Outdoor screening a first for the regional fest

ABU DHABI — The fifth Abu Dhabi Film Festival bowed Thursday with “Monsieur Lazhar,” Canada’s entry for foreign-language Oscar consideration.

While there are some changes to the event — the emirate’s Circle Conference confab, which usually draws a slew of global industryites, has been nixed — that didn’t stop the fest from launching with a bang.

“Lazhar,” starring Mohamed Fellag, Emilien Neron and Sophie Nelisse, was screened at a new outdoor venue at the back of the Fairmont Hotel, marking the first time the opening-night film has unspooled outdoors. Despite the Gulf heat, the event drew a sizeable crowd and auds later made the short walk to the swanky after-party at the hotel.

“I was nervous to see how the audience would sit with it being outdoors,” said Abu Dhabi Film Fest exec director Peter Scarlet. “But everyone seemed to enjoy it.”

“Monsieur Lazhar,” directed by Philippe Falardeau, follows an Algerian immigrant in Montreal hired as a replacement teacher.

A notable change at this year’s opening is the heavy presence of Arab and Gulf industryites and the slightly reduced number of bizzers from other corners of the globe — a reflection, perhaps, of the fest’s intention to put more focus on building a regional film infrastructure.

A slew of Arab thesps attended the after-party, including Egyptian actor Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, Egyptian actress-singer Bushra and Syrian thesp Faris Alhilo. Egyptian thesp Laila Elouis, Iranian thesp Fatemeh Simin Motamed-Ayra and French actress Marianne Denicourt — all jury members — also mingled.

This year’s fest will include world preems of Sam Neave’s “Almost in Love,” Amr Salama’s “Asma’a,” Michael Brandt’s “The Double,” Safinez Bousbia’s “El Gusto” and Nawaf Al-Janahi’s “Sea Shadow,” the first Abu Dhabi production from the emirate’s $1 billion production arm Image Nation.

Fest closes Oct. 22.

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