ABU DHABI// The final curtain fell at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last night as organisers handed out US$1 million in prizes and hailed the event a success.
The festival director delighted at the audience reaction and attendance levels but for film fans, the highlight was the appearance of a host of Western and Arabic stars on the red carpet .
Uma Thurman wowed the crowd at the Emirates Palace hotel in a floor-length backless plain black gown with sparkling diamond earrings.
“It is the first time I have felt real energy coming from a festival in this region,” she said.
After completing her run down the red carpet, Thurman turned around and went back to greet her fans one more time. “I promised them,” she said and went outside to the public area where she was met with screams.
Speaking before the ceremony, Peter Scarlet, the festival’s director, said he would judge the success of the festival by reaction rather than numbers.
“On the second day, I was told we had matched the ticket sales from last year but it might not have continued that way, people could have stopped buying tickets after that day and the figures might have slumped,” he said.
“A bigger festival does not guarantee a better festival. I am more interested in the atmosphere and there is an electric buzz in the air.”
Adding an extra buzz on the red carpet last night was the British actor Jonathan Rhys Meyer, who said it was his first time in the UAE and he had enjoyed a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the F1 track on Yas Island.
Tamer Hagras, an Egyptian actor, said he was impressed with the line-up of films. He said his favourite, Miral, was a pro-Arab movie but it had a diverse range of people working on the project, which emphasised the message of unity behind the film.
That was the kind of reaction Mr Scarlet was hoping for this year, his second as the festival’s director. He said he felt an added sense of responsibility to focus on the quality of the event. “For me, there is a different spirit this year. Last year, I had only been here for four months and there was more of an apprehension about pulling off the event. This year we were more confident, but of course I wanted to make sure we concentrated on quality of films and events rather than the size.”
On paper there have been a number of notable changes, not least the festival’s new name (it was previously Middle East International Film Festival) and the inclusion of the Emirates Film Competition, the only home-grown element of the competition, into the main festival programme.
“The important thing is to realise is that the Middle East and the international film community is still what we are all about,” Mr Scarlet said.
Filmmakers from the region said they had unexpected professional experiences which would help them further their careers.
Imad Deiratany, a 36-year-old Lebanese filmmaker who has been living in Abu Dhabi for 10 years, and is studying at the capital’s New York Film Academy, said: “I came to the festival to work on my connections in the UAE but I ended up discussing opportunities with international industry people. This is excellent for me because I know in the Mena region there is no real audience for short films.”
Mr Deiratany said the festival was of utmost importance to the new generation of filmmakers in the region.
“The industry is growing and the government is starting to support it. In previous years I felt they were working on establishing the festival but now they are giving more opportunities for emerging filmmakers.
“This is encouraging for me because I am a new filmmaker and I hope to have my film here in competition next year.”
Outside of the industry, the public reaction has been positive towards the films with regional focus. Hassan Ibrahim, 29, from Syria, said he had been at the cinema every evening since the festival began and had enjoyed the films about his home country, Iraq and Iran.
“It’s great to be able to see well-made independent films which are relevant to the region,” he said. “I’ve actually been most disappointed by the Hollywood films. When you watch them after seeing so many, much more realistic films, you realise just how synthetic they can sometimes be.”
Farah Saeed, a 45-year-old mother-of-two from Egypt, said she had been to so many films she sometimes only had five minutes between screenings. She was frustrated, however, to have missed the Doug Liman film Fair Game on Thursday night as it was sold out.
“I got here 10 minutes before the start and hoped to get a ticket,” she said. “I suppose it doesn’t matter, I have seen some excellent movies so far.”
Despite all the high points, Mr Scarlet was reticent to reveal his favourite moment of the event.
“It’s not over yet; and as you know I love to improvise so maybe there will be still be some surprises,” he joked.
The final film screenings take place tomorrow, Saturday. The Abu Dhabi Theatre is hosting a family day with two films showing this afternoon and the competition-winning films being screened at Marina Mall.
The last film of the festival will be a showing of Miral, which was directed by Julian Schnabel and stars Freida Pinto. It begins at 7.15pm in Marina Mall’s Cinestar 4.