In the past decade or so the Arab cinema landscape has undergone radical alteration. This has largely been thanks to the founding of competitive film festivals in Dubai, Abu Dhabi  and Doha. As these augment older film events in the Middle East and North Africa, the region has come to witness yearly cinematic avalanches between October and December.
The younger events are quite unlike those in Cairo , Carthage and Damascus, however. Rather than simply providing platforms where filmmakers can exhibit their work and meet their audiences, the Gulf festivals have come to elaborate upon the industry side of international events in Europe, Asia and North America – gearing themselves toward movie finance, development and, in some cases, distribution.
The festivals have themselves been in a state of flux, reflecting changing priorities in their host countries – which may be coping with the effects of popular revolution or downsizing in the wake of the financial crisis. Witness the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which opened Thursday evening with an exclusive screening of “Arbitrage,” Nichola Jarecki’s star-studded Wall Street sleaze drama. 
Now in its sixth season, ADFF emerged from Abu Dhabi’s Middle East International Film Festival. The festival has since become a powerhouse under the leadership of veteran U.S. festival director Peter Scarlet, previously of the Tribeca Film Festival. Scarlet oversaw the rebranding of ADFF and is generally credited with giving it a world-class profile.
This year it was announced that the management of ADFF had passed to TwoFour54 – the Abu Dhabi media authority – “part of the plan,” ADFF declared, “to strategically align the festival alongside Abu Dhabi’s other media initiatives and related events.”
More recently, Scarlet quietly left the director’s chair. Personnel changes need not necessarily sound a festival’s death knell, but there’s little doubt many eyes will be monitoring how well the event fares under its new management, headed by director Ali Al Jabri.
Troubling for Arab filmmakers, who’ve started to look to the Gulf festivals as a source of pre-production, production and post-production funding, are rumors about the uncertain future of SANAD, ADFF’s lucrative film development program.
For audiences, ADFF’s structure looks more or less as it has in past years. The festival still has a full complement of competitions – with distinct contests devoted to narrative features, first and second features, feature-length docs, shorts and Emirati films.
ADFF’s Narrative Feature Competition mingles a range of international works with several high-profile films from the Middle East and North Africa, several of them world premieres.
This year’s contest includes three Arab films. “Hidden Beauties,” by veteran Tunisian director Nouri Bouzid tells a story of women’s rights set in revolutionary Tunis.
ADFF will also premiere a pair of Algerian features. Moussa Haddad’s “Harraga Blues” tells a story of illegal immigration to Europe. Rachidd Benhadj’s “Perfumes of Algiers” is a drama about a Franco-Maghrebi journalist who after two decades in Europe must return to Algeria, where her mother is tried for terrorist activities.
Rounding out the Middle East content in ADFF’s flagship competition is “Somewhere in Between,” the latest feature by Turkish auteur Ye?im Ustao?lu, which tells the story of two youngsters, trapped between a dreary past and an uncertain future and yearning to escape both.
Much attention will be drawn to the four Arab works in the New Horizons/Al-Jadid Competition, with its focus on works by younger filmmakers.
Since its warm reception at Toronto, where it premiered a few weeks back, lots of interest has swirled around “When I Saw You,” Palestinian writer-director Annemarie Jacir’s second feature. Set in Jordan in 1967, the film focuses on the life of a restless 11-year-old named Tarek to tell the story of a Palestinian family displaced by conflict.
The award-winning Egyptian filmmaker Hala Lofty’s second feature “Coming Forth by Day” will have its world premiere during New Horizons. The filmmaker has described her work, about two women caring for a sick man, as a reflection on how people create their own prisons.
Representing Morocco is “The Miscreants,” by first-time director Mohcine Besri. It tells the tale of three Islamist militants who receive orders to kidnap a troupe of actors. During their captivity, the two groups are forced to confront their respective beliefs and prejudices.
Rounding out the Arab contribution to Al-Jadid is “The Citizen,” the feature film debut of Syrian-American director Sam Kadi. It tells the story of Ibrahim, who wins the U.S. Green Card lottery and arrives in New York just before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Another much-anticipated first feature that’s screening in New Horizons is “A Respectable Family” by Iran’s Massoud Bakhshi. A contemporary take on the Cain and Abel story that’s redolent with film noir influences, it follows an expatriate university professor who returns to Shiraz and becomes embroiled in a tale of corruption in post-revolutionary Iran.
For art house fans, the highlight of New Horizons may well be “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” by U.S. writer-director Benh Zeitlin. His tale about a precocious 6-year-old and her marginal bayou family in the wake of an apocalyptic storm has had critics swooning and taken major prizes at both Sundance and Cannes.
Five Arab films will participate in the Feature length Documentary Competition. Leading the pack will be “As If We Were Catching a Cobra,” by Syrian writer-director Hala Alabdalla, which premiered at TIFF. The project was originally conceived as a study of political caricatures in Egypt and Syria, but it was overtaken by the events of the Arab Spring and the freedom-fighting artists she encountered during that time.
Another Toronto veteran, “A World Not Ours” by Lebanon’s Mahdi Fleiefel scrutinizes three generations of refugees living in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp.
Three docs will have their world premieres at ADFF.
“Cursed be the Phosphate,” by Tunisian director Sami Tlili, examines the aftermath of a workers uprising in the phosphate-rich Gafsa region of Tunis, which was brutally suppressed by the Ben Ali regime three years before the dictator was overthrown.
In “Mohammad Saved from the Waters” Egyptian director Safaa Fathy takes up the story of her own brother, suffering renal failure from his consumption of Nile water, to examine issues of poverty and public health. Also in competition is “In Search Of Oil and Sand,” by Egyptian directors Wael Omar and Philippe Dib.
Though its competitions are wide-ranging, most of ADFF’s screenings take the form of panorama and special screening programs of international and regional work.
Among the important Middle Eastern works screening in the Showcase section is “After the Battle,” by veteran Egyptian auteur Yousry Nasrallah. Taking Egypt’s 2011 revolution as its point of departure, the film follows an impoverished horseman whose political awakening begins after he’s coerced into attacking anti-regime protesters in Tahrir Square. During ADFF Nasrallah will also receive the Variety Middle East Filmmaker of the Year Award.
ADFF has also announced a special program to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independent Algerian cinema. This selection includes two iconic works: Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 “The Battle Of Algiers” and Costa Gavras’ 1969 “Z,” which both won Academy Awards and continue to have an influence on politically engaged cinema.
Also included are rare screenings of such films as Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina’s Palme d’Or-winning “Chronicle Of The Year Of Embers” (1975); Ahmed Rachedi’s “Opium And The Baton” (1969); Moussa Haddad’s “Inspector Tahar’s Holiday” (1972) and Merzak Allouache’s “Bab al-Qued City” (1994).
The Abu Dhabi Film Feestival continues until Oct. 20. For more information, see http://www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae .
By Jim Quilty