News Column

The stars come out in Abu Dhabi

October 24, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 24--ABU DHABI -- The Gulf's international film fest season is set to commence Thursday evening when the floodlights come up on the seventh edition of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. The celebrations will open with a gala screening of "Life of Crime," Daniel Schechter's screen adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel. In this Jennifer Aniston-Tim Robbins vehicle, which premiered at TIFF last month, a kidnap caper goes awry when a slimy real estate developer decides he has no interest in paying ransom for a trophy wife he's about to leave.

The notion of there being a "film festival season" on the eastern edge of the Arab world is not quite as novel as it was a few years back, and the terrain has been marked by change as well as continuity.

At one end of this polarity is the Dubai International Film Festival, which in 2013 marks its first decade. Having started as a noncompetitive event, it has become a platform for Arab and Africa-Asia film competitions and home to the region's best-developed film market.

At the other extreme is the Doha Film Institute. While the body's lucrative film development fund has prospered, DFI announced earlier this year that it had put down its four-year collaboration with New York's Tribeca Film Festival. Replacing the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival is a pair of new events -- the Ajyal Youth Film Festival (Nov. 26-30) and the Qumra Doha Film Festival (March 19-26, 2014).

Abu Dhabi's yearly cinema event has seen its own changes. Founded in 2007, the city-state's Middle East International Film Festival morphed into ADFF in 2010. In 2012 the event underwent further modifications as ADACH (the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage), the presiding state institution, was superseded by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, which handed the management of ADFF to TwoFour54, the emirate's media authority. After some speculation about its future, SANAD, ADFF's lauded film-funding body, has just announced a new tranche of grants.

The general public (for whom film festivals putatively exist) is indifferent to such institutional to-ing and fro-ing. Cineastes, in the Gulf and elsewhere, are concerned about whether their theaters will be stocked, however briefly, with films of a different flavor than the stuff commercial distributors dish out -- action-hero and zombie flicks drizzled with syrupy romantic comedies.

In this, the good folks of Abu Dhabi can be reassured. Though pride of place is given to new work from the MENA region, ADFF promises a wide and varied selection of new international films, most vetted by A-list events in Europe and North America.

Premieres are the industry standard for a film festival's stature, and ADFF boasts that it will stage more MENA world premieres than ever before.

Like Dubai and Doha, Abu Dhabi had next to no filmmaking footprint before launching an international festival. Consequently, the debut of local feature-length films is a major event. This year ADFF's noncompetitive Showcase section will host the premiere of "Djinn." Directed by Tobe Hooper (the U.S. helmer behind the famed 1974 gore fest "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"), this made-in-the UAE horror flick is produced by Abu Dhabi's ImageNation.

Also premiering in Showcase is "Peace after Marriage," the debut of Palestinian team Ghazi and Bandar Albuliwi. This romantic comedy tells the story of a Palestinian migrant to the U.S. who is so lonely that he marries an Israeli. The film stars the much-loved Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, whom ADFF is this year awarding its Black Pearl Career Achievement Award.

Naturally the strongest regional talent is reserved for ADFF's several competition programs.

"At ADFF we make a point of having Arab cinema compete head-to-head with international films," ADFF director Ali Al Jabri remarked in the run-up to the festival. "As well as bringing the best of world cinema to the UAE, it's our mission to show the world the best of Arab cinema."

In this regard, the 14-film lineup of ADFF's Feature-length Documentary Competition includes the world premiere of four Arab docs.

Veteran Lebanese filmmaker Mohammad Soueid returns to ADFF with "Hanging Dates under Aleppo's Citadel." In it a young man, whose father was disappeared by the Syrian mukhabarat in the early 1980s, recounts his evolution from protest singer to fighter on the streets of Aleppo.

Competing alongside Soueid are Egypt's Sherief Elkatsha with "Cairo Drive," which promises to be about something other than the ongoing revolution in that country; "El Gort," directed by Tunis' Hamza Ouni; and "Whispers Of The Cities" by Iraq's Kasim Abid.

New Horizons, the program set aside for young directors' first and second features, includes a pair of world premieres from the region: "Villa 69," the SANAD-funded debut feature of Egypt's Ayten Amin, and "Before Snowfall," by Iraqi-Kurdish helmer Hisham Zaman.

They will compete alongside a pair of Arab films that premiered last month at TIFF -- "Giraffada," the sweet-natured debut work of Palestinian-Egyptian filmmaker Rani Massalha, and "Bastardo," the feature-film premiere of Tunis' Nejib Belkadhi, who made great waves a few years back with his hilarious documentary debut "VHS Kahloucha."

Of the 15 productions in the mainstream Narrative Feature Competition, four are from the Middle East.

Only one of these, "In The Sands of Babylon," the third feature of Iraqi writer-director Mohamed al-Daradji, is a world premiere. The other contenders are familiar from earlier in the season.

The SANAD-funded "My Sweet Pepper Land," by Iraqi-born Kurdish helmer Hiner Saleem, premiered this past spring in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes. "Rags and Tatters," the third feature of Egyptian writer-director Ahmad Abdalla, premiered at TIFF last month.

The veteran of the group, Algeria's Merzak Allouache, has been a fixture of the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival, where for two consecutive years he walked away with the Best Arab Film prize -- for "Normal" and "The Repentant."

His latest film, "The Rooftops," had the distinction of being the only Arabic-language film to be selected for the competition of this year's Venice Film Festival and will now compete in Abu Dhabi. It has also been announced that Allouache has been named the Middle East Filmmaker of the Year, a distinction awarded yearly by the trade magazine Variety. -- The Daily Star

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival continues until Nov. 2. For more information, see www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae.

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(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

Visit The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon) at www.dailystar.com.lb/

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