The festival director talks to Screen about this year’s event.
Last year, Ali Al Jabri had to to pull together the programme for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF) in double quick time. He had taken over as director (from the departing Peter Scarlet) only two and a half months before the festival began.
In his second year at the helm, Al Jabri is relieved that he has had a full year to prepare. “We have had enough time to do our job clearly,” he says.
As ever, the Narrative Feature Competition includes a strong blend of both western and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) titles. Films that have competed in Berlin, Cannes and Venice (among them, Stephen Frears’ Philomena, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch Of Sin and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves) sit alongside titles from Iraq (In The Sands Of Babylon), Morocco (Fevers), Egypt (Rags And Tatters) and Algeria (The Rooftops).
“This year, we have a lot of Arab films. We are really proud of our SANAD (fund),” the festival director notes of the development and post-production fund that has kick started several films which have gone on to screen in the festival while enabling others to be completed.
For example, SANAD-backed My Sweet Pepper Land, from director Hiner Saleem, comes to Abu Dhabi after its successful launch in Un Certain Regard in Cannes.
Giving a historical perspective, there is also a sidebar for debut Films by Arab filmmakers. This includes some films now regarded as classics, among them Ferid Boughedir’s Halfaouine: Boy Of The Terraces (1990) and Zlad Doueiri’s West Beirut (1998).
Al Jabri calculates that the festival received around 2,000 films this year - a huge amount.
The growing prestige of the festival combined with the generous prize money (the Black Pearl Award for Best Narrative feature alone is worth $100,000) attracts a huge number of would-be entrants.
“The selection committee has been working hard, day and night,” he states of the effort required to whittle down the vast number of movies offered to Abu Dhabi into a manageable programme.
He and his programmers have tried to make as broad a selection as is possible. “We are not looking for the one theme. We are open. We have many different subjects this year.”
Alongside the fiction films, the festival has an increasingly prominent documentary strand.
“We don’t want to say it is easy to make a documentary,” Al Jabri reflects of the effort Abu Dhabi makes to treat docs as seriously as fictional fare.
As ever, some very big names are expected to attend the festival. At the time of writing, the guest list was still under wraps. However, the opening film is Life Of Crime starring Jennifer Anniston and Tim Robbins. It is also already confirmed that there will be a tribute to the great Palestinian star Hiam Abbass.
“We know that all Arab countries work with Hiam Abbass,” Al Jabri says of the actress and director who has also worked with big name western directors like Steven Spielberg, Jim Jarmusch and Julian Schnabel.
Al Jabri believes that ADFF, launched in 2007, is becoming more and more widely known and respected.
“It has grown up fast and it is strong,” he says. He points to the workshops, panels and industry events that run alongside the red carpet galas.
New Child Protection Award
Showing its social conscience, the festival has introduced a new Child Protection Award for movies that raise awareness about abused or neglected children. This has a $70,000 prize for Best Film and a $30,000 prize for Best Script.
“Actually, the idea came from the Ministry of Interior in Abu Dhabi,” Al Jabri points out.
“We knew this was a very important subject and that we had to send a message to the whole world about how to treat the child. We were lucky this year that there are a lot of films on that subject.”
Contenders for the inaugural Child Protection Awards include such movies as Beeban Kidron’s InRealLife (a doc about the effect of the digital age on young people) and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Cannes winner Like Father, Like Son (about two sets of parents dealing with the revelation that their respective sons were switched at birth).
The festival director pays tribute to his predecessor, Peter Scarlet, with whom he worked closely before Scarlet’s departure from Abu Dhabi last summer.
“We were in one office. I thank Peter Scarlet that I was all the time with him, sharing information. It was very good working with him.”
However, in his second year at the helm, Al Jabri is clearly leaving his own imprint on events.
Alongside the Child Protection competition, the festival now also has an Our World Competition, showcasing films that broaden public awareness of environment and related social issues.
Al Jabri is a well-known theatre and film actor in his own right and has also directed several short films.
“I try to keep a balance between my (own) artistic side,” he says of his ongoing attempts to juggle his own filmmaking and acting with running one of the Arab world’s most important festivals.
Needless to say, at the moment, he confides, the festival doesn’t leave much time for anything else.