‘Chicken with Plums’ wins best film at Abu Dhabi Film Fest, with nods to Egypt

Joseph Fahim
9 Min Read

French film “Chicken with Plums” was the big winner at the fifth edition of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, scooping the Best Narrative Film prize and a monetary award of $100,000 at the closing ceremony held on Friday evening.

Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s follow-up to 2007 animation blockbuster “Persepolis” is a whimsical love story set in ‘50s Iran about a musician who decides to die after his precious violin is broken. The film stars Mathieu Amalric, Golshifteh Farahani and Isabella Rossellini.

Asghar Farhadi was given the Special Jury award and a cash prize of $50,000 for his Golden Bear winner “A Separation.” The festival sensation, which was widely tipped for the best film award, is an incisive look at class warfare and the Iranian bureaucratic law.

French-Moroccan Ismael Ferroukhi earned the Best Director from the Arab World prize for his WWII war drama “Les Hommes libres” (Free Men). Starring rising French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim (Un prophète), the French production sheds light on the Arab Muslims’ role in the French resistance.

American actor Woody Harrelson took home the Best Actor award for Oren Moverman’s cop thriller “Rampart.” Harrelson — a definitive nominee at next year’s Academy Awards — plays a veteran police officer struggling to support his family while facing harsh moral questions at work.

In the biggest upset of the ceremony, Jayashree Basavaraj beat Tilda Swinton to snatch the Best Actress trophy for her role in the South African drama “Lucky.” The Indian veteran actress plays an elderly widow who shelters a 10-year-old South African orphan.

Young Moroccan actresses Soufia Issami, Mouna Bahmad, Nouza Akel and Sara Betiou received a special mention by the jury for their performances in the Leila Kilani’s critical hit “On the Edge.”

In the New Horizons competition for first and second works, Egyptian director Amr Salama picked up the Best Direction from the Arab World trophy for his sophomore effort “Asma’a” while Maged El-Kedwany was named Best Actor for his role in the same film. Starring Tunisian actress Hind Sabry, “Asma’a” centers on an HIV-positive patient fighting the prejudices of her society.

Brazilian filmmaker Julia Murat’s beautiful debut narrative feature “Stories Only Exist When Remembered” rightfully earned the Best Film award. Set in the countryside, the Brazilian-Argentinean- French production revolves around a young female drifter who stumbles upon a small town populated with an elderly group of people.

The Special Jury Prize was handed out to Gurvinder Singh for “Alms for a Blind Horse” from India while the Best Actress was given to Memona Mohamed for her role in Lagrimas de Arena “Tears of Sand” from Spain.

In the Documentary Competition, acclaimed Dutch-Indonesian filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich was awarded Best Film for “Position among the Stars,” the final part of his award-winning Indonesian trilogy. Helmrich continues to observe the Shamshuddin family as they attempt to cope with the new-found political, social and economic realities of a rapidly-Islamizing Jakarta.

The Special Jury award was handed out to Tatiana Huezo’s “The Tiniest Place” from Mexico. The film chronicles the ordeals of a band of guerilla fighters who managed to survive the 1980-1992 El Salvador civil war.

Gemma Atwal won the Best New Director gong for the Indian-British-American production “Marathon Boy.” The uplifting, “Slumdog Millionaire”-like tale charts the transformation of a little slum boy into a national running champion.

Algerian-born filmmaker Safinez Bousbia was named Best Documentary Director from the Arab World for festival favorite “El Gusto.” The French-Algerian-Irish-Emirate production is a musical documentary recounting the history of Algerian Chaabi music via the story of a Jewish and Muslim orchestra disbanded by the war. “El Gusto” was also the FIPRESCI’s pick for best film.

Egyptian company Film Clinic and its director Mohamed Hefzy won the Best Producer from the Arab World award for the January 25 Revolution documentary “Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Politician,” directed by Tamer Ezzat, Ayten Amin and Amr Salama.

The Audience Choice award went to “Skeem,” a South African crime comedy directed by Timothy Greene.

Academy Award winning actress Swinton was given the Black Pearl Career Excellence award. The Scottish actress was one of the few major stars that made it to Abu Dhabi this year.

Defined by substantial budget cuts, this 2011 edition was low on star-wattage, a far cry from last year when the likes of Clive Owen and Uma Thurman graced the Emirati capital. Several talents with participating productions didn’t show up. Unlike last year though, the fest was better publicized. Audience turnout was bigger yet early afternoon shows remained modestly-attended, an unfortunate reality for filmmakers whose work were placed at those spots.

Critics were befuddled by the seemingly infinite number of awards bestowed this year. More than 40 prizes in cash spread over five competitions were granted this year. The number exceeds any other festival in the world. The motto this tactic implies is that everyone is a winner in Abu Dhabi. This could be tempting for filmmakers and producers, but for critics, it diminishes the value of the prizes.

The international film selection was more concise and focused than last year, offering an eclectic selection assorted from various world festivals. It remained somewhat safe though, mixing celebrated art-house pictures with commercial fares. Topics that might be deemed risqué in the Arab world were expectedly avoided.

This sense of discovery crucial to new film festivals remained missing. Among the few true revelations in the international selection were Sam Neave’s formally bold romantic drama “Almost in Love” and Murat’s deeply perceptive “Stories Only Exist When Remembered.”

The Arab selection, as in all regional fests, was patchy, if superior to last year’s. Abu Dhabi was adamant on acquiring the hottest projects in the region, and hence the heavy reliance on Morocco, the sole cinema emerging unscathed by the Arab Spring. Kilani’s “On the Edge” was the highlight of the group along with Mohamed Asli’s “Rough Hands.” Hisham Lasri also showed great promise with his debut feature “The End.”

Kilani’s film was one of the fruits of the Sanad, the fund created by the festival to aid Arab films. The other Sanad standout was Bousbia’s “El Gusto,” a delightful surprise that could herald greater prospects for the fund.

The documentary side-bar continued to be Abu Dhabi’s forte. The highlights of the section were numerous, but Helmrich’s little-seen “Position among the Stars” was a real treat and an indication of what the fest could become if it decides to take more risks.

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (R) receiving the special jury award for his film "A Separation.” (AFP Photo/Karim Sahib)

Actress Tilda Swinton (R) congratulates French writer and director Vincent Paronnaud after receiving the award of the best narrative film, which he won with co-director Marjane Satrapi, for their latest movie "Chicken with Prunes" (Poulet aux Prunes). (AFP Photo/Karim Sahib)

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