x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Salute to Redgrave opens festival

As the cinema world prepares to arrive in Abu Dhabi, the guessing game begins as to which stars will appear.

Workers prepare for the opening ceremony of the film festival at the Emirates Palace hotel.
Workers prepare for the opening ceremony of the film festival at the Emirates Palace hotel.

The achievements of an actress whose work has shone a spotlight on the region will be recognised at the Meiff launch. But as the cinema world prepares to arrive in Abu Dhabi, the guessing game begins as to which stars will appear. Melanie Swan and Oliver Good report The Oscar-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave will be honoured with a Black Pearl Award for lifetime achievement during tonight's opening gala of the Middle East International Film Festival.

Redgrave, 72, will not attend the event as she is staying with a close friend who is ill. Her husband, the actor Franco Nero, will collect the award on her behalf. The accolade is fitting for Redgrave, who has long been involved in shining a spotlight on the Middle East through film. In 1977, she funded and narrated a documentary on the Palestinian people and the activities of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

Later that year she starred in Julia, the story of a Jewish anti-Fascist activist murdered by the Nazis before the outbreak of the Second World War. That performance earned her an Academy Award for best supporting actress. However, her comments on the Palestinian situation resulted in her being targeted by the Jewish Defence League, which picketed the awards ceremony and burned effigies of the actress.

As more than 350 guests, mostly film makers and their entourages, prepared to fly into Abu Dhabi for the festival, the guessing game as to which stars would appear was under way yesterday. Despite not having any films on show, Demi Moore was down to attend. The schedule includes movies starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon, as well as Omar Sharif and Mana Zaki, and the Bollywood stars Akshay Kumar and Deepa and Dillip Mehta.

But Peter Scarlet, the festival's newly appointed director, would not disclose which big names from the casts would be walking along the Emirates Palace hotel's 40m red carpet. "We live in a part of the world that is very lovely and very beautiful, but far away from the rest of the world and lots of people in showbiz have very busy schedules," he said. He did, however, promise that the festival would not be bereft of celebrities, promising "your jaws will drop" at least "two times".

Last year, when Jane Fonda and Sir Ben Kingsley were given lifetime achievement awards, the likes of Antonio Banderas and Susan Sarandon added a touch of Hollywood to the festival and several major Bollywood stars attended, including the former Miss World, Priyanka Chopra. But Mr Scarlet said the third edition of the festival would be different than previous years, with the emphasis more on the film makers than stars.

"The stars are not necessarily the celebrities," said Mr Scarlet. "The people you look at when you're getting your hair done - the real stars are you, the audience, and the people who made the films." The organisers have booked more than 100 rooms at Emirates Palace and the InterContinental for festival guests. Tonight's festivities mark the start of 10 days of cinema, with 129 films from 49 countries being shown, plus a series of workshops, masterclasses and competitions.

There are fewer films from the UAE at the festival. Mr Scarlet, who earlier this year resigned from New York's Tribeca Film Festival, said he "set the bar high" when choosing from among 300 entries. Many of last year's entries would not have met this year's criteria, he said. "It's a smaller selection but a better one this year. "We still have standards of quality," he said. The festival features a slate of environmental films shown over five days, an addition made after Mr Scarlet found out the importance placed on the issue by Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE.

"In the 1950s he may have been the only person thinking 'how can we preserve this land?', and I thought we must keep alive in this festival something that follows that tradition," said Mr Scarlet. "I want people who come to this festival to not forget that either." Mr Scarlet said he intended to stay in Abu Dhabi for some time to help build a film environment in the Emirates, which he called "the hub of culture and exchange between the worlds".

Several Turkish films will be featured at the festival. Mr Scarlet said the country was emerging as an important centre for cinema. "Recently, the cinema of Turkey has attracted worldwide attention, but it's not funded by Hollywood or Europe or even influenced by Hollywood. It has sprung up independently," he said. "Hopefully that will serve as an inspiration for people here." The honour being bestowed on Redgrave tonight is one of many that she has received during a glittering career.

In 1967, she was made a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for services to drama. More recently, she won Broadway's 2003 Tony Award for Best Actress for her performance in the revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Redgrave comes from one of the acting world's most famous families, and she passed on her talent to her two daughters, Joely and Natasha Richardson.

Natasha, who was married to the Irish actor Liam Neeson, died this year aged 45 following an accident while skiing in Canada. mswan@thenational.ae ogood@thenational.ae