“It’s a surreal place, isn’t it?” someone asked me about Abu Dhabi. The question made me think about my last night at the festival: Attending a gala, red-carpet, invite-only awards ceremony at the Emirates Palace, wondering what I was doing there, leaving 12 minutes in to catch another movie at the Abu Dhabi Theatre, falling asleep during it from too much sightseeing and partying, and waking up at the end to attend another party. I did these things rather than visit the labor camps about 20 minutes outside the city, where much of the working-class population lives. I told myself at the airport the next morning that I hadn’t made the time.
That’s Abu Dhabi for you—a city that paints a big smile for tourists, and one that exists where and as you care to see it. Wherever I went, though, I heard a voice screaming inside my head. At the Emirates Palace you can buy gold coins from a vending machine—and the voice went, but that’s not reality! Next to the Abu Dhabi Theatre lies the Heritage Village, where you can see a wooden house built for your pleasure, a museum with myriad undated axes, fishing nets, and Korans, and a row of postcard-selling huts—and the voice cried, but that’s not reality! A short bus ride, and you catch the Grand Mosque, a towering white dome that women must don abayat to enter, where a digital clock reads the six daily prayer times, and where seven enormous bejeweled chandeliers loom overhead. Large groups of people stream in and out to pray. Is this reality?
A lesson of Abu Dhabi is that reality is whatever’s happening in front of you, even if it feels too weird to be real. The reality of the Abu Dhabi-born Muslim who goes to the Grand Mosque regularly is every bit as valid as that of the Indian cab driver who couldn’t find his way past the central market, apologizing for only having been in the city a week, and both of these are as valid as that of the high school acquaintance I encountered randomly at one of the festival’s mall screenings, who had arrived a few months prior to work at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. Over coffee, paninis, and one of AD’s ubiquitous mint lemonades at a mall café a few days later, he tried to explain the city to me. First off, he said, everyone goes to the malls on the weekends to shop and to be seen, and we looked around. We spotted a melting pot in which the ingredients hadn’t melted—continual cliques of five or six people, each block of the same ethnicity, each uniform in garb. “People are really friendly here, and will invite you home for dinner for nothing,” my friend said. “But you can also live here without interacting with anyone outside your group.” Many of the people literally don’t speak each other’s language.
Without making it seem too utopian a meeting place, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival offers one possible way to bridge cultural gaps. This might seem counterintuitive, given the festival’s pre-arranging its entries into niche categories (international narrative, Middle Eastern narrative, international doc, Middle Eastern doc, etc.), but the event does provide an exciting potential social space. I watched a stranger stop festival director Peter Scarlet and confess that the festival was the highlight of his year, every year. His words attested to the excitement that the ADFF already has and potentially still could generate, as well as the lack of a potent film culture in Abu Dhabi already—the two go hand in hand. Programming’s always the first thing, and this year offered a pretty good jumble. But to really catch on with the public, the festival has to do at least three additional things well moving forward:
Advertising. By the time I arrived, one couldn’t drive through the city without seeing an ADFF banner. Print coverage followed suit. But it’s not just where the ads go, it’s also how early they get there. This annual event has to find ways to stay in peoples’ consciousnesses year-round. An immediate possibility is holding (well-publicized) screenings and events throughout the year. Scarlet says that he hopes to open an art-house cinema in Abu Dhabi, where these could take place. It would be especially good if the venue showed films from the festival, so that audiences could have further chances to see and discuss them. This would bridge the gap between a small “I saw it, you didn’t” and a large “You saw it, I want to” that arises so often at festivals, and that two screenings finished by the time many people learn about them can’t solve. In New York and Paris this gap can be crossed eventually, since many major festival movies eventually do hold theatrical runs. But Abu Dhabi—and most cities in the world that hold film festivals, for that matter—doesn’t yet have this luxury.
Location. Though I loathe the idea of exclusive opening and closing night screenings (especially considering how many opening night attendees don’t stay for the movie), the Emirates Palace is a great location for them, as well as a good spot for many other festival screenings. The Abu Dhabi Theatre is a fine site as well, although the festival needs to better advertise how to reach it. But I love the idea of a film festival in a mall, especially a festival that commandeers the multiplex’s screens for nine days and promotes itself with a large schedule board and information booth (as the ADFF did) as you walk in. As good as the Marina Mall is for screenings, though, it would be even better if the festival moved into Abu Dhabi’s other large malls as well. To really draw the public, you need to be as public as possible.
Drawing the public. It’s telling that one of the first “Stuff White People” like entries was film festivals. An eternal problem that festivals run into—and one that isn’t discussed enough—is how to bring the working-class population in, and get the cab driver to enter the theater along with the passenger. The festival can address the problem through the first two steps, especially by publicizing further and even screening in areas where lower-class people live. It’s already taking good steps by offering low, affordable ticket prices (less than five American dollars) and free shuttle rides between hotels and theaters. The planners must bring the entire city to the festival if the city wants to become as much of a megalopolis as all the plans I’ve seen suggest, because doing so helps enfranchise the entire community—everyone’s the same class in the dark.
Again, these thoughts may sound overly optimistic—partly because my chief festival experience is attending them. But I do think that they’re possible to implement in Abu Dhabi, largely because both the festival and the city itself are so new. We also live in a historical moment where it’s more possible than ever. Over and over, I sensed technology bridging cultures: the Filipino security guard who in broken English told me we’d be friends on Facebook, the Egyptian filmmaker who spoke even less English but gave me his Gmail address. I recently received a Facebook message from a Dubai resident who attended the festival’s program of Abbas Kiarostami shorts, found my review, and wrote to thank me. We had been two of fewer than 30 people in the room.
The world is getting smaller, and though Abu Dhabi is far from representative of the entire world (a non-relationship with Israel, for example, prevents that), it’s an intriguing chance for a model. The film festival can help, for by bringing disparate people together to show the world on screen, it inevitably suggests possibilities for the off-screen world as well. I saw Kiarostami in person a few days before the festival ended, sipping tea in the Emirates Palace lounge, and shook his hand and told him that I thought he was the world’s best filmmaker. I couldn’t do this back in New York, for the 70-year-old Iranian didn’t accompany Certified Copy to the New York Film Festival this year because of visa problems.
A family member asked me casually upon my return, “Do they hate Americans over there?” I quickly responded that they are Americans, along with almost everything else. Meanwhile I was thinking about my return to the States, where a JFK immigration officer detained me for reasons I don’t know for an hour and a half; I looked around the waiting area, took stock of myself as the only white person under file, considered how much worse it could have been if I were Arab, and thought about punching anyone suspicious of the new Muslim community center near the World Trade Center site in the nose. Yet it still also seemed strange to me to watch guys in kanduras hanging out at the Abu Dhabi Starbucks, though I think (and hope) that this would pass with time. Abu Dhabi is a global center-in-progress, the closest I’ve seen in real life to a Jacques Tati movie, where an inordinate number of races, ages, religions, and classes gather on one highway, in one shopping mall, or in one movie theater. The proposition’s absurd, but also delightful. It’s a place worth watching.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival ran from October 14 - 23. Information about it can be found here.