A skyline that resembles Vegas, but less gaudy and more modern; a mall that overlooks the ocean and carries Chanel, Christian Dior and Valentino; the second most expensive hotel ever built, that holds a water slide, thirteen restaurants, and a gold dispensing machine within its marble walls. “Sex and the City 2” got one thing right: Abu Dhabi is synonymous with opulence.
It should come as no surprise then that the city’s official film festival, now in its fourth year, is among the most extravagant the world has to offer.
Previously called the Middle East International Film Festival, the freshly named Abu Dhabi Film Festival, curated by Executive Director (and former Tribeca Film Festival head) Peter Scarlet, kicked off October 14 with a screening of Randall Wallace’s uplifting “Secretariat” at the lavish Emirates Palace Hotel, the hubbub of the festival. The lushly shot Disney horse racing drama that centers on a well-to-do woman’s struggle following her father’s death, meshed well with the lavish surroundings given what fuels the film’s best sequences – horses and money.
The aura of prestige that was palpable on opening night, bled through the next few days of the festival. Stars including Clive Owen and Julianne Moore descended upon Abu Dhabi with no film to promote; likely to reap the benefits a festival with its resources has to offer. Uma Thurman is slated to make a similar appearance later this week. The endless stream of parties featured elaborate buffets; free flowing drinks, and beachfront late night camel rides.
And then there were the films, screened at three locations: the Palace; the Abu Dhabi Theater, located on a peninsula that overlooks downtown Abu Dhabi; and the Marina Shopping Mall. Among the gala screenings, Abbas Kiarostami’s Tuscany set 2010 Cannes debut, “Certified Copy,” concerns itself with the tribulations of an internationally savvy couple, well schooled on the fine art world. Francois Ozon’s endearing return to farcical comedy “Potiche,” another gala selection, stars the epitome of class herself, Catherine Deneuve, as a bored rich housewife in the ‘70s who takes it upon herself to run her husband’s umbrella factory after he’s left unfit to work when his workers stage a strike. Another French film, this one in the New Horizons competition, Lola Doillon’s royally melodramatic “In Your Hands,” features the ever reliable Kristin Scott Thomas as a wealthy surgeon who gets abducted by the husband of a deceased patient, only to fall for her captor. Meanwhile, “In a Better World,” selected for the Narrative Competition, finds Danish director Susanne Bier delving into the damaged lives of two affluent families, to explore the dangers that come with revenge.
All of the aforementioned films sit within a similar framework of portraying the strife of the world’s upper-echelon. It’s interesting then that one of the true early finds of the festival, Hammad Khan’s “Slackistan,” fits snugly in, but at the same time feels radically different simply due to its setting. The shot-on-the-fly comedy depicts the lives of a group of privileged teenagers living out a dull post grad existence in Islamabad, Pakistan, a place described in the film as “a deadbeat town if you’re young and have dreams.” They drive around town, hit up restaurants, see familiar faces they’ve grown weary of, hook up, and talk of one day doing something with their lives. Think “Reality Bites” Pakistani style. The film’s ’90s slacker vibe is achieved through a fun soundtrack that features a slew of tracks from Pakistani indie rock acts, title cards that cue the characters, and a slack narration from the lazy protagonist. With “Slackistan,” Khan has made an entertaining and by turns hilarious first feature that bodes well for his future, but not for the future of Pakistan’s rich youth.
Another strong entry that also deals with lost youth, albeit in much more dramatic fashion is Dennis Villeneuve’s galvanizing “Incendies,” screening in the Narrative Competition. Canada’s official Foreign Language Film submission to the Academy Awards race arrived in Abu Dhabi following rave notices in Venice, Toronto and Telluride, which made it one of the hottest tickets at the festival. Based on the play of the same name by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad, the time hopping narrative traces the horrific discoveries a pair of Montreal-based siblings make about their Lebanese mother’s past life in the Middle East, and the brother they never knew they had.
Of the films to have their world premieres at the fest, Michael Greenspan’s “Wrecked,” starring Adrien Brody, was arguably the highest profile one to screen within the first few days of the festival, given its star was on full display for the premiere and subsequent Q&A. In what is for the most part a one-man show, Brody plays a man who wakes up severely injured in the passenger seat of a car planted in the middle of a forest, with no sense of how he got there, two dead bodies in the vehicle, and a bag of cash in the trunk. Greenspan takes a while to get to the big reveal, which in the end doesn’t amount to much, but the fun in the film lies in the slow unraveling of the mystery, and the lengths to which Brody’s characters goes to get his answers.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival continues through to October 23, with award winners in all categories to be announced later in the week. Click here to view the festival’s site.