For as long as I can remember, the name Peter Scarlet has been associated with Arab and Egyptian cinema. Scarlet, who has previously held positions in the Cinémathèque Française and the San Francisco International Film Festival, has been an ardent, long-time supporter of Egyptian cinema.
During his reign as the artistic director of the Tribeca Film Festival, Scarlet succeeded in introducing the American art-house audience to modern Egyptian cinema for the first time in decades. After his abrupt, and surprising, departure from Tribeca, Scarlet made headlines again when he was appointed executive director of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year.
The news caught Arab critics with a mix of cautious optimism and weary distrust; the last thing a festival struggling to find identity needs, some observers asserted, is another foreigner unacquainted with the region.
The naysayers’ fears were proven wrong with the remarkable success of Abu Dhabi’s first edition under Scarlet’s direction. The Sanad fund to support Arab filmmakers — in addition to a scriptwriting competition — boosted the festival’s reputation and forced critics and industrials alike to start taking it seriously.
The enthusiasm that met last year’s edition somehow waned with this year’s modest one. A lukewarm narrative competition and a weak Arab selection left critics cold, while several filmmakers — especially those unlucky to have had their films showing in the empty noon screenings — found the organizational glitches and shortage of sufficient publicity disheartening.
Several filmmakers I spoke to upon my return expressed an overriding sentiment of distrust for what they described as the “dubious backstage politics,” of Sanad. Furthermore, the wide acclaim received by Ibrahim El-Batout’s indie feature “Hawi” — which was rejected by Sanad — at the Doha Tribeca Film Fest put the judgments of the Sanad committee into question.
I’m starting to sense a growing sense of antagonism towards Abu Dhabi and its organizers. Despite my dissatisfaction with this year’s edition and the Arabic film selection in particular, I do believe it is premature to judge this young fest; only time will tell whether Abu Dhabi has the potential to help develop the region’s infant cinema.
I spoke to Scarlet on the very last day of the fest at the Grand Emirate Palace. The majority of accusations thrown at the festival the past couple of years are addressed here. My personal opinion about the festival has been well documented in my past reports. I don’t believe it’s fitting to add any more; it’s time for Scarlet to do all the talking.
Daily News Egypt: The main criticism of the fest this year was regarding the underwhelming film selection — especially the Arabic film — when compared to last year’s.
Peter Scarlet: A festival is like a vineyard; some years there are good grapes and some years there aren’t. There was only one pretty good film I know about that we didn’t have because of its earlier commitment to Dubai, and that was [Egyptian indie production] “Microphone.” But you can only show what there is. And for whatever the reason, this was certainly not a year where the Arab production was as strong as it was last year. I hope that Sanad could help change that.
But you’ll see what the other festivals in the region are showing in the next few months and if there are any strong films that we didn’t have in here, I’d be really surprised. I just don’t think it’s a vintage year for Arab cinema.
The film selection of the main competition was an easy one, culled from different major fests. There wasn’t really anything great to discover.
Well, let’s see. “Carlos” had been in Cannes, but with the five-hour version [the version shown in Abu Dhabi was 2.5 hours]. “Chico & Rita” had just been shown in Telluride and Toronto and has been overwhelmingly received. “The Ditch” has been in Venice. “The Life of Fish” hasn’t been anywhere as far as I recall.
“Circus Columbia” had been in Sarajevo and Toronto. I guess it’s not Danis Tanovic’s strongest film, but I very much wanted to have him here. He helped jump-start a film industry in Bosnia. He did a master-class in here and I think his presence was very important in a place like Abu Dhabi.
There’s still the illusion that we’re going to build a film industry in here, that all you have to do is become like Hollywood. I’ve started arguing that it’s not like you start a car industry or a refrigerator industry. With film, you need crazy people who are crazy enough to do all the crazy things you have to do to become a filmmaker and maybe something will happen.
I thought “Miral” was quite hideous. Everyone did as a matter of fact. Did you choose to show it because it was a Palestinian story?
In large part, yes. It was a film that I thought at the time needed to be seen here. I’d be curious to see what kind of reception it’ll have in the west.
The general quality of art-house film this year hasn’t been that good. Berlin and Cannes were quite weak. Did that affect this year’s edition?
There was a couple of films from Cannes, like Xavier Beauvois’s “Of Gods and Men” that we could certainly have shown. One thing we talked about is how much we wanted to go for newness for journalists like you.
Do we want to avoid movies you’ve seen in other festivals? Is it better to have movies only from recent fests like Toronto and Venice? I’m still divided. For viewers here, it’s new when it’s new.
I’ve become a realist [that film festivals in the Arab region are] in no position to get premieres of major European or American films.
This year, we had “Wrecked.” Last year, Dubai had “Avatar,” but the market is here. [Claire Denis’] “White Material,” on the other hand, will never open here. What I’m not ready to announce officially, but hope happens soon, is that we’ll have an art-house cinema open here in six months, showing documentaries and short films [in addition to feature-length films]. I found the theater; it was a theater that was built and never used.
Part 2 of this interview will run in Daily News Egypt on Friday, Nov. 12.