Fest Traveler: Abu Dhabi Film Festival

The fifth installation of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival will light up the desert Oct. 13 with a blend of international star power and homespun talent.

“The only reason we don’t have ‘international’ in our name is that Abu Dhabi is such an international city that the word would seem redundant,” says fest executive director Peter Scarlet.

The city, Scarlet notes, is made up largely of transplants. “Eighty-five percent of the people who live here are ex-pats, and they became the core of our audience right away, but our Emirati neighbors have an enormous curiosity about cinema.”

Those Emirati neighbors have contributed a lot of local talent to the fest. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Emirates Film Competition, which has been absorbed by the festival.

As part of the special contest, Emirati director Nawaf al-Janafi will unspool his second feature, “Sea Shadow,” a coming-of-age story set in an Emirati neighborhood, Fireej, where tradition is sacred.

Scarlet, former artistic director at Tribeca, came to the UAE three years ago. “Abu Dhabi seemed to be making an explicit commitment to having culture play a large role in its future, which was very exciting, especially at a time when, with regards to cinema, most of the focus in the U.S. had come to be limited more and more to being about nothing more than the previous weekend’s box office receipts,” he says.

Fest, which launched in 2007, is presented by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. Its lineup includes projects from George Clooney (“The Ides of March”), Martin Scorsese (“George Harrison: Living in the Material World”) and Steven Soderbergh (“Contagion”) to new works from enterprising Middle Eastern filmmakers, including Amr Salama, whose “Asmaa” looks at the stigma of HIV/AIDS; Ismael Ferroukhi, whose “Free Men” explores a Muslim-Jewish friendship in Nazi-occupied Paris; and Asghar Farhadi, whose “A Separation” is Iran’s hope for a foreign-language film Oscar nomination at the 84th Academy Awards.

Fest will pay tribute to Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who would have marked his 100th birthday this year. Eight films — six from Egypt and two from Mexico — influenced by or based on Mahfouz’s work will be screened in conjunction with a roundtable discussion, a monograph of his cinematic work and an exhibition of film posters.

“The Double,” a joint effort from Hyde Park Entertainment and Image Nation Abu Dhabi, will also unspool, marking Michael Brandt’s directorial debut. Richard Gere and Topher Grace topline the CIA spy thriller.

Writer-director Brandt, scribe Derek Haas and Grace will all be in Abu Dhabi to discuss making pics, with Brandt and Haas hosting a Young Media Leaders lunch and master class workshop during ADFF, says Michael Garin, CEO of Image Nation. Abu Dhabi has benefitted from entering into partnership with Hyde Park to finance films, such as “The Double,” he says.

“As a result of the partnership with Hyde Park, Image Nation has been able to bring world-class filmmakers to the region to impart their knowledge and experience with aspiring local filmmakers,” he says, citing Ashok Amritraj’s many trips to the region to talk to Emirati filmmakers.

Fest’s devotion to multiculturalism can be seen in its choice for opening night pic. “Monsieur Lazhar,” from Canadian helmer Phillipe Falardeau, chronicles the tale of an Arab man trying to succeed as a substitute teacher in Quebec. Pic is also Canada’s submission in the foreign-lingo film Oscar race.

Closing night of the fest is an awards ceremony only.

“We’re trying to be as active as possible in nurturing local Arab talent and in opening our doors to the international industry so that they can meet at this crossroads,” Scarlet says. “A festival is like a tree — its roots must be deep if it wants to grow tall and strong and reach out to the sky. … The roots of our festival are in Abu Dhabi, and our efforts go in the direction of supporting both local filmmakers and the local audience.”

One of the tenets of those efforts is Sanad, fest’s development and post-production fund. The fund, whose name is derived from the Arabic word for “support,” provides grants — up to $20,000 per project for development and up to $60,000 per project for post-production — to talented filmmakers from the Arab world. Sanad has an annual allocation of $500,000 and holds two open calls for applications per year, the next of which closes in February.

Filmmakers who earn grants and are on hand at the fest also participate in the SanadLab, where script mentors offer advice and mixers are provided with industry professionals such as producers and sales agents. All films that earn postproduction grants are screened at the fest.

“We want to be sure by supporting filmmakers with Sanad that their projects and films get a lot of visibility not only on the Arab cinema scene but also on the international scene,” Scarlet says.

One of the hallmarks of Abu Dhabi, Scarlet adds, is to provide the local audience with film choices from beyond Hollywood and Bollywood.

“There is a huge potential market for films in the Middle East and in the Gulf area, but it can be activated only if viewers become aware of the fact that there is a whole range of choices beyond the obvious commercial offers at the multiplex.”

HIGHLIGHTS

Naguib mahfouz: Man of Cinema
Naguib Mahfouz was the first Arab recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. ADFF pay tribute on the 100th anni of his birth with a screening of eight films influenced by his writing.

Rabindranath Tagore tribute
The late Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore will also be feted with a screening of “Charulata,” adapted from his novel “The Broken Nest.”

Spotlight on Sweden
Nine new Swedish films, plus three classics from helmer Ingmar Bergman.

‘The Double’
World preem of this twist on the classic spy film from helmer Michael Brandt is a joint effort from Hyde Park Prods. and Imagenation Abu Dhabi. Oct. 15, 9:30 p.m., Abu Dhabi Theatre.

Family Day
“On Location” at Marina Mall: ADFF fun for the whole family. Restored silent film “A Trip to the Moon” screens, followed by an early color pic from the creator of Mickey Mouse. A Laurel and Hardy film follows. 1-6 p.m. Oct. 15 Marina Mall.

Women’s Screening: ‘Girl Model’
A provocative documentary of the darker sides of the modeling industry. Middle East premiere. 9:15 p.m. Oct. 18, VOX 4.

Variety Middle East Filmmaker of the Year: Asghar Farhadi
Iranian helmer Farhadi comes to the fest with his fifth film, “A Separation,” which Iran has selected as its submission for the foreign-lingo film Oscar. Pic, which is Farhadi’s fifth, took the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

FEST TRAVELER: ABU DHABI
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