Lights, Camera, Action

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival, that kicked off yesterday, dreams of creating a vibrant cinema culture in the Gulf.

By Gautaman Bhaskaran (ARTS + CULTURE)

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Published: Fri 15 Oct 2010, 11:13 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:28 PM

This year, the Festival is all set to showcase not just great films, but also some of the biggest names in Arab cinema — like Yousra (whose glittering career in cinema has been matched by an equally brilliant presence on television in recent years) and celebrated movie and television actors, Yehia el Fakharany from Egypt and Bassam Kousa from Syria.

Mona Zaki and Ahmed Helmy lead a list of top names from a new generation of Arab actors that also includes Ghada Adel, who starred in Mohamed Khan’s In the Heliopolis Flat (2007), and Fathy Abdel Wahab, best known for his role in Sahar Al Layali (2003).

Beyond the allure of stars lies exciting cinema. The Festival will showcase 70 features from about 28 countries. Thirteen of these will be screened for the first time anywhere in the world, and four among them were partly funded by Sanad, the Festival’s moneybags that help develop and post-produce Arab films.

One of the world premieres is India’s Paan Singh Tomar in Hindi. Helmed by Tigmanshu Dhulia and produced by UTV Motion Pictures, it narrates the tale of a champion runner in the Indian Army who turns into an outlaw wrecking havoc in the Chambal Valley. Irrfan Khan is Tomar.

The other Indian entry is Srijit Mukherjee’s debut Autograph, in Bengali, starring Nandana Sen and Prosenjit Chatterjee; it revolves around three people from the world of arts: a young director, a superstar and a theatre actress. Thrown together on a cinema set, they find their lives somersaulting. Taking a captivating, thoughtful approach to celebrity culture and the pitfalls of the film world, Autograph has been inspired by Satyajit Ray’s Nayak and Ingmar’s Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.

The Festival kickstarted with Randal Wallace’s American biographical work, Secretariat. The story of Penny Chenery, whose racehorse, Secretariat, won the 1973 Triple Crown, it stars Diane Lane and John Malkovich among others. The Festival will end on October 23 with Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, a fictional account of the exploits of Di Renjie, a celebrated official in China’s Tang Dynasty. This screening will be preceded by the Black Pearl Awards.

Between these two points, the Festival’s executive director, Peter Scarlet, promises a few gems. And what are they? One of them, Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, adapts Japanese-born British author Kazu Ishiguro’s novel to tell us the story of human clones and organ donors through characters portrayed by Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. Francois Ozon’s screwball 1970s comedy Potiche, with Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve as the trophy wife-turned-no-nonsense boss, and Julien Schnabel’s Middle Eastern epic Miral where Freida Pinto essays a haughty Palestinian schoolgirl who eventually becomes a journalist and author, are also on the must-not-miss list.

Here are some more. Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, traces the plight of two children as they carry out their mother’s last wish asking them to find the father and brother they have never met. The daughter leaves Montreal and heads to the Middle East, and the films goes back and forth in time.

The world premieres in the festival are Here Comes the Rain by Bahij Hojeij (Lebanon, UAE), Taming by Nidal Al-Dibs (Syria), Homeland by George Sluizer (The Netherlands), A Man’s Story by Varon Bonicos (UK), Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace by Harry Hunkele (USA), In/Out of the Room by Dina Hamza (Egypt), Living Skin by Fawzi Saleh (Egypt), OK, Enough, Goodbye by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia (Lebanon, UAE), Qarantina by Oday Rasheed (Iraq, Germany, UAE), Sun Dress by Saeed Salmeen (UAE), Wrecked by Michael Greenspan (Canada), Paan Singh Tomar and Autograph (both India).

Shorts will be screened in a separate competition. “Short movies are more than just an exercise for beginners, although that is one of their essential functions, of course,” said Scarlet. “Above all, they should be seen as a fully-fledged cinematic art form, which engenders particularly imaginative kinds of storytelling. Short films offer a level of artistic freedom that is irresistible, even to famous directors and actors. The fact that many of them are more than happy to get involved in shorts for next to no financial reward is a telling sign of what an intriguing format this is.”

Of the 47 short movies in competition, 20 are narrative films, eight documentaries, nine student narrative movies and 10 student documentaries. The selection features 15 world premieres and 14 of the participating helmers are women.

(Gautaman Bhaskaran covers several films festivals across continents, including Cannes, Venice, Marrakech and in India.)

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