x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The reel thing

The Middle East International Film Festival begins in Abu Dhabi today, Where did it come from? Why does it matter?

We were Communists, a feature film by Lebanese director, Mahi Abi Samra, received funding from MEIFF.
We were Communists, a feature film by Lebanese director, Mahi Abi Samra, received funding from MEIFF.

Our small planet now boasts something in the region of 4,000 film festivals. Since there are only about 200 countries, there ought to be enough to go around. It happens that I recently took a short holiday in Nepal. Just before I left I interviewed Peter Scarlet, the director of the Middle East International Film Festival, which opens in Abu Dhabi today. In the small talk at the end of our meeting I mentioned the trip I was about to take. He laughed and speculated - whimsically, I thought at the time - that I'd probably stumble into some other film event. And he was right: I landed in the middle of Film South Asia, a celebration of South Asian documentaries which comes to Kathmandu every two years.

As it turns out, Nepalese cineastes won't have to wait long for their next chance to indulge. In December there's the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival, an annual festival of films about, or featuring, mountains. Over the border in the north-Indian state of Himachal Pradesh last week, Shimla held a seven-day festival of wildlife films. Even the neighbouring kingdom of Bhutan has an annual film festival and it only got television a decade ago. It happens that one of the films playing at the Nepalese festival I stumbled into was Out of Thin Air, a documentary about the amateur film industry which has sprung up in the cloud-bound Indian province of Ladakh, a region with fewer than 300,000 inhabitants and borders that are cut off by ice for half the year. It turns out that moonlighting Ladakhi Buddhist monks and policemen are shooting Handycam melodramas at a rate of about half a dozen a year, to the delirious enthusiasm of local audiences. A festival can't be far off.

There's no reason to suppose all this activity is unique to the Himalayas, either. Wherever on the globe the cultural ecologist chooses to drop his or her quadrat, the green shoots of a film festival are sure to poke through. Here in the Gulf we'll get the revitalised MEIFF, the first edition of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and the Dubai International Film Festival, all before the year's end. We can't get enough of them. Still, the question of why film festivals should have become such a ubiquitous feature of the cultural landscape is a tangled one; one whose roots lie, curiously enough, in Italian fascism.

The first film festival proper was launched in Venice in 1932, by the businessman and Fascist politician Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, then president of the Venice Biennale. Volpi was a shipping magnate who served as Italy's finance minister and advocated the Italian pursuit of "vital space" in the Balkans, which might offer a clue about the kind of considerations which gave rise to his idea. Venice remains one of the most important film events in the world and its founder is commemorated in the name of the Volpi Cup, its main acting award; the murk of the past has largely been forgotten. But it appears the festival arose as just one of a variety of efforts by Axis powers to resist the American film industry. As another example, in 1935 Venice hosted the signing of an accord to found the International Film Chamber, a cosmopolitan initiative with representatives from Japan and India among its 24 members. Volpi was the body's vice-president. The idea, proposed by Germany, had been to marshal the European film market so that it might rival Hollywood; America's huge internal markets and the industrial capacity which they supported being one of Hitler's least barmy fixations. The point, after all, was patriotism.

Against this background it's perhaps surprising that Venice's early editions were as international and unideological as they appear to have been. Frank Capra, James Whale, Howard Hawks and Maurice Tourneur were among the directors to appear at the first festival, which goes some way to mitigating charges of Italian boosterism. Venice promoted fascism by linking it with the best that Europe and America had to offer. Of course, one could take Jonathan Rosenbaum's line and argue that, in advancing the cult of the visionary director who commands multitudes, movie culture was implicitly authoritarian already, but that wouldn't leave you much room when it comes to explaining where Venice went next. It got really fascist.

Having established itself as a capital of international cinema, the festival began abusing its prestige, fixing contests to promote Axis hacks. For four festivals consecutively the Mussolini Cup for Best Foreign Film went to a German director, and of these only Leni Riefenstahl's name retains currency today. Other award categories looked to have been sewn up in similar style. Naturally, after a few years of this there was a backlash. Cannes started up in 1946 with the explicit goal of raining on Venice's all-too-literal parade. Edinburgh got under way in 1947. The Berlin International Film Festival followed in 1951, the San Francisco International Film Festival debuted in 1957 and by 1959 the Moscow International Film Festival had arrived on the scene. Having a movie festival now indicated membership of an elite club, and film, simultaneously the most glamorous and most populist of art forms, never wanted for political patrons.

But the status contests of G8 countries are only part of the festival story. The other strand is rooted in the heroic determination and ingenuity of isolated creators. It's no accident that the world of film festivals has come to seem nearly identical with that of independent cinema. They came into being at around the same time, and have fed upon one another ever since. Just as the revolt against Venice was taking shape, the Supreme Court was driving a stake into the heart of America's monopolistic studio system. Up until 1948's so-called Paramount Decision, the US's major cinema chains were owned and controlled by a handful of mighty production houses - Paramount, MGM, Warner and a few others. Afterwards, anyone with a sellable film stood a chance of finding an audience. This opened the door to low-budget risk-takers and ushered in an age of commercial art cinema. It also gave rise to the sometimes demented entrepreneurialism of B-movie and exploitation flicks, which have their own part to play in this story. But it was the notion of independent cinema as art which had the largest impact.

Morris Engel's 1953 film Little Fugitive was the first independent production to to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. It also, coincidentally, won the Silver Lion, effectively the runner-up prize at Venice. Engel, a still photographer, wrote and directed the piece in collaboration with his wife, Ruth Orkin, and friend Raymond Abrashkin, casting non-professional actors in the lead roles. The story - basically, a young boy gets lost on Coney Island - eschewed silver-screen grandeur in favour of naturalistic detail. It sounds like rather modest stuff. And yet, perhaps more than any other film, it inspired the notion of filmmaker as observer, guerrilla and individual voice. You could do it yourself, and you didn't have to be arty or opaque like Buñuel a generation before or Kenneth Anger at around the same time. You could take on the studios and win.

As Francois Truffaut remarked: "Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production." From Coney Island to Paris and from there back out to the rest of the world, the idea that filmmakers could strike out on their own inspired a generation of aesthetes, radicals and opportunists. The indie auteur was born.

This in turn nourished the growth of the festival. Inasmuch as festivals were markets, independent films provided something to buy and sell - art and schlock alike. And if festivals were celebrations of high culture, the enterprise of independent cinema looked sufficiently vulnerable, self-willed and, in a word, artistic, to warrant special attention and support. It excused the commerce; it dignified the glitz. It was the heart of a heartless world.

But there's an irony here. Although any given indie film might well be a unique and fragile snowflake, indie cinema in general soon became a flood. As the monks and policemen in Ladakh demonstrate, the technology required to start making movies has become steadily cheaper and more accessible. And now far more films are made than will ever find commercial distribution. Festivals provide one of the few places for them to be seen.

Indeed, one of the forces driving the establishment of new festivals has been the need to find outlets for niche filmmaking. There are festivals for animation, for documentaries, for experimental film. Different narrative genres get their own red-letter days, as do different reigning geniuses. Roll up for the HP Lovecraft Festival, Portland, Oregon's regular cinematic celebration of an author whose work, quite notoriously, never works on screen. Lest we forget, there's a festival for films about mountains. Microfestivals cater to what Wired's editor Chris Anderson has called "the long tail" - the small but spendthrift band of enthusiasts brought together by the internet. In time, the web itself looks likely to take over some aspects of this role, allowing the fringiest of filmmakers to reach whatever audience they might be able to attract directly. But festivals will still serve a purpose: to curate, and educate, and to let the viewer step through the screen and be among the people behind the images.

Let's return to the case at hand. Where is MEIFF likely to slot into this picture? Everywhere. It's part of brand Abu Dhabi, and part of the UAE's campaign to establish itself on the world stage. More than with many such attempts, though, there's a real position to fill here. The festival provides a rare forum for filmmakers from across the Middle East. We get to see Syrian and Iranian films that simply couldn't screen in their home countries: Bahman Ghobadi's guerrilla take on the Tehran rock scene, Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, or Hatem Mohamad Ali's drama about Syria's political prisoners, The Long Night. There will be filmmakers from Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian films that were prevented from playing in Cairo. The UAE's liberality makes it an ideal place to showcase the best in boundary-pushing Arabic cinema. What better advertisement could it ask for?

At the same time, Abu Dhabi's wealth makes it a valuable cinema patron. MEIFF is determined to encourage the local film industry and provides funding for independent filmmakers. This year we get to see three fruits of its munificence: Son of Babylon, Port of Memory and We Were Communists, all of which were completed with the help of MEIFF. In coming years we can expect to see films that the festival has bankrolled from the start, as well as numerous education programmes to stimulate local talent. The Gulf's is a fledgling film industry, one whose promise is only beginning to emerge. The same was true of Turkey a few years ago, and yet it has had its own indie explosion; indeed we'll get to see the best of that at the festival. Here's hoping it inspires our own budding auteurs.

Finally, to judge by this year's programme, MEIFF is shaping up to be the quintessential curator's festival. The UAE hasn't always been kind to film aficionados. Commercial cinemas tend only to screen the safest and blandest mainstream hits, and while galleries and societies have helped vary the menu a little with their own small screenings, there's always the sense that a whole world of invention has been passing us by. What luck, then, that Abu Dhabi is gearing up to celebrate the obscure and inspired, the lost masterpiece and the daring experiment. We get to see the best of the year's festival circuit, dispatches from the most dangerous corners of the globe, and films so slippery in conception that they defy even Peter Scarlet's considerable powers of elucidation (look out for the Dutch Hitchcock documentary Double Take). MEIFF may not be all things to all men, but it's doing a lot of things at once, all of them in the grand tradition I have tried to sketch. The world may have 4,000 or so other festivals to choose from, but it looks like we're in for a classic.

elake@thenational.ae Throughout the Middle East Film Festival The National's website will include web-exclusive coverage with criticism, a festival diary, multimedia interviews and features. Visit www.thenational.ae/meiff.