Scheherazade, Tell Me A StoryWho’d a thunk it? All of a sudden the Persian Gulf is host to a slew of film festivals brimming with internationalist, top-tier ambition and seemingly mad keen to hothouse a vibrant homegrown film culture.

The granddaddy of them all, the Dubai International Film Festival, debuted only as far back as 2004. This year has just seen the inauguration of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar, and in between times, Abu Dhabi has now hosted three Middle East International Film Festivals. (1)

The appointment of Peter Scarlet as Executive Director of MEIFF six months out from the commencement of its 3rd edition can be seen as the clearest bellwether yet of the determination of those attached to the Gulf region’s nascent film culture to be taken seriously. A past champion of Middle Eastern film during several years as Artistic Director of the (New York City) Tribeca Film Festival, Scarlet himself admitted, during a press conference on the second morning of MEIFF, that he had responded with incredulity and skepticism when first he had heard of film festivals being staged in the region.

Your humble correspondent has to admit in turn that she responded similarly to news of Scarlet’s appointment when first reading of it and couldn’t help but cynically wonder what sort of pay packet was dangled before him. Nonetheless, it is clear he has undertaken this appointment in good faith and kept a level head in deciding that half of the titles in competition should hail from the Middle East and North Africa, thus giving the festival a clear direction and regional significance, as well as in taking pains to manage expectations in the festival’s lead-up. As recently as a few days ahead of Opening Night, Scarlet went on the record saying “I think we’re going to do a fantastic festival in October… October 2010. What we do in October 2009 will, with the best charitable impulses of you and our viewers, be the beta version of the festival.” (2)

I think he may have been overdoing it a little that day; the cautiousness of that statement seems altogether at odds with my impressions of the festival’s barnstorming ethos. With a festival team newly stacked with top-notch, multicultural talent, boasting many years of collective A-list festival experience across the globe, and with all manner of film culture folk from traditional and new media alike being shipped into Abu Dhabi from every which where at the festival’s expense, it was clear to me that Scarlet’s paymasters really meant business: MEIFF wanted in merely its 3rd edition to demonstrate its credentials as a serious A-list contender, and, by extension, Abu Dhabi announce its credentials as a vital film industry hub, with as thorough media coverage generated along the way as humanly possible. Expense would simply not be a consideration.

A pool of over US$1 million in prize money was further testament to this. Vide also the running of “The Circle” conference at the very start of MEIFF, a co-presentation with new Abu Dhabi-based, state-funded film outfit Imagenation aiming to foster film production in the area, from major overseas (co-)productions on down to local productions by up-and-comers who could tap the expertise of the international industry professionals summoned to the conference.

A Quick Gloss of the Program Before the Curtain’s Raised

An initial scan of the catalogue was most intriguing; the program appeared to be full of films, whether narrative-based or documentaries, concerned with matters of public dissent, corporate malpractice, gubernatorial ineptitude, colonialist folly, border disputes, crimes against humanity and against the planet, with a section of the program even explicitly asking “What in the World Are We Doing to Our World?” This was, hearteningly, not at all what I was expecting; I dare say the envelope had been well and truly pushed.

Still, there were (tacit) limits to the scope of the programming. There would not be any Israeli films or filmmakers at MEIFF. (There will not be any, one would presume, in the foreseeable future either.) Homosexuality is well known to be another big no-no in the UAE, although The September Issue (d. R.J. Cutler) and Valentino: The Last Emperor (d. Matt Tyrnauer), a pair of documentaries dealing with the fashion industry – a known haven for, the horror!, homosexuals – not unlike film festivals, come to think of it – were smuggled into the World Cinema Showcase. And current fashion industry darling Jason Wu braved the flashbulbs on the red carpet on Opening Night… for some reason.

Opening Night

The labyrinthine seven-star Emirates Palace Hotel was the venue for MEIFF’s Opening Night ceremonies, and would go on to host all of its most prestigious premieres, events and parties. An extraordinary, gargantuan edifice, it’s like something that would grace an oversized Islamic Las Vegas, perish the thought. Its interior and grounds both would be perfect shooting locations for a one-remove alternate-universe re-imagining of Last Year at Marienbad and it boasts a magnificent several storeys-high central dome that a Suspiria-era Dario Argento could work wonders with. Cabinets of antiquities were strewn about the corridors and foyers; the items within all bore price tags (all a little out of my price range…). Throughout MEIFF, a corner of the entry-level floor contained an exhibition on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island development featuring scale models of the island’s future tenants, including a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, fellow travellers with MEIFF in Abu Dhabi’s quest to fête the world’s cultural élite. The overwhelming impression of the Emirates Palace is one of great, garish, geometric opulence. It certainly generates a sense of occasion.

The red carpet was rolled out in a corridor near the hotel’s auditorium for a lengthy procession of luminaries from the region – filmmakers and actors whose films were to unspool at MEIFF, many unknown to me; festival jurors, many who were known to me, and so on – as well as … Demi Moore, Freida Pinto and Hilary Swank, amongst others shipped in to gratuitously increase the wattage of Opening Night.

On then into the 1100-seater auditorium for the ceremony proper. It was equal parts a smooth-oiled, compact affair, in English and in Arabic, and a showcase for some further unseemly grabbing for column inches locally and internationally.

I mean, is it not absurd, if another strong indicator of the importance MEIFF is aspiring to, for a festival in only its third year to be handing out lifetime achievement awards, moreover when that award is being handed out by Hilary Swank, flown into Abu Dhabi for that purpose alone (or… was it perhaps to run a little interference against the imminent Doha festival, shortly to launch itself with Mira Nair’s Swank-starring Amelia ?). Alas, the award’s intended recipient, Vanessa Redgrave, went off-script and couldn’t make it, and was instead represented by her longtime partner, a most gracious Franco Nero. (3)

Now, securing Abbas Kiarostami’s services as president of the narrative features jury: that strikes me as a real coup for MEIFF, and a highly meaningful appointment; likewise James Longley’s appointment as head of the documentary jury. Having Demi Moore fly in simply to be present and announced as such at Opening Night does not, however; it just made me squirm.

After all the hoopla was behind us the festival kicked off with Al Mosafer (The Traveller, d. Ahmed Maher), the Egyptian Ministry of Culture’s first production in 38 years and Omar Sharif’s first Egyptian film in 14. Sharif appears only in the last third of the film, while his character, who perpetrates a rape early in the opening act, underpinning all the later narrative developments and from which the film struggles to recover, appears throughout. It was a handsome production but only really Opening Night material by virtue of being from the region, a premiere within the region, and somewhat controversial. That said, no-one seemed overkeen to talk about it at the Opening Night party.

In Competition

Seventeen feature films competed in the Narrative Feature Competition, (4) and, as with the titles in the other program strands, they were invariably premiering in the UAE/the Gulf/the Middle East or, in a few instances, the world.

Son of BabylonMEIFF gained immediate traction the evening after opening night with one of its world premieres, Mohamed Al-Daradji’s tremendous and deeply humanist Ibn Babil (Son of Babylon), which, as one of three projects to have received (completion) funding from the pilot of a MEIFF grant program, did the festival doubly proud.

The story of the journey of a bull-headed, elderly Kurdish woman (Shehzad Hussen) and her grandson (Yassir Talib) across a war-torn, immediately post-Saddam Iraq to find his father, a soldier in the 1991 Gulf War, alive or dead, potently mirrors Hussen’s real-life search for the remains of her son in a nation riven – never mind the additional horrors brought about by the U.S. Incursion – with horrific sectarian conflicts, and littered with a huge number of mass grave-sites, some of which feature in the film.

Undoubtedly a very fraught and brave production, and playing not unlike a cross between John Hillcoat’s recent Cormac McCarthy adaptation, The Road, and something out of the Rossellini canon circa Germany Year Zero (1948), Son of Babylon is a frightening reminder that what would generically constitute a post-apocalyptic road movie in the West is the stuff of a brand of neorealism in the Middle East.

Of the nine other narrative features in competition I would later catch, only one was a major disappointment; Tian Zhuangzhuang’s dirty-magic-realist Han Dynasty-era fable Lang zai ji (The Warrior and the Wolf) was an incoherent mess.

Tian’s inexplicable and unfortunate excursion into wuxia aside, established auteurs fared well. Claire Denis’ White Material, set in an unnamed French-colonised African nation descending into civil war, begins not unlike Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel (1962), with coffee plantation manager Maria (Isabelle Huppert) bewildered that she’s unable to check the egress from her grounds of all her hired hands at harvesting time. It turns out that the film’s less in the hands of a Surrealist and more that its protagonist is a delusional, single-minded fool whose “white material” – a derogatory term for things white people like and hoard, as well as for their very persons – is likely not long for this world, especially the more she fails to heed the sound advice from friends, family, evacuating French forces and sinister local elements. Full of surprises, not least of them a role for a barely recognisable Christophe(r) Lambert, White Material is an elliptical reverie leading nowhere pleasant, in no small part the better for Tindersticks’ contribution to its soundtrack.

Elia Suleiman was honoured twice during the festival: the first time over a champagne reception as Variety‘s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year, the second on Closing Night, as the winner of the Black Pearl Award for Best Middle Eastern Narrative Film, for Al Zaman Al Baqi (The Time That Remains). Long languishing in a peculiarly Middle Eastern form of “development hell”, The Time That Remains adopts a deadpan vignette-heavy form loaded with the pointed absurdism that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the director’s earlier work. This time, though, it carries a more directly biographical approach, with a lot of inspiration taken from his father’s diaries.

The Time That RemainsThe film begins in Nazareth in 1948, with Suleiman père providing some of the little resistance shown by that city’s Arab population as it surrenders to the Israeli army. It then ambles across the following 60 years of Suleiman family life in Nazareth, replete with running gags and an appropriately cumulative and mordant sense of absurdity. A middle section occurs in the 1970s and introduces the character of Elia Suleiman as a young boy and latterly as a teen, while the third section features the adult Elia Suleiman played mutely, of course, by the director himself. It also features the greatest pole-vaulting sequence in the history of cinema.

Have Suleiman and Roy Andersson ever been photographed together? Their aesthetic and mordant comedic sensibilities strike me as being on such similar wavelengths that, despite the very different milieux and societal problems they mine for their material, I sometimes marvel that they are not one and the same.

Kids sticking it to the man through a passion for the forbidden music was a theme running through two of the strongest competition features, though they could hardly have been more different from one another.

Making its Middle East premiere, Bahman Ghobadi introduced Kasi az Gorbehaye Irani Khabar Nadareh (No One Knows About Persian Cats) to an audience I can only imagine would have hitherto been almost entirely unacquainted with the illegal Iranian underground music scene it profiles. In a docufiction filmed illegally over 17 days in Tehran, two would-be bandmates (Ashkan Kooshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi) seek others of like mind and talent to form a band, somehow wrangle visas and escape to London to play their music freely; their quest, destined to meet a perhaps overstatedly tragic end, serves as a framing device to profile any number of diverse Tehrani practitioners of Western musics, whether indie-rock, hip hop, heavy metal or jazz. It’s an amazing piece of work; messy, yes, but an extraordinary document.

HipstersStilyagi (Hipsters, d. Valery Todorovsky) was just as much a revelation, if one made with rather less imperilment for those involved. Set in 1950s Moscow, it’s an exuberant musical pitting a small group of snappily dressed and coiffed teenage rebels against the ghastly grey conformity of the Communist Party line and a brigade of its humourless young enforcers. The songs and costuming are fabulous and the performances near to spot-on; the narrative is full of surprises and humour and the ending, while bittersweet, is wholly satisfying, especially as it smuggles in a message that things ain’t so different in the current day as back in the ’50s. To my mind it demands widespread distribution and to be adapted for the stage; it wouldn’t require much tweaking. Nobody could have begrudged its winning the Black Pearl Award for Best Narrative Film.

The Black Pearl Award for Best New Narrative Director, however, went to Glendyn Ivin for Last Ride. His surprise at winning it was almost as great as mine; Last Ride‘s a good film, but far from a great one, and the downward spiral traced by Hugo Weaving’s character in the film is not done justice by a soundtrack that hits an elegiac pitch at the very outset but never modulates it in concert with the narrative. The kid in it (Tom Russell) was great, though, as was the use of the South Australian locations.

Galas

The hottest ticket of the festival was the world premiere of India’s most expensive film ever, Blue (d. Anthony D’Souza). With the promise of a Q&A with the director, its superstar Bollywood cast and composer A.R. Rahman to occur immediately after its world premiere, I have never seen an 1100-capacity room empty so fast. Blue was unspeakably dire, was such an embarrassment that it is inconceivable that anyone at MEIFF actually saw it before programming it and hyping it to the moon. I’m sure that’s a mistake that won’t be repeated come October 2010.

More happily, if less convincingly a “gala” event (there was only cast member Melanie Lynskey and composer Marvin Hamlisch present), Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! screened to another full house at the Emirates Palace. A much breezier film concerned with corporate malfeasance than his earlier Erin Brockovich (2000), The Informant! is good, clean fun and Matt Damon, in the lead role as real-life biochemist/whistle-blower/embezzler and most unreliable narrator Mark Whitacre, has never been better.

The Gulf premiere of Ehky Ya Shahrazad (Scheherazade, Tell Me A Story, d. Yousry Nasrallah), on the other hand, was a real event. Nasrallah’s film, with its clear titular allusion to the One Thousand and One Nights reflected in its mise en abîme structure, is an excoriating and exhilarating critique of Egyptian society’s treatment of its womenfolk. Egypt’s sweetheart Mona Zakki is superb as Hebba, a daytime TV hostess newly married to Karim (Hassan El Raddad), whose unscrupulous quest for promotion to chief editor of his newspaper extends to his urging her, only gently at first, to keep her show focused on lighthearted matters and out of the limelight. When instead she runs a series of interviews with women battered in various ways by her society’s institutionalised male chauvinism, with each of the women’s stories dramatised within the film in turn, she inexorably heads down the path to encountering some very nasty home truths indeed.

Nasrallah and many key cast members were on hand for a fascinating Q&A after the screening of this beautifully executed film. It is tremendously heartening that Scheherazade – with its intelligent considerations of the heated matter of hijab, its graphic abortion scene, and more – was a box-office hit in Egypt, where it stimulated considerable public debate. May it yet travel much farther afield and inspire much more!

Lastly, while I wasn’t upset to miss the screening of a new Robert Rodriguez kids’ flick, Shorts, it merits passing mention as the first film realised as a co-production between Imagenation Abu Dhabi and Western interests. Imagenation was launched as recently as September 2008. More films bearing its imprimatur are on their way…

World Cinema Showcase

A strong batch of films, invariably regional premieres, screened outside of competition. As a rule to which there were a few exceptions, they screened not in the Emirates Palace but in multiplexes at either of MEIFF’s two other venues, the Marina Mall and Abu Dhabi Mall, both a shuttle bus ride away – in the case of the latter, a really long bus ride away, if one along Abu Dhabi’s most celebrated stretch of asphalt, the Corniche Road.

Red Riding 1974The make-up of the audiences at screenings in the malls was quite different – appreciably more whitebread – to that taking in the competition and other “event” screenings at the Palace. This raised several questions: who were the screenings programmed for, of, for example, the Red Riding trilogy? Were they intended for the expat community, largely denied any grit in their cinema diet the rest of the year round due to censorship from on high? Was it accident or design that attracted a mostly European audience to so many MEIFF screenings at the malls? To what extent did the frequent absence of Arabic subtitling from screenings at either malls influence this situation?

While there were Emiratis visible – tellingly conspicuous, even – in the audience at some of these screenings, I got no real sense of theirs being an assimilationist presence, so conspicuously were they in the minority and keeping amongst their own kind. Hell, sometimes the entire Emirati portion of an audience walked out of a screening as one. I couldn’t help but wonder then whether this was more a victory in screening sometimes difficult films censorship-free to an audience hungry for them, knowing that those very same films would only appeal (and/or be marketed) to, and attended by, a particular introduced element of the population, or whether it was more a failure to bridge the cultural divide separating the Emiratis from their moneyed expat neighbours. (And re: their unmoneyed migrant neighbours, very seldom visible at the festival, a few thoughts, below.)

A quick round-up of highlights amongst the showcased films has to take in Les herbes folles (Wild Grass), which abounds in neon pastel colours and is ample demonstration that Alain Resnais might well be 87 but he can still make a film as playful, if not as downright daft, as any filmmaker alive. One of its stars, Anne Consigny, ebulliently gave as good as the film got at a brief Q&A afterwards.

While it is certainly hard to believe they were made expressly for television, I’m not at all convinced by David Thomson’s claim, reproduced in the MEIFF program, that the now well-travelled Red Riding trilogy is “a tragic achievement that surpasses that of The Godfather”. Nonetheless, Red Riding: 1974 (d. Julian Jarrold) and Red Riding: 1980 (d. James Marsh) are both terrific policiers (I am yet to see the third film) dramatising the investigation of the famous Yorkshire Ripper case, and its compromising by rampant corruption in the police force and within the community. Jarrold’s instalment is especially strong, a most grimly atmospheric work enhanced by a compelling central performance from Andrew Garfield.

Golden boy of the new Romanian cinema, Cristian Mungiu scripted all of the wonderful satirical portmanteau film Amintiri din Epoca de Aur (Tales from the Golden Age, d. Mungiu, Ioana Maria Uricaru, Hanno Höfer, Răzvan Mărculescu & Constantin Popescu), in which each segment riffs, sometimes hilariously, on a popular urban myth to have arisen during the grim “golden age” of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s basket case regime. But who directed which segment? This isn’t made clear, and thus you have the makings of a fun parlour game for students of auteur theory everywhere.

Lastly, the English-dub of Hayao Miyazaki’s latest “final” film Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo) was the only animated feature film at MEIFF. It was, of course, superb – without being quite as superb as his My Neighbor Totoro (1988) or Spirited Away (2001).

New Cinema from Turkey

A focus on new Turkish cinema ran to nine features and six shorts and was “intended by Peter Scarlet to serve as a model to the UAE’s filmmakers for how to get things done”. (5) I only caught two of the features, Hayat Var (My Only Sunshine, d. Reha Erdem) and Nokta (Dot, d. Derviş Zaim), but seeing as all films in this section were only shown at the cinemas in the malls I’d be surprised if a great many Emiratis caught even as few of them as I did. Dot I didn’t much care for; wholly set in a salt lake, it was basically another take on Hitchcock’s Rope trick, its seamless montage meant as a metaphor for the Islamic calligraphy the threadbare narrative was concerned with. Unfortunately, I flatly couldn’t warm to the lead protagonist, and it all got shrill and annoying. I much preferred My Only Sunshine, wherein a diffident 14 year-old girl learns a few valuable, if deeply troubling, life lessons on the societal and geographical fringes of riverside Istanbul. It’s a beautifully shot and effectively soundscaped work, and rings all too true. Great performances, too.

Documentaries

A field of 15 competed in the documentary strand. Docos appeared elsewhere in the program too; there was a “gala” screening of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story and, with some crossover with the competition, seven titles constituted the “What in the World Are We Doing to Our World?” environmental focus, a particularly pertinent question in a city with so gargantuan a carbon footprint as Abu Dhabi.

Goodbye, How Are YouBoris Mitić’s Do viđenja, kako ste? (Goodbye, How Are You?) was a clear highlight; it’s an inspired, often blackly hilarious critique-by-aphorisms of Serbian culture and politics overlaid upon a Chris Markeresque travelogue. I had already seen Franny Armstrong’s scattershot call to urgent action, The Age of Stupid, elsewhere and didn’t see it again at MEIFF but was given pause to consider it afresh after Paolo Cherchi Usai invoked it directly in his masterclass (about which, more below) as emblematic of the merit in preserving the (Arab) world’s visual heritage. Mat Whitecross took to the stage for a lively Q&A after the Middle East premiere of the didactic The Shock Doctrine (d. Whitecross & Michael Winterbottom), an adaptation of Naomi Wolf’s book of the same name investigating what happens when you cross Friedmanite economics with methodologies outlined in the CIA’s KUBARK manual: in short, you get “disaster capitalism”. Wolf herself appears regularly, giving a lecture at Milton Friedman’s old university stomping ground, by way of a framing device.

Refreshing alternatives to doomsday documentaries came in the form of Vivre ici (Being Here), Mohamed Zran’s gentle, sands-through-the-hourglass portrait of everyday life and thought in his hometown of Zarzis, Tunisia. And Kathleen Gallagher presented Earth Whisperers/Papatuanuku , an unforced tribute to good old Kiwi ingenuity and to leaders of the environmental movement both, in profiling the down-to-earth measures adopted by ten New Zealanders determined that their immediate surrounds, as a microcosm of the wider world around them, should be as green and unspoilt as they want them to be.

Emirates Film Competition

Surprisingly, a film competition in the UAE (but also open to fellow Gulf Cooperation Council nationals) has just completed its ninth edition. Awarded during this year’s MEIFF under the auspices of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, considerable prize money was on offer across multiple categories, with the 14 finalists – one feature-length, two featurettes and 11 shorts – all screening at the festival. It is to my regret that I saw not a single one of them and hence cannot comment on the quality of today’s crop of Emirati and GCC productions, but, in, my defence, I hardly felt encouraged to by the shoddy treatment afforded them in the program. They were all scheduled to screen once only, early on weekday afternoons when they would be hard not just for me to get to but for locals too and, worst of all, none of them were synopsised in the festival catalogue. It hardly conveyed any confidence in their merits.

That’s a real shame, especially as it transpires that the one true feature-length film in the competition, Al ghorfa al khamesa – Ouija (The Fifth Chamber – Ouija, d. Maher Al Khaja) is a full-blown horror movie, indisputably the first from the region. 128 minutes is almost certainly massively overlong, but a trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaQqhWR0o0Y for it on YouTube – suggests it might be a lot of fun.

Shorts

Three Sisters and AndreyIf the other four shorts packages were as strong as the only one I caught, then I’m impressed. They were organised under the rubric “Mystery”; “Emotion”; “Struggle”, along with two programs of student works. The highlights of “Mystery” were the superb Tri sestri i Andrey (Three Sisters and Andrey, d. Boris Despodov & Andrey Paounov), as formally inventive an animation as it was highly imaginative: imagine Chekhov meeting The Goodies meeting Bill Plympton, if you will; and Benh Zeitlin’s Glory at Sea, a sublime magic realist, post-Hurricane Katrina fable in which a savage storm has dragged many people to the bottom of the sea and away from their loved ones who, while spared their lives, eke out a sad, hardscrabble existence until they all throw their lot in with a man mysteriously washed ashore, and build a boat, perhaps to somehow retrieve the others… Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s score is superb and evocatively maritime, and, after a Fitzcarraldo-esque fashion, it’s impossible to believe the film could have been produced without the making of the film mirroring many aspects of its inspirational narrative.

Masterclasses

Four masterclasses, admirably all free to the public, were announced in the program to take place in the 625m2 Festival Tent (read festival club) out back of the Emirates Palace on its private beach; a further two were added during the festival, announced in the festival’s daily newsletter.

Of the initial four, I regret missing the two concerned with film scoring presented by Richard Horowitz with Sussan Deyhim, and by David Amram; I also missed “A Conversation with A. R. Rahman”, announced mid-festival.

However, I made sure to catch an address by Paolo Cherchi Usai, “Preserving the Film Heritage of the Arab World”, which I rightly assumed would be fascinating, even if 85% of his disquisition was a (necessary) generalist backgrounder in the problems faced the world-over by film archivists. Giving special attention to declaring a complete furphy the widespread belief that digital is a superior and cost-efficient preservation medium, Cherchi Usai went on to make some Arab-specific recommendations, most notably that he’d like to see an archive of the Arab world’s film heritage launched as an urgent multinational enterprise, positioned somewhere relatively stable within the region not known to be antagonistic to any neighbouring regimes, and most certainly presided over by Arab nationals. A voice from the crowd suggested Abu Dhabi might be an ideal candidate… Cherchi Usai didn’t disagree.

The other master class I attended was with silent film accompanist extraordinaire Neil Brand. With great verve, frequent projections of silent film clips and plenty of crowd participation, Brand demonstrated how he composes his piano accompaniments “on the fly”, and how what he plays can dramatically – even inappropriately, if he misreads proceedings – colour the viewing experience. It was, in a way, a primer in reading silent film, and a terrifically fun one at that. The following day he provided live accompaniment to “Laugh Till It Hurts”, a package of four silent film classics (6) which I privileged over rushing to a late-announced “Conversation with Naomi Watts”. “Laugh” was ballyhooed as very likely the first screening of silent cinema ever in the Emirates; a shame then the local population was little in evidence for it. (I loved it, though!)

I did also chance to walk into the festival tent one day to find members of the WETA Workshop team turning people into goblins… Not listed in the program, they nonetheless spent three whole days in the tent giving hands-on demonstrations in the art of prosthetic makeup.

Conclusion

The festival concluded with an awards ceremony in tenor not unlike the festival’s opening, a mostly dignified celebration sullied somewhat by crass Hollywood tokenism reminding me all too much of Australia’s cultural cringe-affirming import of B-grade American celebrities to needlessly shore up its screen awards ceremonies not so long ago. On that note, though, things did take a turn at the end for the agreeably, perhaps even self-parodyingly, silly: with no stars around to represent the (underwhelming) closing night film, The Men Who Stare at Goats (d. Grant Heslov), Peter Scarlet instead shepherded a number of goats onto the stage… Ha!

Conclusions

Son of BabylonSon of Babylon will – I hope – prove emblematic of the festival’s, and the region’s, future. As a UK/Iraq/France/Palestine/UAE/Netherlands co-production, it hints at further wonders to come from films telling Middle Eastern stories with recourse in production to the finances and resources of the West in conjunction with entities closer to home. I can only hope MEIFF’s injections of funds into further regional productions in the future will prove so propitious again. May Son of Babylon not just have been beginner’s luck.

While a great part of this festival’s proclaimed ambition is to nurture local production, I feel an ambivalence about there being awards specifically for Middle Eastern films and filmmakers – does this not belittle their achievements? And were someone from the region to win an overall prize, then it would follow they’d have to win the regional one too, which would suddenly seem quite redundant. On the other hand, the prize money was handsome, so perhaps that’s reason enough to keep this ostensibly second-tier award. And Elia Suleiman didn’t look too upset to receive his Black Pearl Award for Best Middle Eastern Narrative Film; the US$100,000 that came with it might very well enable him to get his next film out with much less grief than his last.

Who should be directing this festival in future? Surely, before a great many years pass, someone from the region ought be entrusted with the responsibility, just as Paolo Cherchi Usai asserted that an Arab world film archive ought to be managed by someone from the Arab world. It’s not that I want to see Peter Scarlet out of a job, but it would only be right and proper for him to hand over the reins in a few years to someone with a lifelong relationship to Arab culture. Hopefully he’s mentoring some Emiratis in the meantime.

The festival’s budget will no doubt be astronomical again next year. With MEIFF’s profile now considerably risen, I hope it will not again consider it necessary to do such things as take out an 8-page ad in Variety (I noted that some of the advertorial within that spread already appeared verbatim in the issue proper – not a good look, to my mind), or once more ship in an Orlando Bloom or an Eva Mendes to keep up appearances on Closing Night 2010. I’m sure that money, while it may be no object to the festival team, can be much better spent.

MEIFF will certainly continue to barrel along in coming years, and in tandem with its evolution it will be very interesting to observe whether any sort of strong grassroots film culture develops in Abu Dhabi. It’s a city-state seriously wanting for film schools, whether theoretical or practically-minded, as well as film societies, repertory cinemas… and, yes, an archive. Looking through a fair-sized bookshop in Marina Mall, I couldn’t find a single book on the cinema. Clearly, there are films being made in the UAE, but there can be no doubt that their makers would greatly benefit from some hometown schooling in the seventh art, just as with filmmakers anywhere. Theirs is a need for more than what just a single, monstrous, deep-pocketed annual flagship event can provide.

And here’s hoping too that those holding the purse strings – MEIFF, like so many enterprises in Abu Dhabi, is closely affiliated with the UAE’s staggeringly wealthy ruling family – will not prove too censorious with respect to homegrown projects. I expect it might be a bridge too far to expect that they’ll pour money any time soon into hard-hitting critiques of the exploitation of the very migrant labour forces heretofore critical to Abu Dhabi’s rise and rise and which continue to keep the folks over at Human Rights Watch interested. (7) I do though like to think that MEIFF will, with time, not just screen challenging, politicised narrative and documentary films from elsewhere in the region but that it will also help develop and showcase productions telling stories reflecting the full breadth of the Emirates experience, encompassing then not just the lives of the UAE’s haves, but also its many have-nots. That, to my mind, rather than any amount of glitz and glamour, will bring MEIFF and Abu Dhabi nearer to the mark of a film festival, and a film culture, attaining maturity.

Endnotes

  1. Additionally, burgeonings of a film festival culture are even reported in Dammam and Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, too, though mostly with respect to its suppression by a regime grossly intolerant of what it perceives and promulgates as being an evil entertainment form wholly contrary to Islam. For an excellent overview, see Caryle Murphy, “Where making movies is making trouble”, GlobalPost, December 3, 2009.
  2. Ed Lake, “Scarlet fever”, The National, 3 October 2009.
  3. Jane Fonda received the same award from MEIFF last year…
  4. It was to have been 18, but screenings of the Egyptian film Bin Alwan Al Tabiyya (True Colours, d. Oussama Fawzi), which was to have had its world premiere at MEIFF, fell by the wayside, it was said (in the festival newsletter of 15 October), “[d]ue to unfor[e]seen technical circumstances”.
  5. Ed Lake, “It’s all about new blood”, The National, 13 October 2009.
  6. Charlie Chaplin in The Immigrant (Chaplin, 1917); Buster Keaton in One Week (Keaton & Eddie Cline, 1920); Charley Chase in Mighty Like a Moose (Leo McCarey, 1926), and Charley Bowers in Egged On (Bowers, Harold L. Muller & Ted Sears, 1926). They were all superb prints too.
  7. See, for example, this article highlighting concerns over the abuse of workers indentured to develop Saadiyat Island, soon to house a Guggenheim Museum, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a campus of New York University, and more: “UAE: Exploited Workers Building ‘Island of Happiness’”, Human Rights Watch website, 19 May, 2009.

Middle East International Film Festival
Abu Dhabi
8-17 October 2009
Festival website: http://www.meiff.com/