With little fanfare, the sixth Abu Dhabi Film Fest (formerly known as the Middle East International Film Festival) kicked off Thursday evening, commencing a 10-day program chockfull of films, seminars, lectures, industry meetings and several other activities.
The fest, which concludes on Oct. 23, inaugurates the Arab film fest season which continues with Carthage and Doha TriBeCa later this month, then Cairo and concludes with Marrakesh and Dubai in December.
The modest but chic ceremony was graced by a galaxy of stars — Oscar winner Adrien Brody, Oscar nominee Clive Owen, Palestinian poet Suheir Hamad, Syrian actors Sulaf Fawakherji and Susanne Najm Al Dien and a host of Egyptian stars that included Khaled Abol Naga, Ahmed Helmy, Fathi Abdel Wahab, Lebleba, Sumaia Al-Khashab, Yehia El-Fakharany and Youssra.
The gala ceremony opened with a screening of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s short film, “The Accordion” which premiered last month at the Venice Film Festival.
Shot in secret, “The Accordion” is a beautiful, heartbreaking and evocative anecdote of two ex-musicians forced into retirement when their instruments are confiscated. Barefaced in its attack of the repressive Iranian regime, “The Accordion” is another stellar entry in Panahi illustrious body of work that includes “Crimson Gold,” “The Circle” and “Offside.”
While the choice of “The Accordion” was inspired, the same cannot be said about the opening ceremony film “Secretariat,” a by the numbers inspirational sports tale heavy on melodrama and phony sentimentality and short on conviction, imagination and artistry.
Directed by “Braveheart” scriber Randall Wallace (who also penned Michael Bay’s notorious “Pearl Harbor”), this presumably feel-good tale is based on a true story about a housewife (Diane Lane) who beats the odds to guide her prized titular stag in 1973 to become the first Triple Crown-winner in 25 years.
The film fails on nearly every level. As an action/sports film, “Secretariat” fails to induce any kind of thrill, hampered by a pedestrian, insipid direction clueless about the staging of horse races.
As an underdog story, the film is too contrived, too calculated, too spurious to stir excitement, sympathy or catharsis at a time when viewers the world over are frantically searching for the slightest shred of hope. Compared to recent contemporary American films such as “Up in the Air” and “The Company Men” that tackle the impact of the economic meltdown head-on, “Secretariat” feels not only hollow but inconsequential.
A total of 172 films from 43 countries will be screened over the next week, 32 of which are world premieres and 26 are international premieres.
The 2010 solid selection features some of the most acclaimed art-house films of the year, including Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy” starring Juliette Binoche; Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Venice hit “Silent Souls;” Olivier Assayas’ epic biopic of Carlos the Jackal “Carlos;” Doug Liman’s espionage drama “Fair Game” starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Egyptian actor Khaled El-Nabawi; Tsui Hark martial arts mystery “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame;” François Ozon’s comedy “Potiche” starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu; and Mark Romanek’s adaption of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” starring Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan.
A Special Program sidebar showcases some of the most daring experimental Arab films of the past 40 years such as Elia Suleiman’s “Chronicles of Disappearance” and “Divine Intervention;” Maha Maamoun’s “Domestic Tourism II;” Shadi Abdel Salam’s “Al Momia” (The Night of Counting the Years;” and Kais Al-Zubaidi’s underseen curiosity “Al-Yazerli.”
The fest also presents the newly re-mastered versions of Charles Chaplin’s “The Circus” (1928) and Fritz Lang’s sci-fi odyssey “Metropolis” (1927) which premiered earlier this year at the Berlin Film Fest.
With monetary awards exceeding $1 million, Abu Dhabi is easily the most generous among its regional competitors.
Each winner of the following categories will be awarded $100,000: best new narrative film, best new narrative film from the Arab world, best new documentary, best new documentary from the Arab world, best documentary, best documentary from or about the Arab world, best narrative film and best narrative film from the Arab world.
In addition, $30,000 is given to the audience award and $25,000 for best actor and actress in the narrative competition.
The fest’s most notable feat though is its Sanad Fund; a $500,000 grant given to 28 Arab films in pre and post-production. Among those projects is Egyptian indie filmmaker Tamer El-Said’s much anticipated full-length debut feature “In the Last Days of the City” starring Egyptian/British actor Khalid Abdalla (“The Kite Runner,” “United 93”). Five Sanad-supported films will premiere in current edition.
New this year is the New Horizons section, showing 17 documentaries by young filmmakers presenting their first films.
Another new highlight this year is the Emirate Competition, comprised of long and short features. The section is the first serious endeavor in establishing a local film industry in the Gulf state.
A bland conversation with Clive Owen
Organization wise, the fest has clearly started on the wrong foot. As of Friday afternoon, the press conference schedule was yet to be released and there is a dearth of information regarding the seminars and the attendants.
A Romanian colleague told me that the involvement of too many PR companies is responsible not only for the disorganization, but for the lack of publicity inside Abu Dhabi, a claim confirmed with the thin attendance of Clive Owen’s public discussion at the large Abu Dhabi Palace.
Few press members showed up for the discussion which was poorly moderated by Ed Lake, editor of The National’s arts and entertainment review section. The conference was announced on Wednesday before most journalists arrived.
The discussion was virtually all over the place, starting with a dry roundup of the British star’s latest work — the action thriller “The Killer Elite” co-starring Robert De Niro and Jason Statham, psychological horror “The Intruders” with Carice van Houten and Daniel Brühl and TV drama “Hemingway & Gellhorn” where he plays the iconic American novelist against Nicole Kidman’s WWII correspondent Gellhorn — and with a question about his Armani shoes.
In between the many pointless questions, Owen managed to belt out a few interesting comments. On film, he said: “There’s something very elusive about making a film. You get a group of people in there and try your best to make it work. You don’t know exactly how or why movies go wrong.”
He referred to the starring role in Mike Hodges’s “Croupier” (1998) as his real breakthrough. The film, which wasn’t initially planned to have a theatrical release in the UK, was enthusiastically received by American critics in its limited US release. After several years of theater and TV work in Britain, Hollywood started courting him after the unexpected success of this little indie drama.
Owen stated that what he dreaded the most about film sets is the first few weeks. “I get really apprehensive,” he said. “You’re dealing with a lot of things that have got nothing to do with making a movie in the initial stages than in later ones.”
The single most engaging moment of the discussion, and the only instance when he actually seem interested, is when he was asked about the great late American filmmaker Robert Altman.
“He was a genius and I think he was very underrated,” said Owen who starred in Altman’s 2001 Oscar nominated ensemble drama “Gosford Park.”
“The film had 15 principle characters and he managed to keep everything balanced,” he said. “He makes it all look too easy, but it isn’t. People think that being natural depends on the actors who bring elements of their real selves into play, but that’s not true. The director is responsible for that and Altman worked hard to get you there.”
Oscar winner Adrian Brody.
Egyptian actors Youssra and Yehia El-Fakharany.
Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Naga.