Clear signals that the Middle East is fostering a truly international film industry pervade all sections of the 6th Abu Dhabi Film Festival, starting with its opener, Wall Street thriller “Arbitrage,” backed by Hollywood-based Saudi producer Mohammed Al Turki.
As further indication that the region is raising its cinematic profile, Ali Al Jabri, the event’s new artistic director, proudly points out that nine titles in the official selection tapped into coin from the fest’s Sanad Fund for development and post-production.
Among these are two that take their cue from the Arab Spring, Egyptian auteur Yousry Nasrallah’s “After the Battle,” which recently bowed in competition at Cannes, and Tunisian helmer Nouri Bouzid’s “Hidden Beauties,” a female empowerment drama set during the revolution, which will world preem at Abu Dhabi.
Both will unspool in the fest’s narrative feature competition alongside recent works from Michael Winterbottom, Susanne Bier and Sally Potter, among others.
“One of the aims of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival is to help boost emerging and established Arab filmmakers through their exposure to international cinema and interaction with filmmakers from all over the world. It’s very important to us not to create a ghetto for Arab cinema,” says Al Jabri, who replaced Peter Scarlet as fest topper in July after working closely with Scarlet for three years.
Saleh Karama took over Jabri’s former post of director of the Emirates film contest.
Like all fest chiefs, Al Jabri is keen on securing world preems, but he’s also happy to note that Toronto, where the Middle East loomed large this year, had four entries that Sanad backed.
These included Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir’s “When I Saw You,” a refugee-camp drama set in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, which will screen in Abu Dhabi’s New Horizons; and Paris-based Syrian director Hala Alabdalla’s “As if We Were Catching a Cobra” comprising Skype chats, emails and video diaries about the passionate struggle of Arab artists for freedom from creative, and even physical, oppression, which will screen in the documentary competition.
Another Sanad-financed docu that played in Toronto before coming to Abu Dhabi is “A World Not Ours,” an ironic, almost nostalgic, look at life in a Palestinian refugee camp, helmed by Dubai-born Mahdi Fleifel who grew up mostly in Denmark.
“What we are seeing is a new generation of filmmakers,” says Al Jabri. “Young Arabs who are embracing technology and telling stories in new and innovative ways, and this can only be positive for the region.”
This year Algeria, among the least represented Arab countries on the fest circuit despite its strong cinematic tradition, will feature prominently at Abu Dhabi, with two pics world-preeming in the narrative competition and a retro celebrating the 50th anniversary of Algerian independance from France.
Algerian entries vying for Abu Dhabi’s robust cash prizes are immigration drama “Harraga Blues” by Algerian veteran helmer Moussa Haddad — who was Gillo Pontecorvo’s assistant on “The Battle of Algiers,” also screening at Abu Dhabi — and “Perfumes of Algiers,” set in 1988 during the Algerian civil war, helmed by Rome-based Rachid Benadji and starring Italian actress Monica Guerritore.
Among standout titles in the Algerian retro are Muhammad Lakhdar-Hamina’s 1975 Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Chronicle of the Years of Embers” and “Z,” the 1969 Costa-Gavras political thriller which, though it was about turmoil in Greece, was mostly shot in Algiers as a French-Algerian co-production.
“We did not want to limit ourselves to films by Algerian directors; that’s not our spirit,” says Al Jabri.
That same criteria is what makes “Arbitrage” — a first feature by New York helmer Nicholas Jarecki, toplining Richard Gere, who is set to walk the Emirati Palace Hotel red carpet — such a good fit for Abu Dhabi. One of its producers is Al Turki, a young Saudi who has made a name for himself in Hollywood.
“It’s not just about Arab films, but about the Arab filmmaking-community, and their successes all over the world, wherever they may be; that’s what we want to capture here,” says Wayne Borg, topper of Twofour54, the government-backed media hub, which has direct oversight of the fest (see story page 28).
Al Jabri, who is 38, sees his new role as reflecting the fest’s mission.
“One key benefit that I hope will come from being the new head of the festival is that I can act as a role model to young Emiratis and Arabs thinking of entering the industry,” he says.
Muhammad Al Turki-produced “Arbitrage,” with helmer Nicholas Jarecki and stars Richard Gere and Nate Parker attending.
The 16 competing titles include Susanne Bier’s “Love Is all You Need,” Sally Potter’s “Ginger & Rosa” plus “Perfume of Algiers” from Rachid Benhaj.
“A World Not Ours” and “Stories We Tell” are among the dozen nonfiction films.
Variety’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year award to Yousry Nasrallah.
“Hidden Beauties” Tunisian helmer Nouri Bouzid’s female empowerment drama set during the revolution.
“The Citizen” from Sam Kadi
50 years of Algerian films will be showcased including “Chronicles of the Years of the Embers.”
Classics such as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Singing in the Rain” and “Z” unspool.
Fest closes on Oct. 19 with Black Pearls awards ceremony.
Showcase for Arab film | Abu Dhabi media summit aims big | Variety honoree Nasrallah mixes genres | Hub projects itself as club for growth