This year, a new wind blew through the sixth edition of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. After running successfully for the last four years under the direction of Peter Scarlet, the festival presented itself under the leadership of new management and festival director Ali Al Jabri, who had worked closely with Scarlet in the past few years.
The local media organization TwoFour54, a tax-free, government-backed organization named for the geographical coordinates of Abu Dhabi, aims to "enable the development of world class Arabic media and entertainment content, by Arabs for Arabs." It plans to strategically align the festival as the creative hub for the region, supporting film production alongside Abu Dhabi's other media initiatives and platforms, such as broadcasting, music, digital media, events, gaming and publishing. The plan is to position Abu Dhabi as a regional center of excellence in content creation.
These changes also seem to reflect the increasing trend in the UAE of replacing foreigners with Emirati nationals in top positions. Ali Al Jabri has already announced that he wants to include more Emiratis in his staff to run the festival in 2013. While maintaining the festival's status as an international event, his focus is explicitly "to develop Arab and Emirati talent, showcase them on the biggest platform possible, and to inspire young Emirati filmmakers so that they can see the media and entertainment industry as a viable career path." It will be interesting to see how these changes shape the orientation of the festival — since its creation, the event has aimed to provide an important platform for emerging and established Arab filmmakers.
This year's program highlights included the Narrative Feature Competition, with 15 films including works by François Ozon and Manoel de Oliveira, and the bold, highly acclaimed new films of Cate Shortland and Yesim Ustaoglu; the New Horizons Competition, with 15 first or second films including festival runners like Beasts of the Southern Wild alongside the world premiere of the amazing debut film from Egyptian filmmaker Hala Lofty; and a particularly strong Documentary Feature Competition with 12 films and two short film competitions (one for shorts from the Emirates).
A showcase of 24 films from all over the world, a celebration of Algerian cinema, a spotlight on South Korea, and a host of special events, master classes and industry meetings completed the intense, extremely well-organized festival program. There was much glitz and glamor at the festival: there were Lifetime Achievement Awards and daily Red Carpet events, followed by sumptuous dinner parties served with an oriental flair on the terraces of the Emirates Palace.
The whole festival took place under the golden bell jar of the gigantic Emirates Palace, which hosted guests and gala screenings for ten days in its luxury bunker, and in the multiplex cinema of a luxury shopping mall on the other side of the pristine blue laguna. Air conditioned to freezing point, the mall could have been anywhere in the world were it not for the amazing crowds of extremely fashionable young Emirati women in black abayas, hijabs and niqabs, and their male counterparts in spotless white dishdashes and ghutras who queued in front of the theater halls. The short trip between these two venues, connected by an impressive, non-stop fleet of brand new Mercedes festival cars, provided the one short glimpse of the outside world.
Our FIPRESCI jury focused on the 13 Arab films in the three main competition sections. These included seven world premieres: three by well-known filmmakers Nouri Bouzid (Hidden Beauties, Tunisia-France-UAE), Moussa Haddad (Harraga Blues, Algeria) and Rachidd Benhadj (Perfumes of Algiers, Algeria), as well as the outstanding debut film Coming Forth By Day by Egyptian director Hala Lofty. In the documentary section we watched Cursed Be the Phosphate by Sami Tlili (Tunisia-UAE-Lebanon-Qatar), In Search of Oil and Sand by Wael Omar and Philippe Dib (Egypt-UAE), and Mohammad Saved by the Waters by Safaa Fathy (Egypt, France, UAE). Nine of the films in our selection had been supported by the Abu Dhabi Festival's own development and post-production fund, SANAD.
The jury, which was supposed to give just one award, found itself in the dilemma of not being able to choose between apples and oranges, i.e., between a fiction film and a documentary. Both films were considered by all five jury members to be the best films in their category. Finally, with Klaus Eder's blessing, the jury gave two awards: to Lofty's Coming Forth by Day, an audacious, personal and profoundly humanist film which impressed us with its radical cinematographic language (uncommon in Arab cinema), and to A World Not Ours by Mahdi Fleifel (Lebanon-UK-United Arab Emirates), a documentary filmed with emotion without losing its lucid grip on reality. A World Not Ours revisits the memory of a Palestinian refugee camp, from nostalgic childhood recollections to the shattered hopes of today. (Barbara Lorey de Lacharrière)
Abu Dhabi Film Festival: www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae