Abu Dhabi Festival Fosters Filmmaking in Arab Industry

For its eighth edition, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival is boldly looking to bolster its standing as driver of the Gulf region’s still embryonic but increasingly vibrant film industry.

Fest’s opening film — Emirati director Ali Mostafa’s hotly anticipated pan-Arab road movie “From A to B,” about three Western-educated Arab youths who travel from Abu Dhabi to Beirut to mourn a deceased friend — heralds this ambition.

Co-produced by Twofour54, the media hub behind the fest, and film and TV outfit Image Nation, “A to B” marks the first time Abu Dhabi, now at its eighth edition, opens with a pic by an Emirati helmer. More significantly, “It’s by an Emirati filmmaker who goes out of the UAE and the Gulf and decides to make a 100% Arab film,” says fest director Ali Al Jabri, and in doing so, “makes a Western-style road movie with the Arab world in it.”

In its overarching mission to foster filmmaking in a region where movies are not traditionally part of the culture, the Abu Dhabi fest strives to showcase the best fresh Arab pics available alongside a selection of cherry-picked international titles and crowd-pleasers, such as its closer, Disney’s “Big Hero 6,” launching Nov. 1 in the Middle East, a week after its world preem at the Tokyo fest.

Sandwiched in between is a mix that balances less accessible and more audience-friendly titles in a de-facto distillation of the festival season that is coming to a close. Having a late October slot allows Abu Dhabi in some cases to “exact revenge,” as programming director Teresa Cavina puts it, by selecting pics that may have unfairly gotten a bad rap at their fest bows, or that may just work better when screened in an Arab context.

Case in point: French-Algerian helmer Rachid Bouchareb’s New Mexico-set “Two Men in Town,” about a Muslim ex-con (Forest Whitaker) who befriends his parole officer (Brenda Blethyn). Cavina claims this pic was “mistreated in Berlin” but will instead have special resonance in Abu Dhabi since the script, written with Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul, is “about the Arab world and what makes a man become a terrorist.”

Several films are among selected international titles that have “a common thread of socially significant themes,” Cavina says. These include Chinese helmer Diao Yinan’s cutting-edge noir “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” top winner in Berlin; Turkish helmer Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep,” which scooped the Cannes Palme d’Or earlier this year; Mauritanian helmer Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” about the Mali town’s occupation by militant Islamic rebels that Cavina and others think was unjustly overlooked at Cannes; and Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” which made a splash in Venice and is partly financed by Image Nation.

The Arab selection comprises first-time Jordanian helmer Naji Abu Nowar’s Bedouin Western “Theeb,” shot in the Jordanian desert with real Bedouins, which took the director prize in Venice’s Horizons section; 3D docu “Iraqi Odyssey,” by the Swiss-Iraqi director Samir, depicting the plight of the helmer’s family; Palestinian director Amer Al Shomali and Canadian director Paul Cowan’s docu “The Wanted 18,” about how 18 cows pasturing on a Palestinian collective farm became a security threat to Israel; and Lebanese director Ghassan Salhab’s drama “The Valley” about man who loses his memory and is held hostage. All these films are supported by Abu Dhabi’s Sanad film fund.

“The festival is the entire Abu Dhabi film system’s connection to the world,” says Al Jabri. “We are hoping to get Middle East distributors more involved — to build an audience here for films that aren’t just Hollywood or Bollywood fare.”

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