x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The scene in Sicily

The recent Taormina Film Festival focused on bringing the Arab and Mediterranean worlds together through cinema.

The US director Gustave Reininger's movie 'Corso - The last beat' was awarded best film at the 55th Taormina Film Festival.
The US director Gustave Reininger's movie 'Corso - The last beat' was awarded best film at the 55th Taormina Film Festival.

At the recent Taormina Film Festival in Sicily, the festival director Deborah Young built upon Sicily's past as a trade crossroads between the Arab world and the Mediterranean with a programme reflecting this history and a line-up of events set to enhance cinematic relations between the regions. A Rome-based film critic for The Hollywood Reporter, one of Young's areas of specialisation is Mediterranean cinema. Since taking up the reins in Taormina three years ago, she has revamped the 55-year-old event to include two main competitive sections - Mediterranean and Beyond the Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean programme this year included titles from Morocco, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, France and Syria, giving both local audiences in Sicily and western film critics an opportunity to acquaint themselves with new material from the region. Syria took home the festival's Golden Tauro Award for Best Film in the Mediterranean section for Hatem Ali's The Long Night, about a group of men imprisoned as dissidents. The film was singled out as an "elegant and cinematic way to tell a story that deals with moral and political issues".

The Best Director award went to Morocco's Nour-Eddine Lakhmari for Casanegra. The film, about two wannabe crooks, has become a breakout hit on the festival circuit since playing at the Dubai International Film Festival in December last year. The most stylish movie to be shot in Casablanca, since, well, Casablanca, Casanegra is being dubbed as the first high-definition film from Morocco. The Egyptian film Fawzeya Special Blend, directed by Magdi Ahmed Ali and which showed at the Middle East International Film Festival in 2008, broke ground by challenging stereotypes of submissive women in Egypt. The movie, which centres on a feisty female character, received a special mention for portraying "a very strong feminist character and the freedom of thought it represents".

Schmuel Beru's Zrubavel, meanwhile, received the Jury Award for its story of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. The film was shot entirely by non-professionals. The biggest innovation at the festival, this year, however, was to expand the event beyond its traditional hub of Taormina to take place in four cities around the island. The expansion was deemed a good move by organisers. "You can tell the success of a festival by the amount of press you get," said Young. "We had so much press this year through the expansion. Nationally, we landed on all the major television channels."

Taking part in this relaunch of the festival were the cities of Palermo, Siracusa and Palma di Montechiaro, each of which featured a different programme. Young American comedy was the focus of the Palermo line-up, which showed a number of films, such as David Gordon Green's Pineapple Express. Strong women were in the spotlight in Palma di Montechiaro, where the highlights included the Palermo-based director Marco Amenta's The Sicilian Rebel and the Iranian film Persepolis by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi. In Siracusa, Brazilian cinema was the focus, expanding upon a collaboration between the Sicilian and Brazilian chambers of commerce.

International guests mostly spent the festival in Sicily's most fashionable city, Taormina, where the bustling Corso could almost be mistaken for a catwalk. The star quotient was just as head-turning. Catherine Deneuve, Jessica Lange, Dominique Sanda, Fanny Ardant, Amy Mullins and the retired fashion designer Emanuel Ungaro, who presented a masterclass on film and fashion, all came and enjoyed the seclusion of the elegant Timeo Hotel, holding court by day on the terrace where guests gathered at night to enjoy the breathtaking view of Mount Etna, smouldering beyond the Mediterranean.

Thanks to the festival's Beyond the Mediterranean section, a number of western directors made the hike to this southern Italian outpost, including the Los Angeles-based Gustave Reininger. His Corso - The Last Beat, which tells the story of Gregory Corso, the innermost member of The Beats, won the Best Film Award. Narrated by Ethan Hawke, "the film explores a great poet with an involving narrative rhythm, paying its respects to poetry with delicacy and subtle humour", said the jury, which was made up of last year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner, Laurent Cantet (The Class), Mullins and Ari Folman (Waltz With Bashir).

Other films came from as far away as Australia, including Megan Doneman's Yes Madam, Sir, which follows India's first female policewoman, Kiran Bedi. The film is narrated by Helen Mirren. Yes Madam, Sir screened as part of the focus on strong women, alongside Anna Negri's Riprendimi, François Ozon's Eight Women and Julie Taymor's Frida. "The contribution of women in the film industry is often overlooked and undervalued in spite of the fact that they have reached the top of their film field and areas of specialisation," said Young.

This female focus culminated in a panel on strong women, where Lange spoke about the limited number of roles available for actresses in Hollywood, quoting 60:40 for the ratio of parts for men versus women. "You have to remember that only 10 per cent of those are for women over 40, not to mention women over 50 or 60," she said. An especially powerful woman on the panel was the Sicilian princess Vittoria Alliata, whose family runs Sicily's oldest film company, Panarea. Alliata has made bold moves to stand up against the Mafia in her hometown of Bagheria, which was once the playground of Sicily and is now a Mafia stronghold.

A number of masterclasses took place, which were well attended by 500 local film students invited to the Campus Taormina section. One of these focused on the French actress Ardant's directorial debut, Ashes and Blood. Ardant said that she penned the screenplay in secret, telling no one but her children that she was planning to direct a film. "They said: 'Mama are you crazy,'" said a stylish Ardant in Taormina. Ardant could be seen at the Festival de Cannes last month in Tsai Ming-liang's film Visage. "I had to learn to be very practical and not emotional and force myself to sleep at night and get up early and not lose my temper," she said of filming Ashes and Blood, which was inspired by Greek mythology. "When I came to do Visage, there was no more caprice." Despite a packed schedule by day, the festival truly came into its own each night when guests gathered at the historic amphitheatre the Teatro Antico, which served as the gala venue.

A number of American films were programmed for the Teatro Antico, including a feature-film remake of the cult documentary Gray Gardens, which tells the story of Big Edie (Lange) and Little Edie Bouvier Beale (Drew Barrymore), two rather special relatives of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, and Mark Waters' Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. On a more serious note, Crossing Over, by Wayne Kramer, was one of three films tackling immigration to the US. They included Cary Fukanaga's Sin Nombre and Hugh Hudson's director's cut of his 1985 epic about American Independence, Revolution Revisited, which closed the festival with a gala screening on Saturday.

France was the country of honour with a range of new French films on display, including Andre Techine's Le Fille de RER, which co-starred Deneuve and the young Emilie Dequenne, who took home the Best Actress Award for the Mediterranean section. Deneuve, Sanda and Lange, meanwhile, all received the Taormina Arte Award for their achievements in film. A second country spotlight was on Brazil, where delegates included the musician Carlinhos Brown, who gave a mellow concert at the Teatro Antico. "There will continue to be a focus on Brazil going forward at the festival with the Sicilian and Brazilian film industries forging ever closer ties," said Young. She added that the Sicilian film industry is booming, with 40 films produced in the past year, up from around five in previous years, thanks to initiatives from the Sicilian Film Commission.

This year, the festival showed around 60 films, 30 of which were new. "This is a boutique event that, by its nature, attracts premieres as we don't show 200 films," said Young. As for trends in filmmaking, she added: "Religion is definitely the new politics." Despite the economic downturn, the festival's funding was up by 25 per cent this year. "We have been especially fortunate," said Young. In terms of relationship-building between East and West, Young noted recent high-level contact between the Sicilians and Arab countries beyond the festival. One Sheikh reportedly presented the Sicilian president, Raffaele Lombardo, with two Arabian stallions. His gesture was returned with Lombardo giving two Sicilian sheep in return. "The will to co-operate and open channels is there," said Young.