By Joseph Fahim
Peter 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 enthusiasm that met the successful first edition of ADFF, however, waned with this year’s modest one. I spoke to Scarlet on the very last day of the fest at the Grand Emirate Palace.
In Part 1 of this interview (which ran in Daily News Egypt on Thursday November 11, 2010), Scarlet said: “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 surprise. I just don’t think it’s a vintage year for Arab cinema.”
Daily News Egypt: Concerned about Doha Tribeca?
Peter Scarlet: In what way?
Their Arabic selection is quite solid. Two big names in Arab cinema are having their films premiering in there: Ibrahim El-Batout and Josef Fares.
I won’t comment on those films which I’ve seen. They were on our reject file.
They’re paying for post-production costs for movies…
I think they’re throwing money around.
But that’s the criticism thrown at you guys…
Not quite the way they are. I think our steps with Sanad were assured and careful. But I don’t want to be critical. I think if there is a need for a festival there, for an audience, there will be a festival. Festivals in larger part are determined by calendars too. I know films timing prevented them from being here and they will be in Dubai. It’s perfectly fine. What I don’t yet see in Doha is if they have a real identity. Is there a real interest in doing something with the cinema in the Middle East there?
The biggest critique for your fest is that you paying for the movies; that you throw a staggering amount of cash to acquire the right to have certain high-profile movies playing exclusively in Abu Dhabi…
And everyone thinks so?
Yes. A critic for instance told me that “Time That Remains” was supposed to be going to Dubai and that you paid heaps of money to Elia Suleiman in order to have the film premiere in Abu Dhabi instead.
There are films which we show that Dubai and Doha also show; films that are being distributed by certain companies in Beirut and they charge a rental fee, and sometimes it’s a very stern rental fee. Sometimes they’re distributed by companies that don’t charge a rental fee.
Any film we show here that is not controlled by any of those companies; we don’t pay a nickel for. Sometimes we pay European sales agents for copies that cost around €1,000 or something. That’s it. I wish you could’ve talked to Elia because we didn’t pay a nickel for his film last year, and I told him that in the Dubai Film Fest, Simon Fields told me that he heard a rumor that we paid. I ran into him and I told him Simon, we didn’t pay for that film. He said, yes you did. And I said, Simon, we’ve been friends for 20 years, are you putting our friendship on the line for this? And he said, yes I am.
I said to Elia a month before he came here, what the hell is this story about? You ask him and he’ll tell you what happened. He won a prize here.
Well, rumor also has it that you gave him the prize for having his movie screened here…
If you think that [head of the 2009 Abu Dhabi main competition jury] Abbas Kiarostami is in my pocket…I wish that was the case. In fact, Elia told me that he was not going to win a prize. He left; he went back to Paris. He didn’t think that Kiarostami would give him the prize. Look, 90 percent of what surrounds film fests are rumors, legends, myths…etc.
Why do think those rumors in particular are so widespread? There’s also an accusation that you guys are trying to kill Dubai…
People think all we have is money. Or, as I put it in the most vulgar way possible here, in Abu Dhabi, people think of you as the girl with the big tits in the senior prom.
The fact is, we had budget cutbacks in late spring, for everything, and it was tricky for us because we’d already announced all these programs and Sanad and we’d already began to hire people and all of a sudden it was like, oops, it’s not there. What was that about? I don’t know. Would that continue? I don’t know. The money is not limitless; it’s not endless, but I think that’s natural when people, at that these hard times, come in a place like here where despite budget cutbacks, it’s not exactly poverty row.
What my job and mission has been since I came here is to not throw money away and to not do what I heard has happened in the first couple of years where organizers were like, we’re the richest festival in the world; we can do whatever we want.
Many foreign critics believe that nobody takes the Gulf fests seriously…
I think that’s not true anymore, and my role is to make people to take us seriously, not for me, but for the filmmakers we’re trying to get noticed.
Organization wise, how do you evaluate this year’s edition? Most press screenings were empty. All early screenings were all naturally empty as well. Some filmmakers I spoke to were disappointed by the low turnout in these screenings.
I don’t know to be perfectly honest. We didn’t have press screenings last year. I know from when I came here as a visitor two years ago is that whether it’s industry, press or public, people don’t do things in the morning. I’m thinking maybe we do like what Cannes does which is have late night press screenings, but I can’t stay awake in movies myself at that hour.
You still have morning screenings that are not attended by anyone.
It’s surprising to me form the point of view of the international press. The local press doesn’t seem to be that interested. In the press conference, we organized a week or two before the festival, we discussed the programs and the new initiatives…etc. All they were asking about is who were the stars who were coming.
The fact is that there isn’t a film culture here in terms of exhibition…that there isn’t in large part a film culture in terms of film critics. The National’s reporters for example write from London or New York.
A festival is like putting in a war without the guns, each year you try to do the organization a little bit better. Now what we’ll begin to do is deconstruct what happened this year, but this is an issue we clearly have to take care of.
In light of this year, how do you view the state of Arab cinema?
It would be great if I could give you a concise and woody answer, but I can’t really. My mind has stopped thinking about new films in August. As I said, I hope the shot in the arm that we hope Sanad will create is going to make things better in the future.
But most of the Sanad outcome unveiled this year was not quite promising. The films were disappointing…
Well, give us a couple of years and see what happens. Don’t you think though that there’s something starting to change?
There is indeed, but I think it’s very erratic. Last year, for instance, was a great year for Egyptian movies. That’s not that case this year.
It wasn’t just there.
The one thought that always hits me about Gulf fests is their impact on the locals. It seems to me the majority of the audiences are expats and foreign communities. My question: Are Emiratis indeed taking advantage of such a culture?
I’m glad you brought that up because this year was a step-back from last year. Last year I was extremely happy and very surprised that we had a very mixed audience, because in Abu Dhabi, you have events with Emiratis and events with expats. This year, we f**ked up.
We got our program out late; we got the Arabic version of our program out late. And I think for expats who were more into checking it out on the web, they saw what was going on. I think there people in the Arabic community weren’t given a proper program and timing. That was a big, big mistake, but it’s a mistake we knew we made and since we succeeded last year, we certainly going to work out harder to get it earlier next year.
When you’re talking about new films, we were thinking, maybe there’ll be stuff from Venice, maybe there’ll be stuff from Toronto. We delayed. I went to Toronto; it’s an illusion. We were thinking maybe we’d be better off having the international films that have been in Cannes or Berlin or Karlovy Vary. But there was nothing.
In Toronto, well there was [French/Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif] Kechiche’s movie, “Vénus noire” which was very interesting but that’s one film that I flat out couldn’t show here.
Why not? I mean, if you could show a film like [Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Black Pearl award winner for Best Narrative film] “Silent Souls,” which has full-frontal female nudity, why not “Black Venus”?
Now you’re making me nervous. (laughs). I was actually very nervous about “Silent Souls.” Lots of people were very upset for example about [Raja Amari’s Tunisian/French production] “Buried Secrets” last year and Yousry Nasrallah’s film [“Scheherazade Tell Me a Story”]. I had a long, acrimonious session with one of the women students at the Zayed University, and she was like, ‘Why did you show that movie? Did anyone see it?’ And then I had to explain what a film festival is and about the people who do the programming and what their backgrounds are and why we program the films.
Then it turned out that we had mistakenly given it a rating commonly used for violence. So, this young woman went expecting to see people chopped and instead she got sex…a little bit of sex. And then I learnt the reason why they were really upset about it is because they were seeing it in a room with other men. If they’d seen by themselves, they would’ve been ok with it.
Do you think it’s opening up? Is it possible?
Hmm…I don’t know. I’m not quite sure.
I guess the reason why I’m still skeptic about the Gulf fests for the reality that edgy, groundbreaking movies like “Antichrist” or “Enter the Void,” for instance, can never be shown in there, and for that reason, the Gulf can never be Cannes or Venice.
Who knows what will be here in few years. I’m happy we’re not Cannes or Venice or Berlin, because we already have Cannes and Venice and Berlin. What I think there hasn’t been in this region is a festival with…I don’t know what to call it.
Talk to some of the jurors, talk to some of the filmmakers who were here and ask them about their impression. There’s a spirit here that I haven’t seen in Cairo or Damascus or some other places. And for me a festival is about hospitality and warmth.
I think a festival is based on human interaction and I think to create a framework where people can meet, ideas can be exchanged and help jump-start projects is what makes any festival successful.