Middle East festival's new chief focuses on films, audiences


ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- "It's not all about getting the lumps out of the red carpet," Peter Scarlet, new executive director of the third Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, said as he shepherded four live goats onstage last month at the palatial Emirates Palace Hotel.

The beasts were there on closing night, sans George Clooney, to introduce "The Men Who Stare at Goats," much to the delight of the audience, who enjoyed the ironic comment on the relative importance of movie stars at film festivals.

Not that MEIFF didn't have its fair share, from Demi Moore and Hilary Swank on opening night Oct. 8 to Naomi Watts, Eva Mendes and Orlando Bloom presenting closing-night awards Oct. 17. But as might be expected from Scarlet, former director of the Tribeca and San Francisco film festivals, this Middle East gathering concentrated on films (about 130) and building audiences.

"Our goal is to develop a film culture here, where it's all Hollywood, Bollywood and malls," he says. Ticket sales tripled compared with last year, making fest chairman Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan and GM Mohamed Khalaf Al-Mazrouei very happy and giving Scarlet mostly laudatory reviews in the Arab media.

From Tribeca to the United Arab Emirates: culture shock? Not according to Scarlet, who has traveled far and wide in the Middle East and looked right in his element in an elegant tent on the beach, listening to musicians Richard Horowitz and Sussan Deyhim belt out a concert blending Middle East and New York sounds.

True, there were restrictions he had to observe in selecting films for this conservative country, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel and refuses to show Israeli movies. Scarlet says he wouldn't show something like Lars von Trier's controversial "Antichrist," though two Egyptian films that contain dramatic rape scenes, "The Traveler" and "Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story," screened without incident.

MEIFF has the privilege of being first out of the starting gate in the Middle East fest season, which is jam-packed with events in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Cairo and Dubai, among the richest fests in the world, all taking place within two months of one another.

Why the fall pileup should happen remains unclear, but it has created a good deal of rivalry among the fests, which compete to secure the best new films from the region.

However, "It's a very good thing for the audience," says Scarlet, who premiered three films -- Iraq's "Sons of Babylon," Palestine's "Port of Memory" and Lebanon's "We Were Communists" -- that benefited from a new completion fund set up by the festival.

"Not as bribery to get the films to Abu Dhabi, but to enable the directors to finish their films in time for the festival season," one insider says.

The noisy success of this year's MEIFF has upped the ante for neighboring Dubai, which runs Dec. 9-16 and does not have Abu Dhabi's lavish budget. MEIFF prize money alone totaled $1 million, split between narrative films (best film award: Valery Todorovsky's Russian entry "Hipsters") and documentaries (topped by T.C. McLuhan's "The Frontier Gandhi").

Elia Suleiman's funny-sad stories about his native Palestine, "The Time That Remains," grabbed the Best Middle Eastern Narrative Film Award.