Q&A: Peter Scarlet, MEIFF executive director

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After years running the Tribeca Film Festival, Peter Scarlet recently relocated to Abu Dhabi to become the executive director of the Middle East International Film Festival. He recently spoke to THR's Vinita Bharadwaj about the event.

The Hollywood Reporter: How will the third edition of MEIFF differ from previous years?

Peter Scarlet: We've tried to tidy things up a little bit since many of those attending last year's edition found its structure a little confusing. Instead of having a single jury, we've created two separate juries -- one for narrative features, one for documentary features, with probably 12 films in each. Also, we've created a second set of awards for films from the region. In addition, there will be a competition for different types of short films, all judged by a single jury. Finally, new prizes will honor the work of film composers, making MEIFF one of the few festivals in the world to highlight this critical component of a film's creation. Overall, MEIFF's total prizes will once again top the $1 million mark, making it the most generous festival in the world.

THR: What are the festival's long-term possibilities?

Scarlet: I've learned from my Arab friends that the earliest translation for "cinema" was "house of the imagination." As I begin my first appointment in an Arab country, all the signs seem to be indicating that we will have ample room for our imagination to be unbound. It's a healthy sign that in a relatively small area, three film festivals are thriving (MEIFF, Dubai and the Gulf Film Festival), and another is about to start in Qatar.

THR: How linked are they?

Scarlet: While each of the UAE's seven member states seems to have its own specificity, they're nonetheless intimately connected. As I'm learning, that's the legacy of the late Sheikh Zayed (bin Sultan Al Nahayan), and I appreciate (his) wisdom more and more. Once you're in the UAE, you notice people live in one place and perhaps work someplace else; they go to the movies or shop in a place that may not be where they work. This mobility is not only organic, it's dynamic -- and it's central to the strength of the union.

THR: Should the numerous film festivals in the Middle East complement each other?

Scarlet: I'm not sure that goal is even desirable. But it may be that there's a certain potential to be explored in the case of the UAE festivals. If we look at what's been happening in the contemporary art scene, there seem to be tremendously positive opportunities, not only because of how much has been done between the art fairs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but with the biennale in Sharjah, the teeming gallery scene in Dubai and Bahrain, and the fantastic international museums which have opened in Qatar and will soon open in Abu Dhabi. This would seem to be creating tremendous momentum for the entire region.

THR: Compared to the U.S., how would you describe the film festival landscape in the Middle East?

Scarlet: I've attended some other film festivals in the Middle East (Cairo, Damascus, Dubai) and sometimes served as a juror, and I've also been to a couple of the North African festivals (Carthage, Marrakesh). Some are strictly held for commerce, or for cultural tourism; some are held to demonstrate local pride; some are taken seriously by filmmakers and others aren't. In an ideal world, film festivals can encourage new filmmakers by exposing them to work from all over the world they might not otherwise have a chance to see. And they can give their audience -- if they're truly international -- chances to understand the things human beings have in common.
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