It's easy to get distracted while assessing the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. There's the oil and all that it's purchased; the subtle rivalry with neighboring Dubai; the United Arab Emirates and its ruling sheik. However, Abu Dhabi appears to be succeeding in a way that can't be measured in dollars or by who has the tallest skyscraper.
In its fifth year, Abu Dhabi has accomplished something that can be a struggle for festivals four times older: It's captured the imagination of its host city. Cab drivers, kids, mall shoppers, hotel workers and ex-pats were all aware of, if not excited about the festival, thanks in part to the scores of branded banners flapping in the scorched desert breeze, as well as the local media’s breathless blow-by-blow coverage.
However, the underlying reason for the success may stem from a strategic, if risky, decision: While Abu Dhabi loves celebrity as much as any festival, it's locals -- both the filmmakers and the audience -- that get top priority.
The festival has established itself on three fronts: First, it's a platform for emerging Arab cinema; second, it's a pipeline into the region for celebrated international festival favorites; and third, it's a platform for some soon-to-be-released guilty pleasures and their accompanying celebrities-in-training.
Executive director and festival veteran Peter Scarlet set the tone by selecting Canada’s Oscar submission, “Monsieur Lazhar” from director Philippe Falardeau, as the opening night film. Touching and poignant, “Monsieur Lazhar” is the story of Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian refugee who becomes the substitute teacher at a school dealing with the suicide of his predecessor. Opening night films are too often forgettable trifles, with organizers frequently opting for celebrity sizzle over steak, but the choice of “Monsieur Lazhar”, which has already won awards at the Toronto and Locarno film festivals, demonstrated a refreshing respect for the sophistication of local tastes.
It was a great kickoff to the next nine days, an ambitious program of 88 features from 44 countries making their debut in the region, including eight world premieres and six premiering outside of their country of origin. And, amounting to what must have been a cat-herding exercise for organizers, eight sections competed for the Black Pearl Awards, with some 30 jurors bestowing several hundred thousand dollars among 43 prizes.
Leading that pack, the narrative feature competition featured relatively established filmmakers who had debuted their most recent offerings at Cannes, Venice and Toronto, including Lynne Ramsay with “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (USA), Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s “Chicken With Plums” (France/Germany/Belgium), Avie Luthra’s “Lucky” (South Africa) and Ismael Ferroukhi with “Free Men” (France/Morocco), among others.
The main competition had a distinctively regional flavor, with entries from Tunisia, Morocco, Iran and the UAE all bolstering the notion that cinema from this part of the world can and should hold its own against established masters like David Cronenberg, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Arturo Ripstein and Michael Winterbottom.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival also presents the New Horizons/AFAQ Jadida Competition, a 12-film contest for emerging, first- or second-time filmmakers. Again, the program here leans heavily on Arab-themed work and featured the highest percentage of the festival’s world premieres, including Sam Neave’s “Almost In Love” (USA), a night of emotional transformation for a group of New York hipsters that plays out in just two conjoined takes.
Also premiering in the New Horizons section, Egyptian director Amr Salama returns to the festival with “Asma’a” after a successful debut here in 2008 with “On A Day Like Today” and the UAE’s own Nawaf Al-Janahi with “Sea Shadow.” Both of these up-and-coming filmmakers are good examples of not only the potential that exists in young filmmakers from the region, but also in the film festival’s commitment to providing a greenhouse where their talents can be nurtured as well as admired.
However, the general buzz among badge-holders at the Vox Theatres in the Marina Mall (the festival’s workhorse venue, where many of the screenings took place) was that the two Scandinavian titles in the section -- “She Monkeys” (Sweden), a debut from director Lisa Aschan, and the deadpan, brilliant Sundance mockumentary “Troll Hunter” (Norway) by André Øvredal -- were the strongest titles in the section.
In 2010, the festival set up the SANAD (which means “support” in Arabic) fund, awarding a total of $500,000 annually in development and post-production grants to feature-length narrative and documentary projects from the Arab region. Several of these projects, including “Death for Sale” by Faouzi Bensaïdi (Morocco) and “In My Mother's Arms” by Atia and Mohamed Al-Daradji (Iraq) celebrated their world premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival, while the Egyptian documentary “Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad and The Politician” by Amr Salama, Ayten Amin and Tamer Ezzat had its North American premiere in Toronto.
Documentaries also play a big role in the lineup, with an emphasis on environmental films. This effort is commendable, but it still feels awkward in a country that's dependent on the combustion engine, where recycling bins are nowhere to be found and where frigid air conditioning is a common topic of casual conversation.
That said, competing for the $15,000 One World award were festival circuit-favorite James Marsh’s “Project Nim” (USA), the utterly frightening “Beijing Besieged By Waste” (China), “If A Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front” (USA) which debuted at Sundance and Germany’s “Taste The Waste” about the tons of perfectly good food thrown away around the world every day. These films seemed to be programmed as jarring wake-up-calls; their rebellious sensibilities, while welcome, seemed subversively at odds with the reminders of modernity, luxury and convenience that are everywhere in Abu Dhabi.
It’s no surprise that Abu Dhabi welcomed several festival favorites, including “Dark Horse” (Todd Solondz and lead actor Jordan Gelber made the trip), “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” “Contagion,” “Albert Nobbs,” “A Dangerous Method” and “The Ides Of March.” All found eager audiences, as did a healthy smattering of young Hollywood including Topher Grace (here for the world premiere of Michael Brandt’s thriller “The Double,” produced in part by Abu Dhabi’s Imagenation) and the red carpet-candy pairing of Lily Cole and Sarah Bolger, here with Mary Harron’s so-so teen vampire venture “The Moth Diaries.” The actresses gamely accepted the first Black Pearl Rising Star Awards in a hastily arranged prescreening presentation.
However, one of the festival's highlights was a special screening of Georges Méliès' 1902 masterpiece “A Trip To The Moon,” lovingly restored ahead of its coming-out party in Cannes this past May and featuring an original score by the French electronic rock duo Air. (They were on hand to discuss scoring the film and their creative process in a free master class, “Scoring The Moon.”)
This 16-minute psychedelic wonder (“The ‘Avatar’ of its day” as Air’s Jean-Benoit Dunkel put it), was part of a program of silent shorts, “Saved From The Flames,” presented by the hugely entertaining film historian Serge Bromberg. With the help of a borrowed lighter, he enthusiastically demonstrated the flammable properties of nitrate film to the delighted squeals of many children in a packed house.
Bromberg also introduced the very earliest travel films from the region as well as bizarre experimental silent films and even a long-lost 1923 Buster Keaton short “The Love Nest.” He expertly accompanied each film on the piano, proving himself a showman much in the style of Méliès himself.
In many ways, this special program demonstrated both a playfulness and depth to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s selections. It reminded us that, away from the red-carpet cacophony, the acquisition speculations and the awards anticipation, a good film festival must inspire us to fall in love, all over again, with great cinema.
Christian Gaines heads up Festival Strategy for Withoutabox, a division of IMDb.com.