderates and fundamentalists about gender equality and a woman’s right to vote and hold political office in Kuwait. Also, the festival crowd-pleaser with western potential Farida Bourquia‘s “Two Women On the Road,” about how two Muslim women, one very secular and one traditional, finding out what they have in common.
To give clout to Mohamed Khalaf Al-Mazrouei’s desire to attract local talent to build a film infrastructure, Fitzgerald and Briggs created a master class Haggis, whose “Elah” closed the festival. Haggis pulled no punches as he took seriously his role to tell the truth about how to succeed in the film business.
“Unless you have a story to tell, all the money in the world will not make a difference,” Haggis said, “Your script must be something that is authentic to your own experience. Do not try to replicate Hollywood movies, make a movie that is true to your own lives.” He answered one would-be director’s question about how to direct, saying, “You learn by doing all the aspects of filmmaking, you must understand what it means for example to be a grip. You do not start at the top. Nothing will help you realize your vision on a soundstage more than knowing how all aspects of directing a film works. Learn how to listen and to talk to your producer so as to not antagonize the relationship and still be true to your own self.”
Abu Dhabi calls it self the richest city in the world and MEIFF brought together local investment capital with the CCF industry leaders. At the closing night gala a buzz of deals and business friendships fostered by the festival was the talk of the illuminati dancing and eating the night away.