The weather was kind, the mood sublime as audiences and organisers alike call fifth ADFF a success.
Desert storm: Abu Dhabi Film Festival stuns, inside and out
Just a day before the fifth Abu Dhabi Film Festival swung open its doors on October 13, the executive director Peter Scarlet gave a phone interview to explain what would be going on over the next week and a half.
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Wanting to highlight the setting for one of the festival’s most eagerly awaited new additions – the giant open-air screen at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, by the creek with the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in the background – he walked over to his window to describe this rather special view. But the mosque wasn’t there. Nor was the screen. Instead, a sudden sandstorm had conquered the sky, reducing visibility to just a few metres.
The omens were not great. “The manager of the hotel got a whole bunch of staff, took what appeared to be every sheet they owned from every bed and table and they covered all 1,200 seats,” says Scarlet. “And the spirit of the sandstorm took notice, turned tail and split. An hour later it was fine.”
Thankfully, despite this troublesome warning of her unpredictability, Mother Nature managed to behave herself over the rest of the event, allowing the open-air screenings to continue uninterrupted and – barring the odd splash of high humidity – even with rather pleasant temperatures throughout.
The al fresco cinema proved one of the stars of the event, regularly busy as residents from far and wide flocked to watch a broad spectrum of films by the creekside. The Marina Mall’s VOX Cinema, too, where most of the 170-plus films were being shown, was well attended throughout the festival, empty seats few and far between over the weekend screenings. And as for the red-carpeted gala shows at the Abu Dhabi Theatre, those who hadn’t secured a ticket were forced to jostle for a place in the standby queue.
With so many films on the schedule, only someone with a working flux capacitor or a time machine could logistically watch them all. But there were still those who tried to squeeze in as much as possible: Linda Abu Awad, 33, a human resources manager, did not miss a single outdoor screening at the Fairmont, and Ahmed Ghaleb, 27, an accountant, watched all eight of the movies in the Naguib Mahfouz – Man of Cinema retrospective.
Kristina Hamza, a fashion designer and teacher living in Abu Dhabi, has seen at least 20 films over the course of the festival: “My husband was out of town for work so I had all this time to myself,” she said.
Among Hamza’s favourite films were Stockholm East, a Swedish tale of tragedy and romance; The Source, a Moroccan story of female empowerment; Poliss, a moving documentary about a child protection unit in northern Paris; Project Nim, a documentary about the efforts to train a chimpanzee to understand language; and, Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi’s live-action adaptation of her graphic novel set in 1950s Tehran.
Chicken with Plums proved a popular choice across the board, picking up the Best Narrative in the festival’s Black Pearl awards, handed out at a special ceremony on Friday night. Taking the Special Jury Award in the same category was A Separation, from Satrapi’s fellow Iranian Asghar Farhadi. The festival proved lucrative for Farhadi, with the rising star also being named Variety magazine’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year. “Considering that this country is close to mine makes the festival particularly special to me,” said Farhadi.
Even closer to home, one of the highlights of the festival was the world premiere of Sea Shadow, directed by and starring Emirati talent and produced by Image Nation, the production house owned by The National’s parent company, Abu Dhabi Media.
The coming-of-age drama, set in Ras Al Khaimah, was given a hero’s welcome and the full red carpet treatment at the Abu Dhabi Theatre.
One complaint about this year’s event was the Hollywood A-list quotient. Whereas last year Uma Thurman, Clive Owen and Adrien Brody strolled the maroon rug, this time, star-spotters were given Evan Rachel Wood, Topher Grace and Lily Cole. That said, Rupert Friend and Tilda Swinton were whisked over for the final day of the festival, giving the last night a bit of big-name buzz. Despite its dark content, Tilda Swinton’s We Need to Talk About Kevin proved another hit, with both screenings completely sold out.
But of course, festivals aren’t there solely for the general public to watch films or gawp at celebrity types. They’re a chance for filmmakers young and old, fresh-faced and weather-beaten, to mingle, exchange ideas and – hopefully – begin collaborations that could well find themselves on the festival scheduling in the future.
One interesting link-up involving an old master and a rising star was between Terry Gilliam and Rupert Friend. Both were in town with shorts – Gilliam for The Wholly Family and Friend for his directorial debut, Steve – and when it was suggested to Friend that perhaps he could learn a thing or two from Gilliam, he said they’d already hooked up.
“We’re going dune-bashing later this afternoon,” he said on Thursday. Even if they didn’t get to discuss film ideas over the splutter of engines, the idea of Friend and Gilliam dune-bashing in the UAE desert sounds like the sort of story that could well form the basis of a Gilliam film.
Short films were given a special celebration in the 10th anniversary of the Emirates Film Competition, the contest that started long before any of the UAE’s film festivals and has helped nurture the local talents who have gone on to produce such films as Sea Shadow.
Rashid Al Marri, who was at the event both for his documentary short Letters to Palestine and as a recipient of the festival’s own Sanad film fund, said the festival had “become more of a people’s festival”, building a strong support structure for young filmmakers, showcasing a broad range of films from students’ shorts up to the more established names. “It’s more approachable to the public and has caused a lot of interaction,” he said.
Letters to Palestine picked up a Special Jury Mention award, and with it Dh25,000, which Al Marri said he intended to put straight back into his next project.
Of course, in a 10-day event that requires precise timekeeping to keep the delicate cogs of its schedule well oiled, things don’t always go exactly according to plan. Before the screening of his film Trishna at the Abu Dhabi Theatre, the British director Michael Winterbottom was given a Career Excellence Award (Swinton also got one). Unfortunately, the award statuette itself was running a few minutes late and Scarlet was forced to present Winterbottom with whatever he had at hand instead, which in this instance was a box of tissues.
But by Friday night, after all the awards, prize money and paper handkerchiefs had been handed out and the final speeches made, there was a sigh of relief across the board that sandstorms had stayed away and the festival had passed smoothly with no major glitches. Despite the half-hour journey to the Marina Mall’s screens, the festival’s new hub at the Fairmont seemed a popular choice – spacious, light and with a fine, outdoor space for the nightly parties. Whether it will stay there next year remains to be seen, but the giant screen proved such a hit that it would seem silly not to revive it.
Film buffs now look forward to the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, which begins on Tuesday, and December’s Dubai International Film Festival. For Scarlet, while all these regional festivals helped to bring over films that might not be shown otherwise, the next task was to build an audience and provide a platform for such titles to be shown regularly over the rest of the year.
“The looks on the faces of the people who come to our cinemas are genuine,” he said. “They’re appreciative, they’re alert, they’re eager to have more. So I think it’s our job to make that happen.”
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