The inaugural Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) came to an end Friday evening with a lengthy awards ceremony and the screening of Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah.
The Black Pearl Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature Film went to Nic Balthazar's Ben X, presented to producer Peter Bouckaert by veteran Hollywood producer Branko Lustig.
'This is Nic's first film as a director and actor, my first production, and the first Abu Dhabi film festival, so it means a lot to us,' said Bouckaert.
Australian director Michael James Rowland's Lucky Miles took the Best New Director award, with jury president Ian Birnie, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's film department, praising the film's 'expressive use of landscape and the ensemble performance from a multicultural cast'.
Both directors received a cash prize of $80,000 (Dhs300,000), and a production grant of an unspecified sum from the Abu Dhabi Film Fund for their next projects.
In total, the festival handed out around $675,000 in prize money.
The dominance of the festival's accompanying Film Finance Circle, with its array of Hollywood executives, has meant that the MEIFF has appeared a purely international endeavour at times, aimed more at putting Abu Dhabi on the production map than celebrating film.
But local viewers appeared to favour regional fare: the audience award for best feature went to Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis, while Lebanese director-actress Nadine Labaki's Caramel played to an enthusiastic packed house on Thursday night.
Last June, the Bangkok Film Festival withdrew Persepolis, Satrapi's animated tale of growing up during the Islamic Revolution, as its opening night film, under pressure from the Iranian government.
Festival executive director Nashwa Al Ruwaini told ScreenDaily.com that the MEIFF's programming choices and awards would remain independent of political pressures. 'I very much hope this award will help Persepolis pass the local censors and persuade theatres to give it a chance,' said the film's Middle East distributor Gianluca Chacra of Frontrow Entertainment.
Al Ruwaini admitted that the festival had gained government approval just five days before Cannes, and that its largely American team had been assembled in July. While an admirable effort given the timeframe, the festival's hasty birth resulted in some glitches.
Audience attendance during the day dwindled to a handful of viewers for some screenings; certainly the festival has been more successful at promoting itself internationally than locally. Al Ruwaini had conceded that perhaps too many films had been programmed for the first year - but that 'it was hard to say no to many of the 700 submissions we received'.
While there were some brave gala choices, both politically and artistically, the Arab film programmes were generally perceived to be a mixed bag. The line-up of films in competition varied from 18 features to only six documentaries.
Both the opening and closing ceremonies began over an hour late. Haggis, whose directors' masterclass had been a highlight of the festival, said he'd been motivated to make critics' favourite In the Valley of Elah by realising he lived 'in an America I loved but no longer recognised'. Screened at a more suitable time, his film would've resulted in extensive debate.
But the evening's delays, the film's sombre mood, and some early scenes featuring nudity (which would generally be censored in the Gulf), meant that around a quarter of the audience left the screening.
The festival closed in an upbeat and determined mood with a typically lavish party at its seven-star venue. 'Through these awards, the Screenwriters' Lab and the Film Financing Circle, we hope to provide a platform of knowledge and funding opportunities for emerging filmmakers,' said Al Ruwaini. 'This is only the beginning and we are here to stay.'
The awards in full:BLACK PEARL AWARDS ($80,000)
Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature Film - Ben X by Nic Balthazar (Belgium)
Best New Director - Michael James Rowland for Lucky Miles (Australia) Best Actor - Carl Markovics of The Counterfeiters (Austria/Germany)
Best Actress - Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Al Masri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisele Aouad and Sihame Haddad of Caramel (Lebanon/France)
Best Documentary Film - We Are Together by Paul Taylor (UK)
BLACK PEARL AWARDS for shorts ($27,000):
Best Short Film - Bawke by Hisham Zaman (Norway)
Best New Director - Manon on the Pavement by Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont (France)
Best Animated Short Film - I Met the Walrus by Josh Raskin (Canada)
Best feature - Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud (France)
Best documentary - Hear and Now by Irene Taylor Brodsky (USA)
Best short - Tanghi Argentini by Guy Thuys (Belgium)