Abu Dhabi Film Festival: Report #1

On Monday, Middle Eastern filmmakers will gather for a discussion about the effects of the Arab Spring on their profession. Government control of cinema revenues in Egypt means that Arabic-language movies capture an impressive 80 per cent market share. Will freedom on the streets mean less money at the box office? Will the events of Tahir Square lead to less censorship?

The festival will highlight the work of a man who wrestled with these questions before many of the protestors were born. In 1988 Naguib Mahfouz became the first Arab to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he devoted much of his working life to screenwriting. He died five years ago, but his writing presaged much of what took place nine months ago.

Eight of his films will screen in Abu Dhabi as celebration of what would have been his 100th birthday. “Mahfouz often used Egypt’s fabled past as a handy cover for sharp critiques of contemporary dictatorships,” reads the festival’s description of the film The Hunger. “[The movie] begins a century earlier but has unmistakable parallels to Egypt under more modern strongmen.”

The Arab Spring might never have taken hold during Mahfouz’s lifetime. There were no cellphones or portable cameras to document the uprisings. Facebook and Twitter allowed instant communication between protestors. It is unlikely films could be produced and distributed in three-quarters of a year. But this does not mean new narratives are better than the old ones, especially so soon after the historic events.

“Documentary is better now than fiction,” says Ayten Amin, a director of Tahir 2011: The Good, The Bad and The Politician. “It would be hard to make fiction because I don’t have a clear opinion of what happened. Documentary is like you are in the moment and get to discover. It’s easier. Maybe in four or five years you get good fiction.”

The most revolutionary thing Amin had ever done was to quit her banking job to become a filmmaker. She went to Tahir Square on January 25 because it was within walking distance of her house. Her friends said there were lots of people there. “I never liked the regime, but I had never participated in a protest,” she says. “I didn’t have any hope anything would change. The attitude was very negative.”

Police stopped Amin on her way. Since she was alone, they let her through. Amin could have documented her own experiences over the next four days. One of her friends was arrested. Citizens were not allowed to pass. Access to cellphones and internet were blocked. There were plucky citizens protesting a corrupt dictator in the face of police brutality. But Amin decided to tell a different story of Tahir Square. “I wanted to film the police officers,” she says. “Some of them were literally crying because they didn’t know what to do. When I interviewed them they were shaky because everyone was attacking them [in the press.] If I interviewed them now they probably wouldn’t talk because they got their dignity back.”

The development and post-production arm of ADFF is named Sanad, which is the Arabic word for support. Tahir 2011: The Good, The Bad and the Politician received post-production funding from Sanad, as did the documentaries El Gusto, a story of Muslim and Jewish musicians who reunite in Algeria and In My Mother’s Arms, a film about a Baghdad orphanage facing eviction.

The oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates started Masdar to bring sustainable energy technology to the region and to one day house the world’s first carbon-neutral city. This year Masdar will sponsor the Our World program at ADFF and award one documentary US$15,000.

Films in competition include: Taste the Waste, which looks at how much food ends up in garbage dumps around the world; The Last Mountain, which examines the conflict between environmental activists and West Virginia mining companies; and Project Nim, the story of a chimpanzee raised by humans in the 1970s.

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About this Blog

You know the story of Tahir Square. Perhaps you saw protestors overturn a police vehicle on Al Jazeera. Or read about Hosni Mubarak’s desperate attempts to hold on to the presidency in The Guardian. Maybe you even followed the defiant posts by revolutionary leaders on Twitter. The Abu Dhabi Film Festival begins today. At the end of the 10-day festival, moviegoers will learn more about the story of Tahir Square, the Arab Spring protests, and Mubarak's passionate plea. These are plots to three of the 10 short films in 18 Days (www.18days-movie.com), a co-operative effort by Egyptian directors, producers and actors.