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‘Ben X’ wins Abu Dhabi prize

Pic directed by Nic Balthazar

ABU DHABI — Abu Dhabi’s inaugural Middle East International Film Festival wrapped Friday night with a cash-filled awards ceremony. Belgian drama “Ben X” won the fest’s top prize for best film from a debut or sophomore helmer.

The award, dubbed the Black Pearl, carried with it a cash prize of just over $80,000, and will also include a potentially unlimited production grant from the newly created Abu Dhabi Film Fund toward director Nic Balthazar’s next project.

Australian helmer Michael James Rowland took home the new director prize and a check for $80,000 for “Lucky Miles,” while the cast of hit Lebanese pic “Caramel,” directed by Nadine Labaki, shared the acting prize and another $80,000 check.

By the end of the evening, fest organizers had handed out a total kitty of some $675,000 in prize money.

The evening was rounded off with the regional preem of “In the Valley of Elah.” Helmer Paul Haggis was in attendance, along with cast members Frances Fisher and Jake McLaughlin.

“Peace be upon us all,” said Haggis as he addressed the audience, before explaining that part of his inspiration for making the Iraq drama came from seeing photos of American troops parading with Iraqi corpses. “I found myself in the country I very much loved but no longer recognized.”

MEIFF organizers had been working on establishing the start-up festival in the oil-rich emirate as the “Davos of the film world,” according to festival executive director Nashwa Al-Ruwaini, with the three day Film Finance Circle, topped by Adrienne Briggs, overshadowing the more cultural aspects.

With the likes of Harvey Weinstein, former BBC Films head David Thompson and Relativity Media CEO Ryan Kavanaugh all attending the event, which unspooled Oct. 14-19, fest had a heavy industry leaning and organizers made no bones about their desire to establish a film biz in Abu Dhabi. “We are here to stay,” exclaimed Al-Ruwaini during her closing night address.

The full list of winners are:

BLACK PEARL AWARDS ($80,000)

Grand jury prize for feature film — “Ben X” by Nic Balthazar (Belgium)

New Director — Michael James Rowland for “Lucky Miles” (Australia)

Actor — Carl Markovics of “The Counterfeiters” (Austria/Germany)

Actress — Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Al Masri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisele Aouad and Sihame Haddad of “Caramel” (Lebanon/France)

Documentary film — “We Are Together” by Paul Taylor (U.K.)

BLACK PEARL AWARDS FOR SHORTS ($27,000):

Short film — “Bawke” by Hisham Zaman (Norway)

New director — “Manon on the Pavement” by Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont (France)

Animated short film — “I Met the Walrus” by Josh Raskin (Canada)

AUDIENCE AWARDS

Feature — “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud (France)

Documentary — “Hear and Now” by Irene Taylor Brodsky (U.S.)

Short — “Tanghi Argentini” by Guy Thuys (Belgium)