x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The big screens

MEIFF Diary: The stars who turned up for opening night, the mixed reaction to the Traveler and what to expect next.

Opening day at MEIFF came with a lot of surprises.
Opening day at MEIFF came with a lot of surprises.

"The night begins when Hilary gets here, and Hilary gets here when she wants," one of MEIFF's many red carpet wranglers told me sternly. I was on the other side of the velvet rope and had asked her whether the evening was going to schedule, as several hundred invited guests from the across the film world filed into the auditorium at Emirates Palace and began taking their seats. Thursday night's gala screening was of the controversial Egyptian film The Traveller by the first-time feature director Ahmed Maher.

After the black-clad Demi Moore made her way down the red carpet, many of the photographers and journalists on my side of the rope were ready to pack up and leave. Only a select few had heard that Hilary Swank was in town. To prevent the Oscar winner from having to walk a desolate red carpet, a MEIFF organiser let slip to photographers that "Hilary Swank will be here in one minute". By the time she arrived - almost half an hour later - there were enough members of the media grappling for photos and quotes for the event to justifiably be called a scrum.

While a fuss was being made about the Million Dollar Baby star outside, the many hundreds of invitees, including the Slumdog Millionaire actress Freida Pinto and the designer of the moment Jason Wu, were getting a little restless in the auditorium. Once proceedings began, the film festival's director, Peter Scarlet, did his best to amuse the highly talented mass, and did a splendid job of it. A huge improvement on last year's event, the speeches were kept short and to the point and did not eat into the screening or, most importantly for some, the late-night partying.

And when the impossibly elegant Swank strode across the stage, revealed by Scarlet as the person chosen to present Vanessa Redgrave's lifetime achievement award, the audience clearly felt the wait had been worth it. After a few moments in the limelight, Swank trotted off the stage, (she had an early flight back to the US on Friday) and the night's film screening drew closer. Not for me, though. I was fortunate enough to interview Swank and had to miss the film. What I did witness, however, was the audience's reaction at the post-screening party in the grounds of Emirates Palace.

The Traveller covers three days in a man's life, one in 1948, another in 1973 and the last in 2001. Many who had seen the film drew comparisons to Fellini's opulent visual style of - no surprise, considering Maher's long apprenticeship in Italy. However, a rape scene is at the heart of the story - not a problem it itself, perhaps, except that many audience members felt the director's presentation of the event was troubling.

On paper, The Traveller seemed the ideal film to open MEIFF. It's an Arabic-language production, was funded by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and stars the most globally famous Arab actor of all time Omar Sharif. Prior to the festival's opening, Scarlet said he was "excited" by the prospect of showing a film with the power to polarise audiences. However, many who attended the screening felt it was not only a challenging and difficult piece of work, but also a questionable programming choice.

At yesterday morning's busy press conference, Scarlet said: "I liked the film. Nobody can pick a film that everyone likes. Choosing a film for the opening night is always one of the most difficult things to do." Whatever the case, attendees did not feel that the choice of opening film cast a dark cloud over this year's event, and many expressed excitement about what treats the coming days might bring.

Friday got off to a subdued start after the previous night's partying. The festival hospitality tent was officially opened, and a leisurely filmmakers' lunch was held. The world premier of the director Mohamed al Daradji's Son of Babylon was the day's cinematic triumph, and gained a standing ovation at the packed screening. The film tells the story of a Kurdish-Iraqi grandmother who, three weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein, visits a series of mass graves in search of her lost son.

Audience members said the film was both harrowing and moving and shared a number of similarities with the director's previous work, most notably 2005's Ahlaam. Some said that Son of Babylon represents a coming of age for Al Daradji, who was in attendance, and noted that the film flowed better and was more visually arresting than any of his previous works. Friday's screening of The September Issue, a documentary about US Vogue magazine, brought a hint of glamour to MEIFF's second day. The film was both well attended and warmly received, and many audience members said they were amazed by how funny it was. If there was one criticism, however, it was that the film did not gain as much access to the notoriously fierce fashionista Anna Wintour as some would have liked. At times it even seemed as though the magazine's editor-in-chief was remarkably restrained.

Expectations were high for today's screening of the children's movie Shorts, directed by Robert Rodriguez and co-financed by Abu Dhabi's film fund Imagenation.