Cash-rich Abu Dhabi festival aims to raise Arab film profile

The Abu Dhabi International Film Festival, which starts Thursday, is offering Arab filmmakers generous financial help while aiming to promote quality movies, a scarcity in the Middle East.

Now in its fourth year, the festival is the most richly endowed among its regional rivals, with "Black Pearl" awards for each category worth nearly one million dollars (724,000 euros) altogether.

"The festival seeks to attract outstanding new Arab films and filmmakers, to promote the idea of Abu Dhabi as the region's capital of Arab culture," Intishal Tamimi, director of the festival's programme, told AFP.

The oil-rich emirate launched its annual festival in 2007, competing with that of neighbouring Dubai, the first Gulf city to organise such an event.

Days after the Abu Dhabi festival, formerly known as the Middle East International Film Festival, concludes on October 23, Qatar will raise the curtains on the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.

Thanks largely to the natural wealth of the states in which they were born, Gulf film festivals have stolen the limelight from other more established ones in the Arab world, such as those of Cairo and Carthage.

However, while the number of Arab film festivals is growing, many observers are disappointed that the same cannot be said for good local productions.

It is "necessary to encourage the production of Arab films to supply all those festivals," Egyptian film critic Wael Abdul Fattah told AFP.

The Arab countries combined produce fewer than 20 films considered good enough to be screened at festivals, critics say.

"Due to the shortage in quality films, Arab festivals are forced to show the same films, and directors prefer to participate in fewer events and raise more money to produce their films," said Abdul Fattah.

This prompted organisers of the Abu Dhabi festival to announce the creation of the "Sanad" fund last year to support and develop movie production.

The fund, which pays subsidies ranging from 20,000 to 60,000 dollars (14,400 to 43,300 euros), is aimed at "supporting the new currents in the Arab cinema and encouraging artistic creativity," said Peter Scarlett, the festival's executive director.

One of the films supported by the fund, "Chatti Ya Dini" (Here Comes the Rain) by Lebanese director Bahij Hojeij, will compete for the feature film prize with "Rassayel El Bahr" (Messages from the Sea) by Egypt's Daud Abdul Sayyed and "Rodage" (Taming) by Syria's Nidal al-Dibs.

In all, 15 films will compete in this year's round of the festival, among them French movie "Carlos" by Olivier Assayas portraying the notorious Venezuelan revolutionary who was once the world's most-wanted terrorist.

Another French film, "Potiche" by Francois Ozon, starring French actress Catherine Deneuve, will compete during the 10-day event.

US filmmaker Julian Schnabel is also participating with his film featuring a real-life orphanage established by a Palestinian woman in Jerusalem.

The festival offers the Black Pearl prize for a number of categories.

These include best new narrative film, best new narrative film from the Arab world, best new documentary, best new documentary from the Arab world, best documentary, best documentary from or about the Arab world, best narrative film and best narrative film from the Arab world.

This year, however, another category was added. New Horizons is a selection of 17 documentaries by young filmmakers presenting their works for the first time.