There was storytelling of a different kind at the Middle East International Film Festival on Saturday, when 80 of the capital's children, with parents in tow, were entertained by clowns, puppets and book readings before the Middle East premier of the family comedy Shorts. Children of all ages crawled around the festival tent at the Emirates Palace, which, for most of the 10-day event, is the stamping ground of filmmakers, movie executives and journalists. The youngsters played on beanbags and were kept amused with ice cream, juggling displays and readings from books by local authors, including Noura's Garden. The youngest child at the event, Samuel, was just six days old.
"It's great fun for younger ones," said Ashley Costello, who was there with her daughter Erin. "My little girl is only two years old, so it means there's something she can enjoy and something parents can do with their children, which is slightly unusual at a film festival." MEIFF's director, Peter Scarlet, proved that he knows how to play to the kids. On the way to Saturday's screening of Shorts, he spent five minutes posing for photos on the red carpet with the eight-foot-tall, stilt-walking Jo Jo the Clown. Once inside, with the audience seated, Scarlet enthusiastically bounded on to the stage and addressed the youthful crowd. He also instructed the youngsters to: "Make sure your parents have turned their phones off." Wise words, indeed.
Shorts, by the US director Robert Rodriguez, is a co-production between Warner Brothers and Abu Dhabi's multi-million-dirham film fund, Imagenation, a subsidiary of ADMC, which also owns and publishes The National. Rodriguez, who is best known not for family movies but movies such as Desperado and Sin City, was unable to attend the event because of filming commitments in Australia. One senior MEIFF official let slip that organisers had planned to set up a video link so the director could speak to the crowd, but the dual effect of technology and time zones had made this impossible.
The audience, which seemed to include about six children for every adult, was clearly impressed by the action-packed film and never seemed to lose interest. There was applause as the credits rolled, albeit not enough to suggest that the grown-up audience members were as taken with Shorts as the younger ones. The day's other big screening at the Emirates Palace was the Hindi picture Bombay Summer, staring Tannishtha Chatterjee of Brick Lane. The drama revolves around a love triangle among an upwardly mobile couple and an impoverished artist in cosmopolitan Mumbai.
Some liked the film enough to stay for a question-and-answer period with the director Joseph Matthew and some of the cast, but many audience members left halfway through the screening. A journalist from a British newspaper, who left 10 minutes before most of the audience filed out of the auditorium, said the makers of Bombay Summer seemed particularly keen to show a view of modern Mumbai in soft focus. Other audience members called it "a bit naive" and "like an advert for the Indian tourist board".
There is still an air of enthusiasm at the festival - a brilliant example of which came from the Abu Dhabi resident Shu Liang. Inspired by this year's line-up of green films, entitled What in the World Are We Doing to Our World, Liang contacted Emirates Palace to see if she could cycle to screenings and have somewhere to leave her bicycle. When staff at the hotel told her that they would not be able to look after her bike, Liang contacted festival organisers and asked them to encourage the New Zealand director Kathleen Gallagher (Earth Whisperers-Mother Earth) to join her in a protest cycle ride. We'll let you know if we hear any more.