Susan Sarandon promotes activism in film

Middle East film festival spotlights social issues

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Oscar winner Susan Sarandon spoke about her role as an actress and activist Thursday during the second annual Middle East International Film Festival.

Sarandon was guest of honor at a Cinema Verite screening of social documentary "The Shape of Water," narrated by Sarandon and directed by scholar and cultural critic Kum Kum Bhavani. The documentary revolves around the local activism of five women in Brazil, India, Jerusalem and Senegal in response to such issues facing them as oppression and lack of economic freedom.

"These women represent films which have resulted in a tipping of consciousness and made a difference," Sarandon said in a panel discussion after the screening. "In the U.S. we don't have the opportunity to see these films; even English(-language) documentaries are hard to find. Festivals are a wonderful opportunity for people to see documentaries they might not normally see."

Joined by a panel that included French actress Carole Bouquet and panel host and MEIFF director Naswa Al Ruwaini, Sarandon spoke about Jane Fonda, who was honored for her social activism in cinema at a tribute and gala dinner Wednesday evening at the lavish Emirates Palace, where much of the festival takes place.

"Jane Fonda led the way in activism; as an actor and activist you have to ask yourself, 'Can I really not do something?' In a job where people feel used, it's great to be able to use back, to shine a light on social issues," Sarandon said.

After the discussion, festival director Nashwa Al Ruwaini announced the formation of a Middle Eastern chapter of Women in Film and Television.

"There is a need for women to connect across the world and MEIFF is an exceptional opportunity to reach out to women working in the film industry," WIFT executive director Sadia Zaman said.

This year, a range of films highlighting social awareness, environmental and cultural issues are screening at MEIFF in an effort to present the fest as more than just a destination for finance-seekers hungry for a share of its $1 million prize fund.

An environmental section focuses on seven environmentally-focused films, in conjunction with U.K. charity Wildscreen, which promotes endangered species through film. One of only two offerings from the UAE, Bader Ben Hirsi's "The Oryx: Spirit of the Desert" will screen during this section.