x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Avatar aliens and Emirati film royalty at festival opening

Who was seen and what was overheard at the opening of the film festival.

City of Life director Ali Mustafa.
City of Life director Ali Mustafa.

During the opening red-carpet event for Monsieur Lazhar at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr on Thursday night, an American teenager was asked to stop screaming "this is flipping awesome!" as the sheikhs arrived.

Later, at the festival's opening party, there were a few odd sights to behold. Although glittering dresses and sharp suits were very much the order of the day, a couple of attendees were wandering around with their faces done up to look like Na'vi characters from Avatar, courtesy of the talented Make Up Forever artists.

However, having not gone fully blue all over, they tended to look a little more like David Bowie alter egos than James Cameron aliens. So imagine our surprise when, at the end of the night, we stumbled into the elevators to find two aliens, in skimpy costume and blue from head to toe with sparkling yellow eyes, staring at us from the dark depths within. Their tails flicking, their pointy ears twitching and their teeth a bright white against the sparkling azure of their skin, we had to pinch ourselves to make sure we hadn't stumbled into an alternate reality.

As for the dominant chatter at the party, much of it was devoted to film, dresses and which food stall had the shortest queue, but there was still space for some interesting debate in other realms. One group of curious attendees sitting on the grass were overheard discussing Mother Nature and the grand scale of many of her creations, prompting this perplexing observation: "A jockey can swim through veins of a white whale." The next day, among all the fashion and glamour, the festival's VIP Lounge - set up in a luxurious, two-room suite at the Fairmont - was the stage for a chance encounter between two generations of Emirati film talent. While rummaging through the HD foundation stand of the Make Up Forever exhibit, the UAE acting stalwart Huda Al Khatib ran into the City of Life director Ali Mustafa. "Where have you been?" Al Khatib demanded. "I didn't see you last night and I was talking about you!"

Mustafa shyly mumbled an excuse that included something about working studio. They both promised to keep in touch about future projects.

Later on Friday afternoon, there was an impressive turnout for the screening of Werner Herzog's documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, with barely a spare seat available at Marina Mall's Vox Cinemas. The film - which captures the prehistoric drawings of France's Chauvet Cave in stunning 3D - was a thought-provoking affair, imagining what life must have been like for those ancient artists some 30,000 years ago. Herzog's comparison during the film of an ancient image of a woman with the rather more contemporary viewings on Baywatch received perhaps the biggest laugh of the festival's first day.

Later that evening, how to put your translator off her game: shove a video camera in her face. Which is exactly what the charming director Philippe Falardeau did during the introduction at Vox 5 on Friday of his excellent film Monsieur Lazhar. Fortunately, the translator managed to see past the camcorder, which was eventually put to its intended purpose - creating a record of the audience shouting "Abu Dhabi Film Festival" for Falardeau's personal archive.

Despite the packed crowds, an upside of holding the film festival in Marina Mall is the excellent shopping - but beware the danger of a credit card and an unfamiliar currency. Falardeau declared during his introduction that he was off to hit the shops during the movie, but was visibly chastened on his return for the Q&A. One bright spark in the audience piped up to ask how much he'd spent. His reply? "More than I should have."

Across town, at the Fairmont's outdoor screening of the Swedish film Stockholm East on Friday night, the breeze from the creek provided a welcome respite from the humidity; many of the female audience members watching had shawls and cardigans to ward off a cool bite to the air that almost had a hint of autumn in it. The view of the outdoor screening area from the Fairmont's lobby is breathtaking: it's worth heading down to the hotel just to get a peek at the venue, especially just at sunset, when the purple and black-clad chairs make a striking statement against the blue of the water.

Post-film, as we mingled with the audience members and eavesdropped, all we could hear was praise for the drama they had just watched; a sophisticated take on tragedy, rebirth and true love that is built on a foundation of lies.

Alex Ritman, Christopher Lord, Karl Smith, Hala Khalaf and Saeed Saeed