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And it’s Off!: Abu Dhabi Breaks Out of the Gate with “Secretariat”

And it's Off!: Abu Dhabi Breaks Out of the Gate with "Secretariat"

A Disney film that opens with a verse from the Bible and features a feminist figure as its heroine doesn’t seem the likeliest of candidates to kick off the fourth edition of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. But on Thursday, Randall Wallace’s “Secretariat,” a true account of the record setting colt and his female owner, did just that.

Possibly selected to mirror the awards centric festival, which doles out numerous prizes at $100,000 apiece, “Secretariat” nonetheless proved to be a surprising choice when it was announced as the opening night film in late September.

“Secretariat” co-star John Malkovich, who was unable to attend the opening night festivities at the Emirates Palace Hotel – the glamorous hub of the festival until it wraps on October 23 – offered his own take on the film’s local appeal in a recorded address to the sold out audience.

“I know a lot of people in the Middle East, and especially in the Gulf States love horse racing,” he said. “So I hope you like it.”

The air was decidedly mixed and hard to gauge as a significant number of audience members walked out before the film even began to roll; signaling a misstep on the festival’s part, or simply a desire on the part of the deserters to get the party started outside. But, Malkovich’s hope rang true as the film progressed, with the majority in attendance cheering during “Secretariat”‘s rousing horse races – evidence that newly appointed Executive Director Peter Scarlet (previous Artistic Director of the Tribeca Film Festival) is on the ball with this year’s edition.

The scene at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival opening night party. [Photo by Nigel M. Smith/indieWIRE]

Though Scarlet expressed regret at not securing the film’s star Diane Lane, or anyone associated with the movie for the opening night festivities, a number of high profile names that included Clive Owen, Adrien Brody and Egyptian actress and television personality Yosra, were all present to lend their support. Other guests slated to appear over the course of the festival include Julianne Moore, Uma Thurman, Gerard Depardieu, Freida Pinto, Julian Schnabel, and Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami whose “Certified Copy” is receiving a Gala screening.

Another Iranian director, Jafar Panahi, had his short film “The Accordion” screen before “Secretariat,” but was unable to attend due to being detained in his home country following a release from prison last spring. In a written statement read by Scarlet, Panahi expressed gratitude for the support shown by the worldwide film community over the past six months towards his film, which premiered in Venice.

“It’s a reminder that the filmmakers and the film lovers of the world are truly a united community, speaking with one voice,” Panahi stated.

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