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Middle East imports Hollywood

Festival invests in American culture

Abu Dhabi, the richest city in the world, is only 30 years old and has no film culture to speak of. So it bought one.

To support the launch of the inaugural Middle East Film Festival, there was a finance conference keynoted by Harvey Weinstein and a screenwriters lab mentored by Paul Haggis set for next year, while the New York Film Academy was lured to set up shop. Americans were hired for key staff positions.

Filmmakers had “butlers” available for every whim. Players from ICM, Warner Independent and Loeb & Loeb were flown in and shuffled onto panels to talk location incentives, international co-productions and ancillary revenues unique to the Middle East. Guests stayed at the $3 billion Emirates Palace, a massive artificial world sealed off from the oppressive heat.

The irony wasn’t lost on attendees that filmmakers were flying half a world away to drink champagne with Los Angeles execs.

If the organizers wanted just a reflection of this young, oil-rich city on the Persian Gulf, they succeeded. The Dubai Film Festival launched three years ago, and Abu Dhabi sought such success for itself, staking out dates two months in advance of its neighbor.

Those who sniped that the Middle East Film Festival bought its spot on the circuit were mollified by an inaugural program that snapped up festival hits like “Atonement” and “Persepolis,” balancing them with a sharp list of Middle Eastern films including Lebanon’s “Caramel”; “Crossing the Dust,” from Iraqi Kurdistan; and “When the People Spoke,” a Kuwaiti film banned in its home country.

However, money doesn’t buy everything. Badly miscalculating the area’s politics, the American programmers invited the Israeli film “The Band’s Visit.”

Aesthetically, Eran Kolirin’s touching story of an Egyptian police band lost in Israel was a great fit; politically, it was a disaster, with the festival rescinding the film’s invitation under pressure from the Egyptian Actors Union. For all the fest’s attempts to revolutionize the local film industry, the region proved it wasn’t ready for it.

Still, the festival is hardly the first to be accused of censorship. At best, the controversy is a wrong that the fest should look forward to righting.

And it’s important that the event does live on, enough to see that the initiatives planted this week bear a breakout hit from a locally funded and inspired filmmaker — maybe someone who can translate this golden and conflicted city onto film.

(Ali Jaafar contributed to this report.)