x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Scarlet fever

Peter Scarlet, the new director of Abu Dhabi's Middle East International Film Festival, talks about plans to educate cinema goers.

Peter Scarlet
Peter Scarlet

Six months ago Peter Scarlet was named the new director of Abu Dhabi's Middle East International Film Festival (Meiff). He is, it's fair to say, a formidably experienced film exhibitor, fresh from a long stint at the helm of the New York Tribeca Film Festival. He is the only American ever to direct the Cinémathèque Franaise. Under his tenure, the fortunes of the once ailing San Francisco Film Festival were reversed. He set up a film institute in Northern California seemingly by accident. In short, he has a way of getting things done. Even so, six months isn't very long.

"A serious festival is a year-round job," he explains when we meet at Meiff's headquarters for the first time back in August. "It's funny, because people's impression of all festivals is usually that it ends and then you either go sit on a beach somewhere... Or like Nosferatu in Murnau's film, your coffin is lowered into moist soil and you're kept away from the sun." Not so, apparently. "The ideal for me," he says, "has always been Fred Astaire. Fred Astaire made it look very easy: you watched Fred dance and thought: 'Wow, he's just glidin' though there.' And if you read anything about Fred Astaire you know that he worked his tail off. Every move, and every move of the camera, every bit of lighting, was planned. But the audience wasn't supposed to know that."

Will Meiff achieve that same illusion of ease when it opens next week? Scarlet makes a wry face. "I think we're going to do a fantastic festival in October... October 2010. What we do in October 2009 will, with the best charitable impulses of you and our viewers, be the beta version of the festival." This sounds like pessimistic stuff, especially coming from Scarlet, a man who gives a vaguely Astairean impression of gliding through life, or at any rate bouncing over it powered by natural ebullience. He's a good specimen of the Manhattanite intellectual: at once bracingly elitist and breezily coarse, the kind of guy who, to go one better than the famous scene in Annie Hall, would think nothing of dragging Marshall McLuhan out of bed to settle an argument in a cinema queue. Pity the poor saps who have wasted his time on their sub-standard films. "They should be waiting tables or driving taxis or doing anything else but making films," he fumes. "And the only way you can tell that is by looking at at least a few minutes or their dreadful work."

In our first interview he spends several minutes pointedly anatomising the rotten state of contemporary film journalism, twice threatening in jovial cinematic connoisseurship tones to throw me out of the window and once suggesting that he might jump himself. Nonetheless, I come away with the impression that we get on quite well. Scarlet's arm-waving and scenery-chomping and comedically inflected fits of exasperation seem like showmanship.

That was August. By September the programme had yet to be unveiled, press releases were being sent out and then rescinded and it looked as though the beta version's bugs were manifesting themselves earlier than expected. Yet the line-up itself, now that it has emerged, is extremely impressive. The headline selections, gala screenings of the new George Clooney and Matt Damon films (The Men Who Stare At Goats and The Informant! respectively) represent the Hollywood mainstream at its most incisive, at least if early reviews are to be believed. Half the competition slate is made up of films from the Middle East and North Africa, and three films were completed with the help of Meiff funds. The great Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, the most celebrated filmmaker yet to emerge from the region, had been lined up to chair the feature prize jury. In all, Scarlet's programme suggests a fine balance of the cerebral and the glitzy, and promises a festival that is genuinely rooted in the culture of the region. Of course, in the best Fred Astaire style, this is no accident.

"One of the reasons I'm here," Scarlet says, "is that storytelling began in this part of the world. That the people in this part of the world should have an opportunity to continue to tell their stories [...] seems to me to be something devoutly to be wished. Why should people here only get a chance to see films about American screens or American stories or European screens or European stories? They've got their own stories here." The jab at western cinema here is typical Scarlet: in particular, the US film industry's global dominance is one of his recurring bêtes noires. Reflecting on last year's Meiff, he says: "It seemed to me that perhaps Hollywood was over-present as an exemplar. I don't think that if you want to make a film here, Michael Bay or even Christopher Nolan is going to be your example."

A month later I meet him at his home to talk through the festival programme, and he laments: "American cinema is so enormous that if there's a multiplex in your town - if there's a multiplex in this town - that shows nothing but American films, where do you get a chance to sample something else? That's what's damn tough; in many places impossible. It's been impossible here." But, he says: "I'm hoping to change that."

It will, by his own admission, be a big job. What's required is nothing less than the creation from the ground up of a culture of cinematic connoisseurship in the UAE. "To the best of my knowledge there's no education in cinema, media literacy of any kind," he said. "People consume films at malls" - spoken with a theatrical shudder - "and apart from Hollywood and Bollywood hits, there's not much else on offer." In a certain respect this is a good thing. "Here we could show the movies that excited us, when we first got excited about cinema, to an audience that will be discovering it, too," Scarlet says. In New York no one is surprised by anything. "Everybody's, you know, 'Sunrise - yeah, so what?' People aren't blasé here or cynical, and I think that's a big opportunity.

Scarlet's in a good position to make the comparison with New York, of course, having spent the past seven years as programmer and subsequently artistic director at Tribeca. He earned a reputation for pushing knotty independent work in preference to blockbuster fare, an art-over-commerce approach that established Tribeca as one of the loftier events on the festival circuit. He left amid the merry-go-round of hirings and resignations that followed Jeff Gilmore's departure from Sundance. Gilmore ended up at Tribeca; Scarlet pleaded "seven-year itch" and took the Abu Dhabi job. This might sound like rather an arbitrary move, but in fact Scarlet has close personal ties to the region. His wife is the Iranian journalist Katayoun Beglari-Scarlet; he has a long-standing friendship with the director Abbas Kiarostami. One can see how Meiff might have struck him, as he says, as a big opportunity.

All the same, the Middle East's own film industry will need coaxing into life. To that end, Scarlet plans to provide education, funding and a stream of inspiring models. One of the sidebar categories in this year's festival, for example, is a selection of recent Turkish dramas. "There's been a lot of interesting work coming out of Turkey in the last few years," he says. "It's not influenced by the model of Hollywood. And it's from a country that is close to being a neighbour. So since one of our missions here is to support and encourage the growth of filmmaking in the Emirates, we thought that to show work like this from a country nearby could be an interesting example."

As far as more direct stimulation of the local film industry goes, Scarlet has made an early start. The Circle Conference, with its associated $100,000 (Dh367,000) screenwriting prize, has been brought under Meiff's aegis. Three films in the current festival were completed with the help of a new contingency fund: a documentary about Iraq titled Son Of Babylon, made by Mohamed al Daradji; Port Of Memory, a film about life in Haifa from the Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari; and We Were Communists, a film about Lebanese radicalism made by Maher Abi Samra. "We scraped together some money to allow them to get finished in time to be shown here," Scarlet says. "I think we will probably mount a full-scale production fund project next year."

Then there's education. This year's festival programme includes four masterclasses, three of which deal with film music. There's more where they came from. Scarlet tells me about a project he ran while he was working for Tribeca. A handful of New York film students and a similar number of Moroccan students were given 10 days of tuition by Abbas Kiarostami and Martin Scorsese, during which they each made a short film. The results, as you might expect given the course leaders, were quite impressive.

"Kiarostami has done these workshops all around," Scarlet recalls, "but at that point he said the films that came out of this workshop were the best he'd seen [...] For me that was a kind of example of, if you sit people down with someone who really does know what filmmaking is, that can talk about it - that can talk, not about the bull**** but, OK, what are you doing in that shot? How are you moving the camera? Getting people to think like a filmmaker - stuff can come out of that."

For all the blunt talk, it should by now be apparent that Scarlet takes a fairly highbrow line on cinema culture. A "self-defrocked-academic" as he puts it, he found his way into running festivals largely as a side-effect of his teaching work. He used to run a film history class at Sonoma State University in Northern California in the 1970s. Pre-VHS, this was not a straightforward matter. "There was state regulation that forbade students contributing anything other than the most paltry sum towards materials for their class.

"So you teach a film history class with a budget of, like, $500. This was in the days of 16mm, before video. So at some point I had the disastrous idea of calling distributors and saying, if it's 50 bucks to rent Citizen Kane to show in class on Tuesday night, what if I do a second screening of it for the public in the evening and give you a cut?" One thing led to another and Scarlet found himself running a seven-night-a-week film exhibition programme. It still exists, trading under the rather grand moniker the Sonoma Film Institute. "I did everything for it," he says. "I booked the films, designed the publicity materials, printed them, distributed them all over the area, sold tickets, was the projectionist. I gave a little talk before the film and answered people's questions afterwards, and I did this seven nights a week for seven years. In addition to teaching in the daytime."

His route into film scholarship was just as haphazard. "I was never really interested in film," he said. "I went to movies, but..." He shrugs. At college he studied French literature, not a major with a fast track into a particular career. "I drove a furniture delivery truck," he said. "I waited tables in a bar. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And then my grandmother died and left me a few thousand dollars, so I went to Europe." While hitchhiking to Paris he was advised to visit the Cinémathèque Française, the world's largest film archive. "A couple of days later I made my way to the Palais de Chaillot."

He happened to catch an instalment from one of Louis Feuillade's silent serial dramas dating from the 1910s. In this particular episode, jewel thieves had hidden their ill-gotten gains in the bell tower of a church. "The next morning there's mass," Scarlet says, "the sexton comes and rings the bell, and the jewels rain down on the worshippers who believe that they've experienced a miracle." The scene stuck with Scarlet, and he kept returning to the Cinémathèque. In order to stay in Paris, he took a job working as a secretary for an American who was working on a translation of a novel by Giorgio de Chirico. ("He needed someone who was a good typist; this was my only marketable skill from a liberal arts education.") Food and lodging were provided, on the supposition that the project would take about a month. "What he didn't foresee, and nor could I, was that he was a self-declared film buff and I was just discovering cinema. So I'd say: 'Gee, have you ever seen this Pudovkin film from 1926? Let's go!'" The job stretched on for three months, and Scarlet became an expert on the history of film.

Decades later, he also became the director of the Cinémathèque Française. When writing his inauguration speech he was struck by the symbolic significance of that scene in the bell tower. It occurred to him that "the job of someone who runs a cinémathèque, someone who programmes a festival, someone who lures people into a chemistry classroom as I had done for seven years and sells the tickets and projects the movie - it's the same thing as that Feuillade film. You get people to gather and then you surprise them by having jewels rain down on them. That's what it's all about." It's not a risk-free enterprise. "Sometimes they like it and sometimes they don't. Sometimes it hits them on the head and they sue you 'cause it hurt. Sometimes they think it's a miracle. That's what the game is all about."

And so, that's what Meiff will be about, too. Indeed, the peculiar demographic make-up of the Emirates gave Scarlet a clue about what kind of jewels he should stash in Abu Dhabi's bell tower. "We know there's a big expat community here," he says. "It stands to reason that if we do any kind of a job getting word out to the Brits and the French and whoever, that they'll say: 'Oh wow, there's this fantastic British film tonight. Let's go to that.'" He hopes they'll look further. "If you're from Britain or you're from wherever you're from, you're living here, and half the films in this festival are going to give you the chance to experience and learn something about the people who live in this region, and who for the rest of the year you will never see on screen. [...] If this festival does nothing other than give people a learning experience of like, wow, that's what it's like in Egypt or Syria or Iraq, I think we'd have had a great success."

The improving power of cinema is, you might have gathered, a bit of an article of faith for Scarlet. When we met back in August, he permitted himself a philosophical aside. "I'm going to try to not sound pompous about this but it's hard not to," he said. "The lessons you can learn in great films can potentially have a transformative experience in your life." Still, by the time of our second meeting a month later, he'd thought of another cinematic emblem to set alongside Feuillade's rain of jewels. In the Polish film Batu's Bioscope, he explains, a film impresario and his midget companion get the idea of touring a mobile cinema around the most remote parts in Orissa on the east coast of India. After innumerable hardships the crew finally arrive in a village which has never before encountered film. They play some Bollywood films, and wait to see what will happen next.

"The following morning," Scarlet explains, "as they're striking the tent the village elders come to see them and say: 'We are anxious to meet with you to tell you how very, very grateful we are that you have come all this way to share with us this phenomenon we knew nothing of, called cinema. Thank you. And we have a favour to ask of you. We are hard-working people. Our days are very full. Please, do not ever come here again. We have no time to waste on this foolishness." Scarlet laughs heartily. There's a none-too-subtle cautionary moral here, but apparently he isn't deterred. "It's actually still a dream that I entertain," he says, before sketching out his own Batu-esque ambition to take a mobile cinema through the far-flung emirates. One may be confident that, when Scarlet's wagon rolls into town, they'll know about it.