Abu Dhabi Film Festival: Summary

Cindy Meehl liked riding horses. One of her mounts was giving her problems, so she decided to attend a clinic run by “the horse whisperer,” Buck Brannaman. In a quiet moment between sessions she sat down next to the trainer and said: “I wanna make a movie about you.” “Have you ever made a movie before?” he replied. “Nope.” “Well go get your camera and be ready to shoot in five minutes.”

The documentary that resulted, Buck, just surpassed US$4-million in box office revenue. At the first screening of the film in Abu Dhabi, an Emirati audience member asked Meehl: “Can you bring Buck to the UAE to train our camels?” Meehl actually did ride a camel at an Arabian themed party later that night. A sheikh and local horse enthusiast invited her to check out his stables and dine with him and his family. Meehl is a 54-year-old artist and mother of two.

“Cindy hit a grand slam home run in the bottom of the ninth with two outs,” Jim Browne says. Browne, a programmer with the festival, saw Buck in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award. “I told her: ‘This just doesn’t happen.’ ”

Except the same thing seems to be happening to Safinez Bousbia. Seven years ago, Bousbia was walking down the streets of the Casbah in Algiers, when she saw a painted mirror. She chatted for a while with the shopkeeper, who soon revealed his true passion was not for mirrors but for music. He showed her photos of his class from the 1940s and told her of their Chaabi music, a mix of Arab-Andalusian and flamenco and Berber so enchanting that it erased religious divides. Bousbia decided then to put her architecture career on hold to start filming.

The resulting documentary, El Gusto, details the reunion of the musicians who have not seen each other since the Algerian war, which drove the Jewish members out of the country. The audience in Abu Dhabi got so caught up in the movie during its premiere on Oct. 15th, they started clapping along with the beat. Bousbia won US$50,000 from the festival as its best documentary director from the Arab world in addition to the funding the festival provided via its production arm, Sanad. The band has played concerts across Europe and released an album produced by Damon Albarn in 2007. The film will get its theatrical release in January, with more concerts, another album and a coffee-table book to follow. Appropriately, El Gusto means “the good mood.”

“Every time I thought [the film] might be too much or it might be too hard to get everyone together, I knew I couldn’t do that to them,” Bousbia said. “I am so happy about everything going on, but at the same time it is quite sad because four or five members have passed since filming. I am just glad I could get tell their story.”

Bits from the Emirates…

The winner of the best narrative film and US$100,000 was "Chicken with Plums," which was co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, who turned her graphic novel into the screenplay. Satrapi's last graphic novel to be turned into a film, "Persepolis," was pulled from Abu Dhabi theatres in 2008 after complaints about its content.

Position Among the Stars took home the US$100,000 prize for best documentary. The stunning effort, which examines the life of a family living in the slums of Jakarta, is directed by Retel Helmrich, who is a professor of film and new media at New York University Abu Dhabi

A film about the uprisings in Cairo, Tahir 2011: The Good, The Bad and The Politician, won its producer, Mohamed Hefzy US$25,000 as the best documentary producer from the Arab world…

Jordan Gelber took home a unique souvenir from Abu Dhabi. The star of Todd Solondz’s new comedy Dark Horse bought a gold bar from a vending machine at the ultra-luxury hotel Emirates Palace “It was the smallest one,” Gelber said. “But I knew it would be my only chance to buy something like this”…

The festival changed venues from Emirates Palace to the Fairmont Bab al Bahr. The move meant attendees were within minutes of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which features the world’s largest rug and largest chandelier (made of Swarovski crystals). The mosque was also the background for the parties and outdoor screenings.

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Your first documentary will not play in festivals around the world. It will not open in theatres nationwide or even in “selected” cities. It will not make money, and it will definitely not lead to a coffee-table book or a dinner invitation from a sheikh.

Yet, this is exactly what happened to two films that screened at this year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival.