The big question among the Emirates’ film set concerns who might attend next month’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival. An early wish list of sorts includes Juliette Binoche, Freida Pinto, Vanessa Redgrave, Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, Catherine Deneuve and perhaps even John Malkovich.
The heavyweight event, formerly called the Middle East International Film Festival, has a reputation for drawing big names, but organisers are yet to confirm a roster of A-list attendees beyond the Hollywood stars Uma Thurman and Adrien Brody. Thurman will attend the festival’s closing Black Pearl Awards ceremony, while Brody will be here for Michael Greenspan’s “Wrecked”, where he plays a man who must overcome incredible odds to escape a car wreck
The arty crowd, more used to packing out warehouses in dusty Al Quoz, are simply excited about the selection of films on offer, many of which are in the running for cash prizes totalling $1 million (Dh3.67m). Competitions for narrative and documentary features are joined by a New Horizons section this year, a contest for first- and second-time directors.
Bookending the event are Randall Wallace’s horse biopic, “Secretariat”, starring John Malkovich and Diane Lane. The event’s opening gala, it kicks off proceedings on October 14, while Tsui Hark's epic mystery, "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" closes it out on October 23.
In between are 70 feature films from 28 countries. Twelve of these will have world premieres at the event, including four that were at least partly produced with money from Sanad, the festival’s new development and post-production fund. Many of these have regional or Middle Eastern themes.
“Overall our programme is the result of the detective work that our programmers do throughout the year,” festival executive director Peter Scarlet said. “We received more than 2,000 submissions, twice as many as last year, which is remarkable. Having said that, most festivals – most good festivals – program very little from the over-the-counter submissions.”
The result of that detective work is in films such as Julian Schnabel’s “Miral”, a coming-of-age story set in Palestine and starring Pinto and Redgrave; “Potiche”, François Ozon’s all-star screwball comedy about a trophy wife, starring Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve; Mark Romanek’s sci-fi thriller “Never Let Me Go”, featuring Knightley, Mulligan and Garfield; the Bollywood film “Paan Singh Tomar”, starring Irrfan Khan and based on the true story of an award-winning athlete who turned into a bandit; “Copie Conforme” (Certified Copy), Kiarostami’s tale of middle-aged lovers set in rural Tuscany, which earned Binoche a Best Actress award at Cannes this year; French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’s biopic “Carlos” profiles the Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal and Spanish Oscar-winner Fernando Trueba’s animated musical “Chico & Rita”. And Doug Liman’s movie “Fair Game”, which features Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, looks at how Valerie Plame was really exposed as a CIA operative.
Notable among those films being premiered at the festival are “Homeland”, the fourth in a series about two Palestinian families Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer has followed since 1974; Varon Bonico’s “A Man’s Story”, a personal and professional profile of the Savile Row suit maker Ozwald Boateng; and "Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace," Harry Hunkele’s behind-the-scenes look at the peace process between Israel and Egypt.
But one of the biggest highlights for the region is “Sundress”, the debut feature of Emirati director Saeed Salmeen, made with money from Sanad.
“Showing films from the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, Julian Schnabel, Olivier Assayas, François Ozon and Patricio Guzmán, to name just a few, is always a pleasure,” Scarlet said. “But it's particularly gratifying to see these directors' films alongside works from the region. And in particular, we're very excited to be showing the first fruits of Sanad in the form of several films in our competition sections. As the festival plays an ever-greater role in helping develop and promote filmmaking from the Arab world, we look forward to seeing even more new discoveries, whether from familiar names or new talents."
Among the other Sanad-funded films is “In My Mother’s Arms”, by Mohamed Al-Daradji and Atia Al-Daradji. Mohamed Al-Daradji made film news around the world last year when his “Son of Babylon” won critical acclaim at several festivals.
New Horizons films, Scarlet said, range from a pair of impressive new films from Iran, “Orion” by Zamani Esmati and “Gesher” by Vahid Vakilifar, to two NYC-based films, “Furious Force of Rhymes” by Joshua Atesh Litle and “Bill Cunningham New York” by Richard Press, "which connect that city's music and fashion to the rest of the world in very unusual ways".
“There's an equally impressive line-up of films by new talents from Egypt, France, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and the UAE. The selection also includes one of the most surprising and unexpected new films we've seen all year, ‘Slackistan’ by Hammad Khan, a Pakistan-UK co-production,” he added.
Other sections of the festival include Showcase, an international selection of outstanding films eligible for the $30,000 Audience Award, and What in the World Are We Doing to Our World?, films devoted to broadening awareness of significant environmental issues.
And three restored classics are also on offer, including "The Circus", which won Charlie Chaplin his first Oscar, and the most expensive silent film ever made, Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", and "Al Mumiya" (The Mummy/ The Night of Counting the Years), perhaps the most famous of the Egyptian auteur movies.
Scarlet also spoke of the challenges ahead in creating a viable film industry in the UAE: “My vision includes that the Festival expands to have all kinds of exhibition activities throughout the year. If I were a filmmaker living here, I would be severely handicapped, because part of how you learn to make films is not by opening a how-to book and learning how to focus a camera; it is by having access to the history of cinema and that has been very difficult up to now. With the advent of the festival and the accessibility of DVDs and the internet, that is going to change. Soon a filmmaker here is going to have access to the entire history of cinema, just like a filmmaker in London, Paris or New York. How can you work in a medium where you don’t know what has happened in it up to now?”
He said he and his team hope to bring to fruition an archive for Arab cinema in Abu Dhabi. “The amount of work in this region disappearing from people’s memory, just rotting away is frightening and something has to be done to stop it,” he said.
Tickets are available online at abudhabifilmfestival.com from September 30 and are priced from Dh20 per screening to Dh300 for a festival pass.