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Middle East fest’s growing conscience

A harder-hitting lineup includes 'Body of Lies'

Every startup festival needs a hook.

When Abu Dhabi officials decided to launch their Middle East Intl. Film Festival last year, the focus was all about the finance. Talk of establishing the “Davos of the film world” and heady promises of an “unlimited” production grant for the winner of the fest’s Black Pearl competish dominated the news coverage of the event.

A year on, while the fest, which unspools Oct. 10-19, still has plenty of financial incentives to offer with more than $1 million in prize money as well as a substantial production grant to the Black Pearl winner, organizers are making a concerted effort to put conscience before coin.

Fest officials are marking the 60th anniversary of the partition of Palestine and creation of the state of Israel with a sidebar of pics by Western filmmakers about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

More intriguing is the selection of the closing night film, Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. Pic follows a CIA operative sent to Jordan to track a high-ranking terrorist.

The choice of that particular film for such a high-profile slot is a bold move by Abu Dhabi officials, given the hot-potato subject matter and the fact that helmer Scott was blocked from lensing pic in neighboring Dubai, his first choice before eventually filming in Morocco, after local authorities expressed concern over the subject matter.

That decision came on the back of reservations in the U.A.E. about having allowed the lensing of Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana,” the multistranded look at the war on terror starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, and Peter Berg’s “The Kingdom,” which followed a team of U.S. government agents investigating attack in Saudi Arabia, from lensing in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, respectively.

While pics have their fans, some officials in the UAE have since balked at the prospect of being associated with overtly political Hollywood fare.

In “Body of Lies,” however, Middle East fest organizers have a pic that promises to be explosive.

“There was a combination of issues that led to us selecting the film,” says director of programming Jon Fitzgerald. “At the end of the day it’s a high-profile movie with a top director and A-list talent. It deals with an important subject matter that touches on this part of the world and it doesn’t show the Middle East in a bad light. It’s a no-brainer.”

Fest’s topical selection also comes in the wake of $250 million pact inked by the Abu Dhabi Media Co.’s production banner Imagenation with Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media, which should go some way to dispel concerns that the Gulf doesn’t do politics.

In fact, fest officials will be launching an initiative in partnership with the Saban Center for Middle Eastern policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institute at this year’s event. Most — the acronym for Muslims on Screen and Television — will become a cultural resource center with studies on the representations of Islam and Muslims in the U.S. entertainment biz.

Fest has also linked up with Gallic film org Cinema Verite to award Jane Fonda for her social activism through cinema. Fonda, along with fellow femme icons Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and Carole Bouquet will be in attendance to support the event.

There has been a concerted effort to address one of the criticisms of last year’s edition, namely the lack of Middle Eastern pics in the main Black Pearl competish for best feature, of particular irony given the fest’s moniker.

This year, fest will preem a number of Arab films in its main selection, including Egyptian helmers Magdi Ahmed Ali’s “Fawzia: A Special Blend” and Amr Salama’s “On a Day Like Today,” Syrian helmer Remon Butros’ “Haseeba,” Lebanese helmer Samir Habchi’s “Beirut Open City,” Moroccan helmer Mohammed al Sharif al Taribeq’s “Time of Comrades” and Emirati filmmaker Saleh Karama’s “Henna.”

Palestianian helmer Rashid Masharawi’s “Laila’s Birthday” also receives its Mideast preem at the fest. Pic, which has been selected at San Sebastian, Toronto and London fests, tells the story of a Palestinian judge (Mohammed Bakri) forced to work as a taxi driver in the chaotic streets of the Palestinian territories.

Fest will also reprise its dedicated sidebar with femme Arab helmers. This year’s selection will take on added resonance given the presence of two pics from Lebanese helmer Randa Chahal Sabbag, who passed away in August following a long battle with cancer.

“It was a huge challenge to start a new festival that strives to have a predominant role in the international festival world with over 3,000 other festivals taking place every year around the world,” says fest exec director Nashwa al-Ruwaini. “We believe that universality does not happen except through regionalism. The festival serves Arab cinema, especially in the Emirates and the Gulf, and we are honored to have great Arabic titles both in and out of competition.”

TIP SHEET

When: Oct. 10-19

Where: Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.

Web: meiff.com