The stars are out: Dispatch from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival

The fourth annual Abu Dhabi Film Festival (14-23 Oct) kicked off last Thursday at the Emirates Palace, where a large number of Egyptian, Arab and international stars and filmmakers, as well as a large media entourage, walked the red carpet at the opening ceremony then attended the screening of the American film Secretariat starring John Malkovich and Diane Lane.  

Oscar-winner Adrien Brody, currently seen in Egyptian theatres in Splice, and Oscar-nominee Clive Owen were among the stars in attendance. They were joined by Egyptian film and TV stars like Youssra, who was wearing a beautiful shining dress, and Yehia El-Fakharany, still sporting his big beard from last Ramadan’s TV serial for his next incarnation as Turkish sultan Mohamed Ali. Also in attendance were veteran actress Lebleba, media women Nashwa El-Roweiny and Hala Sarhan, and Egyptian star Khaled Abol-Naga, who is also a jury member in the New Horizons competition for rising filmmakers.

Peter Scarlet, who become the festival’s executive director last year after helming the San Francisco Festival for eighteen years and the Tribeca Festival for seven years, welcomed the audience and previewed the program, which consists of four main categories: narrative, documentary, shorts, and New Horizon (for directorial debuts). There is also a national Emirati competition for best short film from a Gulf country.

Later, Randal Wallace, director of Secretariat, came on stage to introduce his new film. Secretariat is a feel-good true story for the whole family, produced by Disney in the spirit of its classic films, the sort of which Cairenes grew up watching in downtown's Cairo Cinema. It tells the story of the horse Secretariat and its journey to become the first to win the Kentucky Derby in less than two minutes. Housewife Penny (Diane Lane), who agrees to take over her ailing father’s stables despite her lack of horse-racing knowledge, and veteran trainer Lucien (John Malkovich) team up to navigate the male-dominated racehorse business and break some records with Secretariat. Wallace is known for writing the multi-Oscar winner Braveheart, which starred Mel Gibson. He also directed Gibson in We Were Soldiers.

Among the important films that were screened Friday were two thrillers. The psychological In Your Hands stars Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) as a successful surgeon named Anna who is kidnapped and kept prisoner by a mysterious young man who holds her responsible for the death of his wife. In their isolation and confinement, the tragedy of the past haunts the twosome and they begin to share a strange affection. The movie is written and directed by rising French filmmaker Lola Doillon, whose previous film Et toi t'es sur qui? was nominated for a César Award for best first feature in 2007.

From Syria, comes the world premiere of the drama Taming, in which a young man gets entangled in an romance with a beautiful girl in defiance of her family. But after a catastrophe in the desert, the pair is mysteriously separated. The film is written and directed by Nidal Aldibs, who studied filmmaking in Moscow. His short film, Ya Leil Ya Ein (1999) played at several international festivals and his debut feature narrative Under the Ceiling (2005) won multiple awards. The inspiration for his new film, he said, comes from an individual's auto-censorship in Arab countries. It is no longer oppression or taboos or ideologies but our inner fears that drive us, Aldibs claims.

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