You can assess a film festival’s attitude on cinema by its repertory choices. Sundance, which very briefly nods toward past independent cinema while unfurling new work, pushes film as progressive-transgressive; New York, with generous repertory sidebars and special events, presents film as an art form in need of historical contextualization and appreciation; Cannes premieres glamorous new restorations as part of its party scene. I’m increasingly sensing that Abu Dhabi is a sampler festival: a Hollywood visit (Secretariat), some European fun (Potiche, Carlos), political and environmental documentaries (the What in the World Are We Doing to Our World? sidebar), shorts both international and local. Many of the ADFF’s films have come pretested at other festivals, as I’ve noted, though the lineup also offers several world premieres. It seems like the festival is trying to appeal to as many different kinds of moviegoers as possible, perhaps in keeping with the multi-interest, multi-ethnic, multi-origin, multinational crowd of press and industry reps, filmmakers, and casual filmgoers attending. The repertory programming also offers a few choice selections—some films from an upcoming Museum of Modern Art show of Arab cinema, and high-profile restorations of Metropolis, The Circus, and the 1969 Egyptian film The Mummy (a.k.a. The Night of Counting the Years).
The Mummy restoration, which premiered at Cannes and also played at the New York Film Festival, is showing in both the restoration sidebar and as a part of the MoMA program. Long considered one of the greatest Egyptian films, the piece’s making often gets as much coverage as the movie does. The director, a former costume and set designer named Shadi Abdel-Salam, earned production money from European investors with Italian neorealist filmmaker Roberto Rossellini’s help. The restoration, supervised by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation at the Cineteca di Bologna, has repeated history; foreign efforts have helped bring an Egyptian film to life.
It’s appropriate to discuss The Mummy’s production and restoration circumstances, since the movie’s great theme is Egypt’s struggle to reclaim itself. The film suggests this by opening with a scene of men in black suits and red fezzes sitting around a dark table discussing the ancient Book of the Dead. “Any soul that lacks a name,” we’re told, “wanders in endless toil.”
The movie’s based on a real 1880s discovery of over 40 mummies, but its mission seems to be to uncover Egypt. The actors all speak in classical Arabic, yet you remember images more than sounds. The movie quickly leaves dark rooms to show some of the most lavish, richest light ever photographed on bright purple flowers, sparkling water, and glowing skin. Terrain and air grow more beautiful than the most splendid sarcophagi, and you feel the film forgetting plot for stretches so that it can record the environment. As characters hunt the sort of art that’s ended up in the Louvre, the film itself seeks natural treasures.
“My cause is our lost or missing history,” Abdeh-Salam said. He was speaking about material artifacts, but he also could have been addressing cinema, which by preserving the present becomes a record of the past. (His subsequent career was a missing history; he died before he could finish his second feature.) People watch DVDs the world over, but the decline of repertory film screenings—and work like The Mummy can only be properly grasped on film—does seem like spreading amnesia.
I watched The Mummy in a quarter-full house, and not at the mall, but at the Abu Dhabi Theater, a generally exclusive venue that’s open to the public now because the festival rented it. Residents can watch non-Hollywood films most of the year here, but if there’s a repertory tradition, I haven’t found it. You can’t accuse locals of ignoring their Middle Eastern heritage by choosing to see The Expendables over The Mummy because (a) a lot of the locals aren’t from the Middle East, and (b) it’s much less familiar, perhaps even unknown to many who are, just as many American audiences wouldn’t recognize Gary Cooper. But there’s a current issue of representation here, as well as a historical one. A high number of films featuring minority filmmakers and characters open in America in art houses that their target audiences visit infrequently; similarly, though television programming offers a range of Arab news, sports, music videos, film, and even poetry, it’s possible for Abu Dhabi audiences to frequent cinemas without seeing Arabs command the screen.
The Mummy therefore should play in two programs at this festival, since it’s both a classic film and a classic Arab film. You sense that the festival heads (many of whom are not Arab) are attempting to import history into the area, and will continue to do so; festival head Peter Scarlet announced before the screening that next year’s lineup will feature the complete film work of Naguib Mahfouz, the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s too early to tell whether these efforts will register as more than well-meant paternalism, but they’re valuable. After all, the best movies usually weren’t shot last year. Film festivals should program repertory too.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs through October 23. For more information, click here.