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Fest adds to Abu Dhabi action

Serious titles unspool at lavish hotel venue

ABU DHABI — When the emirate of Abu Dhabi first announced plans to become a global film player at last year’s Cannes film festival, its inaugural film festival was intended to be the main vehicle for its ambitions.

Dubbed the Middle East Intl. Film Festival, the fest boasted about an unlimited production grant for the winner of its Black Pearl competish, announced the formation of a film commission to facilitate filmmaking in the country, and also launched the Film Financing Circle confab.

A year later, and much in keeping with the breakneck speed with which business tends to get done in the United Arab Emirates, the second edish of the Middle East fest, which unspooled Oct. 10-19, finds itself struggling to keep up with Abu Dhabi’s other film initiatives.

The past few weeks have seen the launch of the Abu Dhabi Media Co.’s $1 billion production arm Imagenation, quickly followed by $250 million and $100 million pacts with Participant Media and National Geographic, respectively. Further announcements are expected in the coming weeks.

Abu Dhabi’s multibillion dollar media zone twofour54, which aims to become an international center for content creation, launched Oct. 12.

Fest’s opening night summed up many of the challenges it now faces.

A long opening ceremony, attributable both to reputedly last-minute demands from some attending Hollywood talent as well as fest organizers’ desire to turn the event into a TV show filled with spectacular dance numbers, meant that many of the guests in the auditorium left by the time opening film, U.S. helmer Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom,” began.

The irony of this year’s fest, given its opulent backdrop at the $3 billion Emirates Palace hotel, is that it succeeded in staging a number of serious-minded, politically conscious events. A tie-up with Gallic film org Cinema Verite, dedicated to social and humanitarian film projects, saw Jane Fonda feted for her political activism and fellow femme icons Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon jet in for discussions about filming in war-blighted Lebanon and perceptions of women in contemporary cinema.

Fest launched the “MOST” (Muslims on Screen and Television) initiative in partnership with the Saban Center for Middle Eastern Policy at Washington think-tank the Brookings Institute, Gallup and the Unity Prods. Foundation.

Selections at the film festival were bold.

Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies,” for example, was the closing night pic despite Scott being blocked from lensing the project in neighboring Dubai after authorities expressed wariness over its subject matter. The pic looks at a CIA operative attempting to foil a terrorist group in the Middle East.

Elsewhere, racy pics such as Monica Bellucci-starrer “Sanguepazzo” and Nanni Moretti-starrer “Quiet Chaos” screened uncut and uncensored, much to the delight of many in the audience and the chagrin to a few old-timers.

Refreshingly, there appeared to be an appetite for local cinema as well, with a number of Arab and Emirati pics playing to well-attended screenings, particularly those held at the nearby Marina Mall rather than the Emirates Palace’s massive main auditorium.

That the fest now finds itself vying for attention with Abu Dhabi’s various film initiatives could see its charismatic exec director Nashwa Al-Ruwaini, who also hosts her own self-monikered TV show and runs production company Pyramedia, reassess the event’s strategic future.

Just like the screenings in the Marina Mall often outsold those held in the vaster confines of the Emirates Palace, so too might the Middle East Film Fest find that its long-term strength lies in building its local base before betting everything on being global. Sometimes bigger is not always better.