What happened to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival?

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival has been unexpectedly canceled, begging questions about the reasons behind the decision and its impact on the film industry in the region.

al-monitor Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, UAE minister of higher education and scientific research, arrives during the opening of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Oct. 11, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah.

Topics covered

uae, movie, film production, film festival, film, cinema, abu dhabi

May 27, 2015

I was first invited in 2010 to cover the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF). Under new management headed by former San Francisco International Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival artistic director Peter Scarlet, the fourth edition of the festival was widely regarded as a success thanks to a solid selection, a hike in ticket sales and attendance and positive press, signaling the birth of a major powerhouse in the budding Arab film industry.

The ADFF commenced in 2007 as the Middle East International Film Festival in an attempt to challenge the culture dominance of Dubai. The festival struggled for an identity, initially positioning itself as an international film showcase in a young city with no film industry. That focus, however, changed with the arrival of Scarlet two years later to position the festival as a prominent hub for nurturing and showcasing Arab film and a platform for presenting the best of world cinema to Arab audiences.

From that point onward, Abu Dhabi attracted the best, most high-profile productions in the region and from around the world. Boasting a slew of awards for competing films totaling $1 million, an aggressive acquisition policy of Arabic and international films that left its competitors in the dust and a generous fund for Arab cineastes, Abu Dhabi was rapidly becoming the biggest festival in the region, edging out its fierce rival Dubai, which saw its stocks sharply fall last year after poor film programming and extensive budget cuts that resulted in the axing of the co-production platform Dubai Film Connection, the cancellation of various important sections and the slashing of the number of awards.

All of a sudden, it was all over. On May 7, the film world woke up to the shocking news of the festival’s termination. No justifications were made by the Media Zone Authority (twofour54, ADFF's governing body) and the festival released no statement. In fact, most of the staff was not informed of the closure, and some found out on the day of the announcement.

Twofour54’s official statement was no less ambiguous, stating that the festival “is being brought to a close to make way in order to focus on future targeted initiatives to further support local and Arab filmmakers and attract more film productions to Abu Dhabi in the region. The move marks the next phase in the capital’s maturing film industry.”

Why and how is the closure of the ADFF needed to make way for these initiatives? What are these initiatives? What is this next phase? The statement does not explain. Nevertheless, the press release hinted at a new direction that twofour54 might be taking: “We attracted several major international and regional productions to shoot in the emirate over the past two years alone, which brought large-scale investment, further built the film industry infrastructure in the region and created significant opportunities for local talent. These projects include Universal Pictures’ 'Furious 7’ and Disney’s ‘Star Wars: Episode VII.'"

Up until 2012, the ADFF was governed by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, part of the United Arab Emirates’ arts and culture departments, which was scrapped and replaced by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority. The ADFF was handed over to the Media Zone Authority, a decision that raised eyebrows and immediately put the future of the festival in jeopardy. It did not take long for twofour54 to render the ADFF a surplus, allowing commerce to triumph over art development.

Last year, a senior member of the ADFF management told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the festival was initially treated as an investment that did not reap substantial rewards — conjecture that explains some of the budget cuts the festival suffered down the line. Twofour54’s statement could thus indicate a shift in focus from developing and nurturing Arab talent in favor of a commercial model focused on attracting and collaborating with Hollywood megaproductions and more local mainstream fare such as Ali F. Mostafa’s comedy “From A to B” (2014).

Twofour54 claims that the ADFF’s development and post-production fund, Sanad will remain intact. Yet according to Al-Monitor’s sources, its fate is still up in the air, and this is the most worrisome aspect of the festival’s discontinuation. Like most festivals around the globe, Sanad had a key understanding: its recipients of the co-production grants were expected to hold the Middle Eastern premiere of their films at the ADFF. This requirement elevated the festival’s Arab selection and boosted its local and international profile. Without this clause, what would encourage twofour54 to keep Sanad as it stands now? What would be the benefits to body with such a commercial mentality?

Prior to the emergence of the Gulf film festivals in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, funding for Arab filmmakers was scarce and exceedingly difficult. Outside Egypt, most filmmakers across the region heavily relied on foreign grants — primarily from France and Germany — whose stipulations limited the thematic, and occasionally aesthetic, scope of their work. The grant programs presented by Dubai and subsequently the ADFF paved the way for an entire generation of new Arab filmmakers to emerge; their visions would not have transpired without the support of the ADFF and its ilk.

The $500,000 offered annually by Sanad helped numerous filmmakers over the past six years to realize their projects, while the generous monetary awards offered by the festival proved to be stepping-stones for various Arab filmmakers.

The ADFF was not without flaws. While the world cinema selection offered plenty of gems, it lacked the adventurousness and sense of discovery often found in Dubai. The inclusion of top winners from Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Karlovy Vary and San Sebastian in 2014’s edition and the astronomical screening fees to secure the Middle East and North Africa premiere status often gave the impression of an institution flaunting its financial prowess. The documentary selection was, however, nothing short of inventive and eclectic, establishing the ADFF as the best showcase for nonfiction films in the region.

The demise of the ADFF deprives the region of one of its most important and consistent film events at a time when rivaling festivals are floundering. The Marrakesh International Film Festival is glamour over substance, positioned to promote Morocco as a reliable site for Hollywood and international productions. Carthage, the oldest festival in the region, may boast the best audience in the Arab world, but its sole focus on Arab cinema and the Francophone nature of its press narrow its scope. And despite the resurgence of Cairo in 2014, the constant shuffle in management, debilitating bureaucracy and eyebrow-raising deficiency in means and ambition eliminate any prospects for it to compete.

That leaves Dubai as the only serious alternative to the ADFF. The noticeable budget cuts, elimination of its best sections and reduction of awards rendered Dubai’s 2014 edition its worst to date, and yet, the dissolution of the ADFF may ironically lead to its resurgence. The reinstatement of the Dubai Film Connection — the region’s most successful co-production platform — could signal a change of fortunes for the Gulf’s oldest festival, which no longer has to contend with its neighboring rival for the best in Arab cinema. With one major festival representing the UAE now, a cash injection that would restore some of its compressed sections and expand its current roster of monetary awards could be in the cards for Dubai.

If Sanad ceases operations, the Doha Film Institute (DFI) could rise up to fill the gap. After axing its festival, the DFI has shifted its focus on production inside and outside the Middle East and North Africa. The quality of the DFI’s films makes it the solitary consistent player in the Gulf now.

If history has taught the Arab world anything about arts and culture policy, even the fate of the DFI — which also endured countless changes in management and strategy — is not firmly secure. The fate of Dubai — which requires a major facelift to regain its status as the region’s premiere showcase of Arab cinema — will determine whether the UAE is serious about supporting Arab cinema. The lack of transparency and constant changes in policy and scope of operations as well as the rejection of any criticism do not, however, bode well for the future of an industry that needs longevity, patience, freedom and a clear sense of direction to come of age.

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