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Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2010: An Interview with Executive Director Peter Scarlet

Peter Scarlet is the Executive Director of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2010: An Interview with Executive Director Peter Scarlet

Peter Scarlet is the Executive Director of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. This is his second year at the festival. He has also held head positions at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Cinémathèque Française, and the San Francisco International Film Festival.

I came across an interesting quote from you. You said, “We’re here not just to do a film festival, but to start a film culture.” Could you elaborate?

Here in Abu Dhabi, and I think in most of the UAE, when people want to go to the movies they go to the malls, and they have a choice between midrange Hollywood and Bollywood—or next week, for a change, there’s midrange Bollywood and Hollywood. Every once in a while, maybe every month or two, just to liven things up there’s an Egyptian film. Some of them may be perfectly fine. But the world of cinema’s a lot broader than that, and a lot more diverse, and a lot older. So one of the things we’re trying to do with this festival is show films from countries that never appear on screen here, show genres like documentaries and shorts and student work and experimental work, and show films from the past. Last year I had a wonderful screening of silent films, including some Chaplin and Keaton archival prints, [accompanist] Neil Brand came here from London, and it was like, “Wow, I’m showing silent movies for the first time in the whole country!” It was revolutionary.

But the other part of it is that when that happens—and I’m feeling a little bit like Johnny Appleseed here—then people begin to take films…I’m reluctant to say take films seriously, because then you get what we have all too much of in the West, which is film buffery and film snobbery and everything else. Maybe that has to go with it too. But I think then you get people who go, “Wow, that’s interesting, I want to do something different.” And you inspire people to start making films.

There’s been talk here from long before I came of wanting to begin a film industry in Abu Dhabi. And I’ve gone out on a limb and said, “I don’t think when they’re good that movies are like refrigerators.” You know, if you want to start a refrigerator industry you build a factory and start stamping metal. Movies—well, let’s face it, we’ve seen all too many movies lately that look like they were made by people who knew how to make refrigerators and not much else. But I think you get an interesting filmic ferment going when you have some crazy people doing things that they half-know what they’re doing and then they do it better and then they argue with each other and they fight, and then something starts. And you know, that’s what’s always happened, whether it’s Italy in the 1940s or Romania five or six years ago. And that’s what creates something exciting.

So your hope is that this festival will foster interest not just in a culture of filmgoing, but in a culture of filmmaking?

Absolutely. And not just this festival, because among my long-term projects, one of which I hope will be realized soon, is to open the doors of a cinema. In fact, I found a beautiful cinema that was completed here 10 years ago and was never used. I’d start what we used to call an art-house cinema. There are actually a few in the region: There’s the Cinémathèque de Tanger in Morocco, there’s the Metropolis in Beirut, and there’s a cinema whose name I can never remember in Ramallah [Al-Kasaba Theatre and Cinémathèque]. And I think if you have four entities that are nearby throughout the year, you can begin to work together. You can share the cost of bringing in prints, of subtitling prints, you can share the cost of bringing guests in. You can do all of that stuff that then other things can be sparked off by.

For example, the idea of including repertory in the festival program does seem to be a gesture in that direction. Restorations and films from the MoMA program, films from the past as well as from the present.

I’ve always believed in something I’m pretty sure Godard said years ago: “We talk about old movies, but we don’t talk about old paintings or old symphonies or old novels.” I think cinema exists in the present. When I was in San Francisco I was following in the footsteps of a wonderful man named Albert Johnson, and his program was always the old and the new. And I’ve imitated that example (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery) for a number of years now. With the recent growth of film restoration and film preservation—sparked in part by video, of course—to be able to show as we are this year the restored print of The Mummy, a great film that I’d seen in 1969 and couldn’t see for 30 years afterward, or this miraculously rediscovered near-complete copy of Metropolis. This is as exciting or more than a brand new film. It is a brand new film.

I was at that Mummy screening, and was very excited to see it. I had seen it at the New York Film Festival last year.

You may be wrong. The people from the Egyptian Film Center told me that the copy that was at Cannes and at New York was a digital copy of the zero print. This is now a 35mm copy of the finished print.

Great. The best it’s ever looked. That screening was in the Abu Dhabi Theatre, which is not typically a movie theater.

It had never been used for movies before, and as you’ve noticed, our attendance has been spotty there so far, I think because we didn’t do a good enough job to tell people where it is. To tell them that, although it’s out on this little peninsula where there isn’t much parking, you can park in the mall parking lot nearby and we’re running shuttles out every five minutes. It’ll take a while for that to catch on. But it’s such a gorgeous theater that once people walk into it they go, “Wow.” It’s part of the Heritage Foundation, and in fact they have the other cinema that I was telling you about.

The venues for this festival are the Abu Dhabi Theatre, the Cinestar multiplex at the Marina Mall, and the auditorium at the Emirates Palace. How did you select these venues?

The Emirates Palace and Marina Mall were used before I came here. I came here last year for the third edition of the festival, and there was already the tradition. The Emirates Palace is not only the hotel in town; there are others, but this is kind of a symbolic hotel of Abu Dhabi and it has this glorious 1,200-seat cinema. There isn’t much in the rest of the town apart from a couple of cavernous 2,500-seat cinemas that would be daunting for me as a programmer. When you have 300 people in a 500-seat theater, it’s fine. When you have them in a 1,200-seat theater, you get lonely.

I want to talk a bit more about programming philosophy.

What a pretentious phrase!

Let’s scrap philosophy, just programming. How important is it to you to program Middle Eastern filmmaking here?

Very much. The name that I inherited last year was Middle East International Film Festival. I changed it because the convention is you name your event after the town you’re in. (Unless you’re ashamed of it, and nobody’s ashamed of Abu Dhabi.) It also comes a lot earlier in the alphabet than M. But the core of the program is still about (a) international, to give people in the region a glimpse of the cinema that isn’t available to them earlier, but also (b) Middle East. I declared when I started this job last year at Cannes that half of our competition, we were going to aim for half of it being films from the Middle East. And people looked at me with an expression that could be read as meaning “You poor idiot, you’re not gonna get a good program that way.” Well, we did last year, and I think we have this year, although the films have been a little different this year. The production of documentaries in the Middle East has been a little thinner, in part because two of the films that we were counting on wound up not being ready. But I think it’s important not just for people here to see films from the region, but for cinema of the Middle East to be seen more and more widely.

We’ve started a project called Sanad this year where we’ve been able to give half a million dollars—and we will continue to do that in the future—to seed new films, and to give completion funding to filmmakers. Last year we did it in a kind of ad hoc way. There were three terrific projects that weren’t going to be ready. One was Mohamed Al-Daradji’s film last year, Son of Babylon, which had its world premiere here, wound up winning a number of major prizes at Berlin and elsewhere. Another was the Palestinian film Port of Memory, and the third was the Lebanese film We Were Communists. We Were Communists itself wound up not being done last year, but it’s here this year having premiered at Venice, and I think it’s a knockout. But among the applicants were some of the best-known older filmmakers in the region, like Omar Amiralay and Mohamed Malas from Syria, like Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas from Lebanon, and a lot of younger filmmakers. And the projects were all edgy, offbeat projects, the kinds of things that if you were in Syria you couldn’t go to the National Film Organization to get funding for.

Last year we showed—to take two random examples—an Egyptian film called Heliopolis that had been finished a year before. In fact, I was in Cairo in 2008 and it was supposed to open the Cairo Independent Film Festival until suddenly the government stepped in, deciding that Cairo didn’t need an independent film festival. So that film’s first screening in the Middle East was here 11 months later. There’s a Syrian film called The Long Night about political prisoners that still hadn’t shown and still won’t show in Syria. In fact, I went to Damascus a month after our festival last year and the filmmaker, Hatem Ali, was on the jury, but when you looked in the catalogue for his filmography The Long Night was somehow not there. So we’re trying to send signals to filmmakers throughout this region that they can show stuff here that maybe they can’t show at home, and that there is a literate, a passionate, and educated audience. The Q&A sessions here…Intashal and Rasha, my two Arabic programmers, have traveled in the region a lot longer than I have, and their experience bore out mine that what happens here after screenings is a league away from what happens after screenings in Cairo and Damascus and elsewhere. They usually don’t even have Q&As.

So when you say a league away…

If you go to a festival and there’s a French film and there are 20 people in the audience and they’re just sending each other text messages the whole time and the movie ends and people file out, for me that’s not a film festival. If you come to a film festival and people are having a passionate discussion with the filmmaker for an hour, that’s what a film festival is. I’ve always believed that film festivals are also supposed to be about hospitality. It’s not just industry, it’s not about sales, it’s not about what did Harvey Weinstein want to buy. I like to avoid a word like networking too, but it’s giving people an opportunity to meet each other, to learn about each other, to learn about the place they’re in, to learn about what people are doing here. And this is the whole kind of operation we’re trying to put in place, and it’s up to you to say to what degree we’re succeeding or not.

Much of the population is not made up of religious Muslims, but are you concerned about programming for those who are?

Eighty-five percent of the audience here is expats. But some are Muslim, and this is a conservative country, and I’m not going out of my way to push the edge of the envelope in terms of ramming stuff down peoples’ throats that they would be offended by. Last year I showed a film by Raja Amari, who’s known in the States for a film called Red Satin. Her new film was Buried Secrets, with Hafsia Herzi, the Algerian-born actress from The Secret of the Grain, and it was about a young woman’s coming to terms with her nascent sexuality. And we had a number of young women from Zaved University work with us as volunteers last year. Afterward I went to the school to thank them, and they wanted to talk about the festival. It was a fascinating experience, because they said first of all that they were really offended by that film. “How could you show a film like that? Had you seen it before you showed it?” And I realized that people here hadn’t yet learned that a film that plays in a mall like this is playing here because somebody thought they could make money off it, while a film that plays in a festival…

So I explained the kind of curatorial process that’s involved in selecting a film, and who we are and who we’re making these selections for. Then I learned that we had made an inadvertent error. We had attempted to put ratings on the films, knowing that it’s a conservative population, and pretty much mirrored the ratings system used in commercial cinemas, although we have not had to pass our films under the eyes of censors [unlike commercial films here]. But the tag we used for Buried Secrets was the tag used for extreme violence, or violence of any kind. So these young women had come expecting a violent film, which is actually very common here. Somebody through Hollywood offered me the most recent Halloween movie, directed by Rob Zombie. And I was confused, because it’s a conservative country, and he said (in not too patronizing a way), “You don’t get it. Gore movies don’t do any business in the Middle East except in the UAE.” My theory is that since young men have no access to alcohol or drugs or sex, the only form of transgressive behavior that’s available to them is watching violence. But anyhow, as the conversation continued, it turned out that what these young women were really upset about was that they had gone to see the film in a cinema that men were in. And that was what was different, because men and women are pretty much educated separately, and that makes the social experience of cinema different from what it is in the U.S. That’s another thing that I’ve learned to pay attention to.

How do you advertise?

This year we advertised late, and it hurt us. We got our program out late. We have the catalogue in both English and in Arabic. We have banners, we have posters, we have a website, we even have an iPhone application with our program, but we’re still learning how to do more. We probably don’t advertise enough. The National is the English-language paper, and it’s done fairly good coverage of us.

I was about to tell you about The Social Network. It’s opening in a few days, the distributor wanted us to show it. The producer said, “No, it’s not in our plans.” So go figure.

I noticed that, aside from Chronicle of a Disappearance, this year’s ADFF featured no Israeli cinema. How much consideration did the programmers give Israeli film this year?

The UAE has no diplomatic relations with Israel, meaning no products can be brought in from that country. Chronicle is credited as being a production of Palestine, U.S.A., Germany, and France, and Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, which we also showed, is France, Morocco, Germany, Palestine.

Why was Secretariat chosen as the opening night film?

What did you think of Secretariat?

I think it’s gorgeously, handsomely made, I think it appeals to a wide audience, I wasn’t crazy about the script.

Okay. I learned years ago that the audience for an opening night, and I made a joke in reference to it in my opening-night speech, is usually an audience you don’t see for the rest of the festival. Last year I went out on a limb and showed an Egyptian film called The Traveller that starred Omar Sharif and Khaled Nabawy, who’s got a part in Fair Game. And it went over like a lead balloon—in part because it’s Omar Sharif playing an old man, in part because there’s a rape sequence in it, in part because it’s almost as much an Italian movie as it is an Egyptian movie. And it reminded me, and this is not in any way to diss Secretariat, but an opening-night movie is for a much broader, what the French would call grand publique audience than the rest of the festival has to be. And when I saw Secretariat I was overjoyed because it’s family entertainment, it’s about a subject that people care about here, you leave feeling good, and on top of it, it’s in a kind of a way a feminist movie. And the guy who wrote a piece for indieWire said he was surprised by that, and I took him aside and said, “Women rule the world everywhere, regardless of what you read in the newspapers.” And it’s certainly true here, as some of the most powerful figures in this country are women, but they don’t have a chance to see many stories like this. So I think this would be an enormously popular film. And you know, an audience comes to an opening night to get dressed up and to look at how everybody else is dressed, and then go have a party. The tradition here is people often don’t stay around for the opening night film. They come, they’re dressed up, they walk out after the speeches, probably the same thing will happen closing night. So for me, I hope I have a Secretariat every year.

I also applaud the opening night showing of the Jafar Panahi short The Accordion.

Thank you. And that, it turns out, I’ve been told, has not ceased to evoke comment by the Arab press, who are very happily impressed that we struck a blow for all the things that film strikes a blow for, as festivals here don’t usually.

Are funding and sponsorship all government?

Sponsorship no, but most companies are related to the government here. But we don’t have a lot of sponsorship yet. I’m hoping that changes as we grow and age.

I’ve been noticing that a lot of the movies have a common theme of conflict resolution. A lot of these movies consciously seem to want to fix a problem rather than pass blame. They’re anti-vengeance movies.

I’d cop to that. I think we’ve had enough of that in cinema, enough of that in life. I hadn’t thought consciously of it being a theme. That is one of the tricky things, to come back to programming. You put a program together of films you’ve seen over a year, so often the programming becomes a kind of unconscious autobiography of your mental state. I don’t usually, unless it’s something like the “What in the World Are We Doing to Our World?” program, think of films within a theme. Although the very title of that is indicative of what I’m trying to get across, which is not “This is all fucked,” but “What are we doing? This is all of us.”

I also wanted to say about Secretariat. People have said to me on occasion, “Well that’s not a festival movie!” And I always want to say, “Fuck you. Who says what a festival movie is?” In America, the majors are still reluctant to give films to festivals because they’ll get the reputation of being art movies. Festivals have veered off in a kind of New York Film Festival direction, which I don’t mean in a derogatory way, but I really believe that nobody’s born a film buff. I realize this may not be the best metaphor, but basically my job is like the pusher in the schoolyard, to get the kids to try the soft stuff and then get them coming back for more. And some crowd-pleasing movies, I think, are the best way to do that. To do a festival with nothing but auteur cinema, which some festivals are, is not my kind of festival.

To me, a festival movie is a movie that shows at a festival.

By definition.

So really, it can be whatever you want. And if you’re going to show old movies, Chaplin [with The Circus], for example, is a great way to draw people in.

Exactly. At Cannes this year they began a program of restorations of the work of Pierre Étaix, who was a great clown, who started with Jean-Claude Carrière and made a number of wonderful films in the ‘60s. And there were new prints. And I thought, Well, in some places yes, but to show Étaix in a place where people don’t really know Chaplin or Keaton or Tati is like putting the cart before the horse. If I had a cinema open I could be doing all of that, and then I could do Étaix.

But I also believe in a very catholic sense of a program. Movies are all kinds of different things. And some people don’t think they are, and it’s a festival’s job to go, “Hey.” I remember five years ago I think I showed the first movies that Ed Lachman shot on a cellphone. People went, “He shot on a cellphone?”

I’ve spoken to Bruce Goldstein [repertory programmer at New York’s Film Forum] about this. He’s at a point where he sees his job as much about educating as it is about programming.

That’s absolutely true. I think that for all of us that’s true. I like Bruce, and I like what he’s doing. I’m trying to think of a tactful way of putting it…what Film Forum has, what MoMA has, what the Cinémathèque Française has (although I haven’t been there lately), is what I don’t have here, which is a preponderantly old fart audience. And I think that’s great. I remember a couple of years ago, I had been trying for years to see all of Rossellini all together, and they did a big retrospective at MoMA, and I went and half the audience looked like they were using their membership to stay in out of the cold, half the people were completely gaga, and there some people where I thought that they should have gotten the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home to sponsor the series. We need to get a younger audience. And we took some steps in that direction at Tribeca, which is the good thing about Tribeca, but here you’ve got all kinds of people, and that’s exciting. And I’m not making that as an ageist comment, of course, I don’t care how old you are, come buy a ticket, come see. But if that’s the only people you have, then you’re in trouble. And that’s what the classic institutions, like MoMA and the BFI—come on, get some young people in here.

What are the biggest surprises that you’ve seen in your two years here?

I was told there was no film audience here. So last year when we had packed houses and we had real debates going on and a knowledgeable audience, I realized that was horseshit. For a festival programmer and organizer to discover an audience, it’s like the Sacramento River in 1849 and I’ve found gold. So that’s been a great surprise.

I’ve traveled in this region not a lot, but more than most North Americans. I married an Iranian woman 10 years ago, so I started traveling to places we Americans don’t usually go to. And I got hooked. I would go back to New York…people here are friendly, and they’re open. “Come home and have dinner.” And it’s something that either we’ve lost or never had in Europe and North America. I love it. And for me to have, part of what a film festival’s about is not about what got bought or those articles in the trade papers, it’s about the things that spark off with people. The unexpected connections, people meet and then another film comes out of it. And we try to create as much of that as possible within the context of a festival, with social events every evening, and things going on all the time. That’s what a festival is about, it seems to me.

A lot of the time, audiences don’t seem to see filmgoing itself as a social event, which is something that a festival can correct.

Funny you should mention it, because I have a soapbox speech. Mostly, not quite that way here, but mostly multiplexes have turned—you go, you buy your ticket, you buy your popcorn, you sit down, you watch the movie, and then in the ritzy multiplexes, unless you really have to take a leak, they won’t let you back in. You have to go out through the back stairs, through the service entrance, past the trashcans. And I love it because it’s like you’re being treated like food in the intestinal tract, you’re being excreted out the back. I don’t want to go too far with that metaphor, but I’ve tried to change the directional flow, and make it more of a social experience. And I think, while I sometimes joke that the growth of festivals has become almost comic, I come from a generation where there was the San Francisco Film Festival, there was New York, there was Chicago, whereas now towns you couldn’t even find on a map have their own film festivals. I often say that I’d like to find a chemical manufacturer who I assume would be from Bratislava who’d come up with a product that I imagine would be in a canister. You’d open a map and shake it on the town and it would prevent a festival from growing. And the brand name would be Festicide. The fact that there is such a growth of festivals means that they’re serving some need that the commercial system isn’t answering, and I guess that’s to the good. But it’s also that they answer the social need, which is that when you go and you buy a tub of popcorn and you sit down and you get excreted out the back, you probably don’t talk to anybody. When you come to the same cinema for three days in a row, you can say, “Hey, weren’t you the guy at the Romanian film the other night?” Then some kind of community starts, people make friends, people talk. That’s part of what the attraction was of movies in the first place, I think.

What do you see as the greatest challenges moving forward?

You’ve seen in the Emirates Palace an exhibition of what Saadiyat Island is going to be. You have the Frank Gehry building and the Louvre and the Guggenheim. And when I first saw it, I asked, “Where is cinema there?” They said, “We have the New York Film Academy.”

We’re in an era here like in America before, say, Walter Benjamin and “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It’s not that film isn’t accepted as an art form because it’s mechanical. But it still hasn’t really gotten it as an art form. It’s still what you go to on the weekend or you send your kid to. So trying to establish that “Yo, this be art” is exciting and fun and a challenge, but after all, I could fall flat on my face. And maybe they’re right, who knows. But I’d say that’s the other side of the battle, that people aren’t blasé here, that they’re hungry and they’re curious. I gathered my staff together six months ago and showed them Sunrise, and I envied them. It’s like all of cinema history to be discovered.

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