ABU DHABI: The celebrities have performed their red-carpet pirouettes, the reels unwound and rewound and the filmmakers gestured thankfully. The Abu Dhabi Film Festival, whose sixth edition closed this weekend, also saw its share of peevish complaint from empty-handed artists and pained off-the-record ruminations about the future.
Some negative vibes are a natural part of a festival that – since the creation of the SANAD fund in 2010 – has arguably become as important an engine for Arab filmmaking as it is an audience-centered cultural event.
ADFF’s awards ceremony is famed for its yearly disbursal of a million dollars in prize monies, and this year’s results are as informative of the juries’ views of the competition selection as they are of the state of filmmaking in the region.
Because of its range of much-anticipated work, the New Horizons / Al-Jadid contest generated much of ADFF’s critical buzz. Drawing on first and second works, the program tends to cater to younger filmmakers, the most interesting of whom explore formal and narrative experimentation.
The section’s Black Pearl for Best Film went to Iranian writer-director Massoud Bakhshi for his feature-length fiction debut “A Respectable Family,” which had its premiere at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight.
A thematic follow-up to his 2007 feature-length experimental doc “Tehran Has No More Pomegranates,” Bakhshi’s noir-tinted drama follows the travails of an expat Iranian university professor who returns to Shiraz to teach a class, but finds himself a pawn in a power game involving his estranged and dying father.
The Best Arab Film award went to Palestinian writer-director Annemarie Jacir for her SANAD-funded sophomore feature “When I Saw You,” which premiered at TIFF. Set in Jordan in the wake of the 1967 war, Jacir’s film tells a story of displacement and hope from the perspective of a numerically gifted 11 year old from Bayt Nuba, and his long-suffering mother.
The prize for Best Arab Director went to Egypt’s Hala Lotfy for her “Coming Forth by Day,” which also took the FIPRESCI prize for Narrative Feature. Another SANAD film that had its world premiere at ADFF, the film is marked by a wisp of plot whose pacing is more tectonic than laconic and color-subdued (if at times lovely) camera work of unadorned social-realist lineage. It seems designed to defy every Egyptian commercial cinema convention and might do, were it 20-30 minutes shorter.
The New Horizons jury ensured that two much-lauded films were not overlooked. Most conspicuous is “Beasts of the Southern Wilds,” the remarkable first film of U.S. writer-director Behn Zeitlin, which has won major prizes at just about every festival in which it’s participated.
Evidently inspired by the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the film’s joyous formal and narrative embrace of the outsider condition is so much better than nearly every film released in 2012 (let alone in this competition) that it seems out of place. Here it received the Special Jury Prize.
Also recognized was “A Hijacking,” a contemporary pirate tale by Denmark’s Tobias Lindholm, who received a Jury Special Mention for his screenplay, while his principal actor Sorin Malling took the Best Actor Prize.
The luminous Golshifteh Farahani took New Horizons Best Actress Prize for her outstanding turn in Atiq Rahimi’s adaptation of “The Patience Stone,” an all but solo performance about an Afghan woman who finds an opportunity for personal redemption while tending her comatose husband in a war zone.
Farahani was one of several featured artists who used their appearances to lament the official absence of erstwhile festival director Peter Scarlet, who lent his international prestige to elevating ADFF’s profile, and was quietly sacked a couple of months before the festival started.
The Narrative Feature Competition, ordinarily the flagship contest in a film festival of this size, turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax, as far as Arab cinema is concerned, since the jury withheld its Best Arab Film award.
The Best Arab Director Prize went to Tunisian veteran Nouri Bouzid for “Hidden Beauties,” A SANAD-funded work that premiered at ADFF. Set during the 2011 Tunisian revolution, it tells the story of two pals, Aisha and Zaneb, who decide to demand equal rights in their personal and work lives.
The Black Pearl for Best Film went to “Araf / Somewhere in Between,” the fifth feature of Turkish art house director Yesim Ustaoglu. The film synthesizes the love story of two attractive small-town kids (who in another country might feature in an after-school special) and the laconic, emotionally taciturn narrative style that’s become emblematic of Turkey’s indie cinema.
The Black Pearl winner was well chosen, as were the prizes for Best Actress and Best Actor – respectively Francesca Petri (principal of “Betrayal,” Kirill Serebrennikov’s “metaphysical film noir”) and Gael Garcia Bernal (star of Pablo Larrain’s political thriller “No,” which took top prize at Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight).
The jury unanimously voted to award a Special Jury Prize to “Gebo and the Shadow.” Since its Venice premiere this year, it has become an emotional tribute to the talent of 103-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira and a cast of luminaries that includes Claudia Cardinale (whom ADFF honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award), Jeanne Moreau and Michael Lonsdale.
The favored son of ADFF’s Documentary Competition was Mahdi Fleifel, whose SANAD-funded “A World Not Ours” took the Black Pearl for Best Documentary as well as the FIPRESCI (international film critics guild) award for documentary and the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) prize.
A Palestinian refugee who grew up in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, Fleifel tells the story of this changing relationship with his friends and family in the camp. The filmmaker makes good use of local affinities to the celebratory cycles of the Mondiale to make his doc something more than a tale of unremitting misery.
The Best Arab Doc Prize went to “Cursed Be the Phosphate,” another SANAD-sponsored film. In it, Tunisian director Sami Tlili makes a compelling argument that the first stirrings of the 2011 Arab Spring can be found in Tunis’ Gafsa mining basin, where in 2008 residents banded together to resist the predations of state-supported mining companies.
The Best New Doc Director Prize went to Russian filmmaker Lyubov Arkus for her film “Anton’s Right Here,” which follows one autistic teenager through his lifelong struggle with the Russian health care system.
A Special Jury Prize went to a work that was much loved by critics covering ADFF this year, “Stories We Tell,” Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polly’s autobiographical study of the relationship shared by Polly’s filmmaking parents.
The Best Arab Documentary Director Prize went to the Lebanese-Egyptian filmmaking team Phillippe Laurent Dib and Wael Omar for their work on “In Search of Oil and Sand,” another SANAD-funded piece.
This TV-friendly doc tells the little-known story of Mahmoud Sabit’s efforts to piece together an amateur film about a military coup and foreign intrigue in an Arab country. Members of the country’s then-royal family shot the film in 1952, the year of Egypt’s great 20th-century revolution.
For more information about ADFF, see www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae.