Magazine article Filmmaker

Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2012

Magazine article Filmmaker

Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2012

Article excerpt

It is difficult to separate an impression of a film festival from the context of its environment, but with the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, one has to see through the excess of its garish headquarters. The Emirates Palace, a $3-billion establishment, aptly described by Frank Gehry as "megalomaniac," is so full of marble and gold that you may pass out from the fumes of grandeur. Abu Dhabi's wealth manifests itself in unavoidable ways at the festival. This year, more than a million dollars was given away in prize money, the most ever awarded by an international festival. While the powers that be try to buy their city cultural capital, the programming itself deserves a serious look.

Led by Ali Al Jabri in his first year as Festival Director, the third in six years after Simon Field and Peter Scarlet, the ADFF is a legitimate gateway, and has the potential to be an invaluable one, for contemporary Arab cinema's introduction to the Western world. Moreover, ADFF makes a cultural exchange possible with its "festival-of-festivals" programming, films that reach the Middle East often for the first time in Abu Dhabi. It's difficult to gauge how many locals eagerly attend the festival, but with films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and The House I Live In playing, these offerings are certainly not for visiting critics and cinephiles. (It's also tricky to gauge the passions of the audience in general, a striking number of whom leave their cell phones on for the duration of films, with more than the occasional ringtone going off during nearly every film.)

ADFF's range of programming is admirable, spanning 48 countries with no discernible bias for content, but the structure of the festival is somewhat bland and unfocused. The films are divided into the following sections: Narrative Feature Competition, New Horizons Competition, Documentary Feature Competition, Short Film Competition, Emirates Film Competition and a "Showcase" of works in which the audience votes for their favorites. This makes nearly everything a "competition" film, making, for example, Beasts of the Southern Wild eligible for a $100,000 payout if the jury likes it more than, say, a film like Gabriela Pichler's Eat Sleep Die, which is in more need of attention. The peculiar broadness of these so-called "competitions" thus neuters any potential impact that the award could have to international followers of the festival circuit, while also cheapening the presentation of the films by shoehorning them into a competition that is misbegotten. Having an Arab sidebar award is also a miscalculation that discriminates between Arab and world cinema, essentially conceding the main prize to a non-Arab film. Though the festival is happy to hand out multiple cash prizes for each category, some narrowing of these categories would be beneficial. Right now, it just feels like a lottery of sorts; come to Abu Dhabi and maybe you'll take home $100,000 (which you can exchange in the lobby at the Gold ATM, of course).

Featuring festival circuit-hardened works from renowned auteurs like Takashi Kitano, Abbas Kiarostami and Manoel de Oliveira, as well as an intelligently selected variety of films from all over the world, ADFF this year had a nice balance of established work and surprises. The Kitano, Outrage Beyond, was one of the highlights for me; a return to form for the Japanese filmmaker that finds him approaching violence with an affective cold distance. Emin Alper's Beyond the Hill is a significant debut feature that signals the arrival of a Turkish filmmaker who will hopefully sustain a presence in the film world. …

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