By Jeff Beresford-Howe | November 14, 2007

FRIDAY-SATURDAY, 10/12/07-10/14/07
Four months from, “Hey, we should have a film festival” to walking the red carpet. Four months from “Well, if we do this, who would run it, and why, and what will we show?” to a sophisticated organization with a full slate of films and over a hundred employees from the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East and a truckload of volunteers.

That’s what the organizers of the Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. were trying to pull off this October, the fourteenth to the nineteenth, and they were trying to do it in a place with virtually no entertainment industry infrastructure and in the middle of “festival season,” when Venice, Toronto, London, et al. were sucking the oxygen out of the festival room.

Part of the small miracle of getting MEIFF together is insuring that people notice, towards which end the festival organizers invited Film Threat’s own Chris Gore. By the time MEIFF had everything together, though, Chris’s time was spoken for, and he asked me – a friend and former journalist with a hole in my schedule almost precisely conforming to the festival dates – to attend and write about it, and I said yes.

I wasn’t alone. The festival flew in dozens of people from California, a raft of financiers, filmmakers, journalists and such, many of them like me scrambling to book their trip at the very last minute.

Here’s a travel tip: if you ever want to see the full range of “Homeland Security” tricks and treats, book a same-day, international flight to an Arab country and have your ticket paid for by a third party with a Middle Eastern address. You’ll get it all, starting with a “Battlestar Galactica” prop reject that shoots puffs of air all over you, a painstaking inventory of your suitcase, complete with an explosives swab on every item, and a careful going over of your electronics devices, even the ones you forgot to charge before you went to the airport.

From the west coast, the “first day” is travel, and it’s really three days. The red-eye to the east coast is five-and-a-half hours, eight-and-a-half if you’re flying American Airlines and you’re taking the we’re-three-hours-late-and-we’re-not-telling-you-why- because-we-don’t-give-a-s**t shuttle. From JFK, it’s a fourteen hour hop to Dubai on Emirates Airways.

A quick digression: flying on Emirates bears no resemblance to flying in the U.S. To start with, there are the flight attendants: they’re all young, perky, conscientious, good-looking and wear cute, impressionistic veils. (Not real veils; the FAA would frown on that.) Seats in coach are as small as anywhere in the US, but the service is a revelation, as good as first class on a domestic U.S. flight. Each seat comes with its own TV and over 700 channels of entertainment, including just about every Disney movie ever made and a music collection that would make Robert Christgau jealous.

It’s no wonder Emirates runs neck-and-neck with Singapore Airlines in customer satisfaction surveys, although here’s another travel tip: don’t sit in the first few rows of coach. Turns out that they have these baby bassinets at the front of the plane, so if you’re in, say row two, what you are really in is a nursery. Counterintuitive, I know: babies don’t handle fourteen-hour flights very well.

SUNDAY, 10/14/07
Opening night at the festival is a blast. It’s at the Emirates Palace, which is the most lavish hotel I’ve ever seen – it’s bigger than your average American university, with marble instead of stamped concrete – and it makes even top shelf American hotels look like cheap knock-offs.

Things kick off on the red carpet, with Bollywood stars (Abu Dhabi is closer to India than New York is to San Francisco) and Middle Eastern TV personalities. (Just as lacquered and insincere as they are here! Maybe Bush is right – American values do translate to the Middle East!) There’s only one American celebrity I can see – Gene Simmons of Kiss, and no, the bastard wouldn’t stick out his tongue for a shot, and no, Shannon Tweed isn’t here, at least not in public.

The main screening area for the festival is the Emirates Palace Theater, which is big enough for a Broadway show. (In fact, it’s the site of a production of La Boheme in November.) The movie is late (events in Abu Dhabi start when the prince shows up, my seat-mate remarks dryly) after some remarks by Nashwa Al Ruwaini, the festival’s Exec Director, who, strangely, introduces her speech in English by telling everyone she’s wearing a dress for only the second time in her life, and then switches to Arabic for the rest. Maybe she explained about the dress thing. I don’t know.

The basic theme of the festival is then introduced: we’re going to spend a lot of money and show you that we’re serious about becoming a player in the film industry. The first chosen vehicle to demonstrate this point is – what else? – a dance number. The festival flew in former Oscar choreographer (1996) Otis Sallid and a bunch of dancers from LA; Sallid dutifully provides a fully Oscarish, cringeworthy, goofy number. The nod to the festival’s location is a framing device in which a young boy in traditional Arab dress makes his way across the stage surrounded by a Fosse-esque troupe. Jazz hands! Stilts and dwarfs! A guy dressed like a director! (The dwarf, by the way, can move.)

The opening night film is “Atonement.” The festival can’t persuade a single cast member to show up, despite fervent hopes that Keira Knightley will make an appearance. They’re all away “working on other projects,” festival director Jon Fitzgerald tells us, which I guess makes them the most continuously employed movie cast in history.

The audience is a mix of Westerners and Abu Dhabians, and some of the latter are clearly unprepared for the movie: a few minutes in, after we’ve seen Keira’s skeletal frame in nothing but a wet slip and after she gets f****d standing up against a wall, the plot turns on the repeated and emphatic use of the word “c**t.” “Hot, wet c**t,” to be specific. That’s it for a number of Arab women in the audience, who get up and walk out.

The applause at the end of the movie – which is a lot like “The English Patient,” but with even more tear-jerking country-mansions-and-brave-lads-fighting-the-Nazis boilerplate, is tepid.

What doesn’t get tepid applause is the Opening Night Party. It’s a major hit, and one of the best kick-off parties you’ll ever attend at a film festival. It’s everything you could hope for: impossibly good-looking men and women dressed to the nines, a gorgeous balcony and lawn with tents overlooking the Persian Gulf, a hosted bar that doesn’t close until every last straggler has wandered away, “Casablanca” projected against one whole wall of the Emirates Palace, and as a capper, a spectacular fireworks display as Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is blasted over a fine sound system. It’s the same music that Bob Dylan uses before he takes the stage, which is appropriate because Todd Haynes’s version of Dylan, “I’m Not There,” is the highlight of the festival’s Tuesday program.

The report continues in Part 2 of Memoirs of the 2007 Middle Eastern International Film Festival>>>

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