Abu Dhabi Film Fest: Forest Whitaker Takes Center Stage at Opening Ceremony

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Forest Whitaker

The Oscar winner sings a passage from the Qur'an after collecting the Middle East film festival's Career Achievement Award.

The 7th Abu Dhabi Film Festival opened Thursday night in the UAE capital with the screening of Life of Crime, the Daniel Schechter-directed adaptation of the late Elmore Leonard’s novel Switch. The film was co-produced by Image Nation, the Abu Dhabi-based government-owned production house, in partnership with Hyde Park Entertainment.

During the opening ceremony, held in the vast Emirates Palace hotel, Forest Whitaker was on stage to receive the festival’s Black Pearl Career Achievement award, where he sang a short passage from the Qur’an.

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“It’s good to know that my work has been appreciated,” said the Oscar winner. “I want to be known as a citizen of the world.”

Speaking about the Academy Award buzz surrounding his performance in box office-topping The Butler, he said: “[Oscars] are not something I work for. I just hope my work touches people.”

Whitaker added he was heading off later in the week to South Sudan, where he has set up a foundation to nurture young leaders in cooperation with UNESCO.

Having been brought in as Abu Dhabi Film Festival director last summer, Ali Al Jabri said that this year’s event had been a less stressful occasion for him. “Last year I only had two-and-a-half months to work on the festival, but this year I’ve had more time.”

Speaking about why the film festival was important for the region, Al Jabri suggested that due to distribution issues, it was the only opportunity for many to see such films on the cinema screen.

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“Unlike festivals like Cannes, Berlin and Toronto, where audiences can watch the movies after the festival, in the UAE the film’s aren’t released because the focus is on commercial. If you want to see an art film, you have to come to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.”

Also attending the festival’s opening night were Daniel Schechter and Life of Crime star Mark Boone Junior, Australian actress Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook, Animal Kingdom), and Palestinian actress and director Hiam Abbas (Munich, The Lemon Tree, The Visitor), who is also collecting a Career Achievement Award. Both Abbas and Weaver sit on the festival’s jury, along with Toronto Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey.

World premieres at the festival include the Tobe Hooper-director Djinn, the first horror feature to be shot in the UAE, and In the Sands of Babylon, Iraqi director Mohamad Al-Daradji’s follow up to Son of Babylon, which premiered at Abu Dhabi in 2009 and earned him the Middle East Filmmaker of the Year award.

This year’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year, Algerian helmer Merzak Allouache, is also in attendance with his film The Rooftops, which takes a microscopic look at contemporary Algerian society from different neighborhoods in Algiers.

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs until Nov. 2.