The Abu Dhabi Film Festival was established in 2007 as the Middle East International Film Festival. The initial MEIFF was produced by Egyptian celebrity host Nashwa Al Ruwaini. After the 2008 festival, Peter Scarlet, formerly of the Manhattan Tribeca Film Festival, took over, with Al Ruwaini remaining in an advisory position.
In 2010 the ADACH undertook to re-develop the festival’s brand, allowing it to compete more effectively with Dubai Film Festival, Doha Tribeca Film Festival, Cannes, etc. With the changes came the move from MEIFF to Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival takes place during October. Between the Dubai International Film Festival that started in 2003 and the Doha Tribeca Film Festival starting in 2009, competition in the region has become stiff.
Each of the mentioned festivals aspires at becoming a major player on the world film scene. Although, until now, all lack the reputation of the festival of Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance or even Rotterdam, ambitions abound, and the festivals have large budgets. Meanwhile, each of the festivals is gaining a reputation for presenting essential cinematography from the Arab world and nearby South-Asia, and for being a free-haven to them, further facilitated by the fact that the region itself has only a few filmmakers. They foster new film-makers from the wide region, including those that work outside the mainstream, sometimes with relatively low budgets. For these reasons, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, without forgetting its connection with Abu Dhabi’s grand-scale cultural plans, is growing increasingly towards a coherent, innovative audiovisual festival.
The 2011 program had films from Saudi-Arabia, which could not easily be presented to a larger public in their home country. Some won prizes. As the festival states: “[A] strong focus on the bold new voices of Arab cinema connects with Abu Dhabi’s role as a burgeoning cultural capital in the region and marks the Festival as a place for the world to discover and gauge the pulse of recent Arab film making.” While the same can be said of the Doha and the Dubai festivals, this means all these festivals contribute to a healthy film climate in the region, with further ramifications in the audiovisual arts.
Through the Sanad fund, the festival’s development and post-production fund that awards annual grants totaling $500,000 to “bold and remarkable” projects from film-makers across the Arab world, the festival in 2011 and 2012 supported films like Syrian Hala Alabdalla’s As If We Were Catching A Cobra, which was received favorably at the Toronto International Film Festival 2012, Palestinian Annemarie Jacir’s widely acclaimed When I Saw You, Lebanese Philippe Dib’s documentary In Search Of Oil & Sand and Mahdi Fleifel’s A World Not Ours, a Lebanon-UK-UAE co-production that looks at the FIFA World Cup through the eyes of Palestinians. Earlier, the festival had supported the documentary In my mother’s arms by Mohammed Al Daradji, a young Iraqi Dutch filmmaker.
Since it split from the now mostly defunct ADACH, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival is under the direct management of the Government-backed media zone center twofour54, the major driver of the local creative media industry. As the festival itself states: “This is the first year the Abu Dhabi Film Festival has been presented under the management of twofour54, as part of a the plan to strategically align the festival alongside Abu Dhabi’s other media initiatives and related events, reinforcing Abu Dhabi as the creative hub for the region supporting film production.”
In August 2012, Ali Al Jabri, the former director of the festival’s Emirates Film Competition, replaced Peter Scarlet, a US veteran of the festival scene, former artistic director of New York’s Tribeca film festival (which festival is the parent, at least in name of Doha’s major film festival). This could have been an expression of the desire for further ‘Emiratization’ or even ‘Abu Dhabiization’.
The festival’s venues vary. For the 2012 edition they were split among the Marina Mall cinema and the Emirates Palace Hotel. The festival’s website gives specific information.
In 2012, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s best known guest on a worldwide scale, Richard Gere, presented Nicholas Jarecki’s ‘Arbitrage’; although that movie, released in September in the US, in fact has proved a box-office failure and has not yet seen a worldwide release.
Outside the festival and its support for films, the organization is involved in several projects. Recently, a collaboration started with the Zayed University to build UAE’s national film library and archive.
The region including Abu Dhabi itself has a growing cinematographers’ scene, helped by the festivals. Abu Dhabi born Emirate-Egyptian director Nawaf Al Janahi has made a name with quality films such as the short movie Mirrors of Silence (2006) and the feature movies The Circle (2009) and Sea Shadow (2011).
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival fosters the SANAD initiative, which means ‘support’ in Arabic. Established in 2010, the SANAD fund aims to raise the standard of Arabic cinema. The SANAD initiative awards a total of US$500,000 in grants each year to Arab filmmakers during either the development or post-production phase of their film projects. Each post-production grantee can receive up to $60,000 of funding, while development grantees can receive up to $20,000 of funding.
Grant recipients from the first cycle of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s SANAD Fund for 2013 were announced at the Cannes Film Festival with 16 projects chosen to receive grants, out of the 112 who applied.
SANAD Winners, First Cycle 2013:
Post-Production – Narrative
- My Sweet Pepper Land (Iraq, France, Germany, UAE), directed by Hiner Saleem
- Theeb (Jordan, UAE, Qatar), directed by Naji Abu Nowar
- In the Sands of Babylon (Iraq, UK, Netherlands, UAE), directed by Mohammed Jabarah Al Daradji
- Fevers (Morocco, France, UAE), directed by Hicham Ayouch
Post-Production – Documentary
- Whispers of the Cities (Iraq, UAE), directed by Kasim Abid
- Pirates of Salé (Morocco, France, UK, UAE), directed by Merieme Addou, Rosa Rogers
- The Camel of the Mill (Tunisia, UAE), directed by Hamza Ouni
Development – Narrative
- Nawara (Egypt), directed by Hala Khalil
- No One There (Egypt), directed by Ahmed Magdy
- A Dog’s Tail (Jordan), directed by Rami Yasin
- Beirut Solo (Lebanon), directed by Sabah Haider
- The Passerby (Palestine), directed by Kamal Al Jafari
- Casting (Palestine), directed by Mohammed Abou Nasser and Ahmad Abou Nasser
- The Day I Lost my Shadow (Syria), directed by Soudade Kaadan
Development – Documentary
- Baba and the Colonel (Libya), directed by Khalid Shamis
- Looking for Essam Abdullah (Egypt), directed by Yasser Naeim