x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Something for nothing: a day as a volunteer at the ADFF

Like any similar event, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival relies on an army of unpaid but willing recruits to make it run smoothly.

The National’s Charles Whebell flashes the card that identifies him as an official volunteer with the Abu Dhabi Film Festival at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr. His duties included packing goodie bags and surveying fans.
The National’s Charles Whebell flashes the card that identifies him as an official volunteer with the Abu Dhabi Film Festival at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr. His duties included packing goodie bags and surveying fans.

He was very nice about it. Indeed, he said it with an apologetic smile. But it was still like a kick in the teeth: "No, thank you."

It's impossible to believe that three little words can pack such a big punch.

"But you've got to have one. I packed it myself."

"No, truly, you're very kind, but I don't want one."

And away he went. Leaving behind one crestfallen Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF) volunteer and the "goodie bag" I had meticulously filled.

OK, fair enough, it wasn't jammed with A-list goodies like those pictured in Oasis on Sunday. There were no offers of a shave and manicure, nor a BlackBerry 9990. There weren't even any T-shirts. To be honest, it wasn't packed with much at all, really. It held a programme along with a pen, a notebook and sheets of A4 paper providing useful information about the film industry. But even so, it was part of me. It was one of dozens of bags I had filled during my first few hours of being a volunteer for the fifth annual festival.

The film director, whose name I shall keep to myself so as not to embarrass him further, was, however, the only person not to accept one out of all those who entered the registration room on the lower floor of the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr hotel.

Jordan Gelber, one of the stars of the movie Dark Horse, which screened at Marina Mall on Sunday night and can be seen again this afternoon at Abu Dhabi Theatre, was delighted. In fact, so delighted was he that when the film's director, Todd Solondz, walked into the room, he announced: "Todd, this is the bag man. You must take one."

As I handed him the bag, the man from New Jersey, who is said to be dark and thought-provoking, looked, right at that moment, very dark and extremely thought-provoking. He stared at it with some degree of doubt written all over his face.

"You must take it; the bag man packed it," insisted Gelber, who has appeared in shows including Law & Order: Criminal Intent and The Sopranos, and who plays the angry 35-year-old Abe in Dark Horse. Solondz had celebrated his 52nd birthday the day before so maybe he looked upon it as a late birthday gift and gratefully accepted it before he and Gelber put their names down for a trip to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

Maybe they'll take the bags with them, I thought.

Roget's Thesaurus will tell you that to volunteer is to offer your services free of charge. I have been brought up believing in never volunteering for anything, but the many hundreds of residents - from students to expatriate wives who had seen advertisements at their universities or women's clubs - who volunteered to work for the film festival all this week were all clearly enjoying themselves.

Karen Patricolo's husband is a surgeon so, maybe because of this, or more likely because she likes to keep busy while helping others, she is a serial volunteer. Rather than spending all her free time drinking coffee or shopping at malls, Karen likes to be useful. Much of her time is spent in Abu Dhabi hospitals helping with patients, whether it is playing in the hospital playroom with cancer-stricken children, or laughing and joking with seriously ill patients while taking them on at computer games.

"I suppose you could say that this is a bit of light relief for me, but I just love it," the mother from Hertfordshire in England said. "When I heard the ADFF was looking for people to help out, I just had to apply."

Karen was joined in manning the registration desk by Nikhil Nuttap, a 24-year-old Indian student who was born in Abu Dhabi. They were making sure the filmmakers, whether actors, directors or producers, were issued with the right badges and accreditation. After they had done their bit, it was my job to pounce with one of my bags.

Nikhil has just completed his Master's degree in risk management at a university in London and rather than "just sit around watching telly", he decided to offer his services to the ADFF. The fact that he's a film fanatic also had something to do with it. He was a willing and able volunteer, chasing about for anyone who needed anything.

"I love it," he grinned. "You never know who is going to walk through that door. It's very exciting."

Volunteers start at about 9.30am and usually work through to about 2pm when they are replaced by the second shift who finish at about 10pm. They are asked to do everything from ushering patrons into the cinema or, like myself, packing goodie bags. I had volunteered to do a "double shift" mainly because I wanted to "work the red carpet" at Abu Dhabi Theatre. This particular evening, the theatre was showing The Moth Diaries, starring Lily Cole, Sarah Bolger and Sarah Gadon, and I was looking forward to making sure neither the photographers nor the fans stepped on the carpet. Now proudly wearing a "volunteer's red shirt" I also, of course, wanted to glimpse some very attractive actresses. Maybe they might be carrying one of my bags instead of one of the exclusive designer clutches they might have found in their A-list version.

But before that could happen, Cliodhna Fullam, the festival's audience development manager, had given me the task of surveying some of the film fans. I started at the outdoor cinema at the Fairmont - a wonderful setting being used for the first time at the festival, which I discovered was, to many, more alluring than Marina Mall or the Abu Dhabi Theatre - and finished at the Abu Dhabi Theatre. These surveys, I was told, were very important because the views of the fans mattered to the organisers of the festival. If the fans don't like something, then the ADFF will try to rectify that next year.

Surprisingly, everyone I approached was willing to give up their time to answer my questions. One woman was so willing to talk, I could not get away - and so I missed the actresses on the red carpet.

But that's the life of a volunteer: all work and no glory. Yet not one of us complained. We were there to do a job - to offer our services for no charge. At least I got a free bag out of it at the end of the night.

Oh, and if you're an actor or director or producer and found that you were missing a pen and a notebook in your goodie bag, I'm sorry - I had to use them to take notes for this article.