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ABU DHABI – It is easy to forget the outside world walking through the opulence of the Emirates Palace hotel, the location for this year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
But while Mercedez-Benz saloon cars whisk festival-goers to the nearby luxury Marina Mall, where most films are screened, attendees feel the ADFF has become disconnected from the city of 600,000 inhabitants beyond the hotel walls.
There has been none of the excitement trumpeting the arrival of Formula One motor racing in Abu Dhabi in November, said one local. “It would have been nicer if the ADFF reached out more to the city,” he said.
“I hope next year’s festival engages more with the city,” said another visitor. “At the moment it feels as if the festival is in a bit of a bubble.”
Festival director Ali Al Jabri counters that most Abu Dhabians look forward to the 10-day event.
Nina Rohe, who covers Middle East cinema for The Huffington Post, said many screenings seemed to attract mostly western filmgoers, not locals.
“If Emiratis won’t come to the festival, then the festival needs to go to them,” she said.
On the other hand, indigenous Emiratis just make up 20 percent of the city’s population, while everybody else in Abu Dhabi was born elsewhere and just works here.
ADFF points out that it reaches out to Emirati filmgoers after the festival closes by screening Arab films throughout the region.
And despite criticism about the lack of connection with the local populace, media organization TwoFour54 has garnered unanimous praise for how well the ADFF has been organized.
Last year’s ADFF was based at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr hotel — a good half hour away from the Marina Mall multiplex — so getting to screenings on time could be difficult.
Al Jabri said he wants more Emiratis to be running the festival in 2013, which this year employed 300 people. “Next year I want to have more Emiratis on the team,” he told THR.
One regional critic – anxious not to be named for fear of upsetting his employer – said that the ADFF needs to decide whether it is an international platform or here to promote regional filmmaking.
“They only flew in one Hollywood star, Richard Gere, so why bother?” he asked.
For Al Jabri though the mix is just right. “Our vision is clear. This is an international festival. From now on we just want to improve each year,” he said.
The appointment of Al Jabri, who was born in Abu Dhabi and replaced American fest director Peter Scarlet in August this year, reflects the growing number of Emirati citizens replacing westerners in top positions – a process known here as “Emiratization.”
Noura Al Kaabi took over from Tony Orsten as CEO of fest organizer TwoFour54 in April.
U.S. films unspooling in the festival to warm receptions included Room 237, a documentary about the hidden messages in The Shining. IFC Films will release the docu in the States later this year.
The Citizen, American indie about a Lebanese man struggling to become an American citizen after 9/11, received a mixed response.
Foreign-language films that got a thumbs up included Susanne Bier’s Love Is All You Need, her follow-up to 2010 Oscar winner In a Better World, and Indian entry Mumbai’s King – both of which played in the New Horizons section.
For Rohe, the standout Middle Eastern film was Palestinian Oscar entry When I Saw You, set in a Jordanian refugee camp in 1967.
“It speaks on behalf of displaced people without being overtly political,” she said. Lorber Films released Jacir’s previous feature Salt Of This Sea in the U.S.
Documentaries that went over well included Lebanon’s A World Not Ours, which follows three generations of exiled Palestinians in a refugee camp, and the Egyptian world premiere In Search Of Oil & Sand, based on an amateur film made by the Egyptian royal family in 1952 about a fictional coup d’état – just weeks before they themselves were swept from power by a real revolution.
One critic admired how the ADFF has not been afraid to embrace controversial subject matter.
Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, for example, featured both nudity and heavy drug abuse.
Said the critic: “A lot of the films shown have been quite surprising in terms of subject matter dealing with issues not usually seen in the Emirate.”
This year’s ADFF screened 81 feature films including 19 documentaries, boiled down from over 3,000 submissions.
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