Black Pearls shine as MEIFF wraps

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" closed the inaugural Middle East International Film Festival here Friday, while Nic Balthazar's "Ben X" took home the Black Pearl Grand Jury Prize for best feature at a glittering gala award ceremony held at the Emirates Palace.

Also honored Friday were Michael James Rowland's "Lucky Miles," which took the award for best new director (feature film); Nadine Labaki's "Caramel," which garnered its female cast a joint best actress award; and Karl Markovics "The Counteirfeiters," which received the Black Pearl for best actor. Paul Taylor's "We Are Together" earned the documentary nod.

The Black Pearl Award carries a cash prize of AED300,000 ($81,710).

"I think they gave the grand jury prize to 'Ben X' because the production value was so strong and solid as much as the vision, and on every level they succeeded," festival director Jon Fitzgerald told The Hollywood Reporter. "And 'Lucky Miles' ... this guy had a lot of different actors that he brought together in remote locations, not an easy film to pull off, a good choice for new filmmaker."

Producer Gundny Hummelvoll and director Hisham Zaman of "Bawke" received the Black Pearl for top short film. Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont of "Manon on the Pavement" were the winners of the Black Pearl for new director (short film).

Other awards announced at the closing-night ceremony included the Hayah Film Competition, Variety Middle East Filmmaker of the Year Award, UAE Filmmakers of the Year and Audience Choice Awards. The Audience Choice category saw best short go to "Tanghi Argentini," fiction to "Persepolis" and documentary to "Here and Now."

The Black Pearl jury was comprised of key industry figures including documentary filmmaker Christian Frei, veteran producer Ann Bernier, National Syrian Film Organization head Mohamed Al-Ahmad and Tunisian producer Naguib Ayad.

Lebanese director Labaki walked away with the Variety Middle East Filmmaker of the Year Award, while the UAE Filmmakers of the Year went to Fadel Al Muheiry and Hani Al Shibani.

"We've had great films tonight, the response has been great. We honestly didn't know what to expect," Fitzgerald said. "There were some pretty powerful people on the jury and they were pretty impressed. First time festivals usually struggle to get the better films."

The first-time fest delivered a slew of high-profile players from the international film community, many of whom took part in the Film Financing Committee, a networking event created to bring industry experts and decision makers together with emerging filmmakers in the region.

Numerous local projects in the region are already in the pipeline. The Abu Dhabi Media Company and Aldar Properties have begun work on a joint $500 million production project with Warner Brothers Entertainment to create production and distribution facilities in the Emirate. One of the deals inked during MEIFF was the acquisition of Mark Damon's Foresight Unlimited by Hollywood Studios International. A letter of intent was announced by HSI CEO Steven Saxton and Damon. "HSI's holdings are very diverse," Damon said. "To combine their artist management business with Foresight's production and financing capabilities and foreign sales arm should create a formidable leader in independent packaging and financing of films."

"For a first-time film festival, MEIFF did really well," said Paul Federbush, sr vp production & acquisitions at Warner Independent Pictures, who came to Abu Dhabi to take part in a panel discussion and to find out more about the new Warner deal.
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