At 3pm, in crowded Park City, Utah, cars were backed up for blocks trying to reach the centre of town. There, at the new Sky Lodge Hotel, was David Shepheard, director of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, on his first trip to the Sundance Film Festival. Shepheard had come with filmmakers from the UAE. He hadn't watched any films yet, nor had he been skiing, but he had been building relationships for the talent accompanying him.
"It's about exposing them to other independent films, to international films. It's about getting connections with meetings that we can arrange with people from Hollywood and other international film industries. We're really just trying to raise the profile of UAE filmmakers," he said. "We do the major film festivals, like Cannes and Berlin, but this was more about filmmakers and having them meet other filmmakers," he noted. "In that aspect, it's a lot more intimate and a lot more focused, I think."
The ADFC became a sponsor of Sundance this year, Shepheard said, "just to get a better of level of access into the festival and its events. The Abu Dhabi brand is in the books and in the trailers in front of the movies. That way, we've gotten some low-level exposure. "Our overall goal is developing a film and television industry in Abu Dhabi," said Shepheard. "If we can promote the filmmakers and their talent to the international film community, that's one element that's feeding back to the overall objective of promoting the industry."
Shepheard noted that his meetings with agencies were aiming at getting talent from the UAE involved in film projects, not simply in providing funding. "Our message is: yes there are those big investments being made, but they're being made for a reason. We're trying to make those connections at serious levels to educate the industry that Abu Dhabi is about trying to build an industry. It's not just about throwing money around to projects because they've got an A-list cast or because there's some good exposure for it."
And it's a two-way street, he stressed. "Obviously the business model is changing in Hollywood. Financing is drying up and the Middle East is a place that's got those sorts of resources. We've seen lots of scripts with deserts in them and other elements that are the flavour of the Middle East. That's good because it gives some exposure to the region. But the studios are starting to look at projects from the region as well. There are 350 million Arabic-speaking people in the region. So we're finding that people are developing their relationships with the Middle East to find the next talent or story that could break out into an international market."
It's no coincidence that on the reverse side of Shepheard's business card is a picture of the Liwa Desert at sunset. "The other side of our business is the location side, promoting the emirate of Abu Dhabi to the world of filmmaking," he said. Three Emirati filmmakers were sitting nearby. "I'm looking for new projects. I don't like being restricted to languages or locations," said Nawaf al Janahi, who directed his first feature, The Circle. Al Janahi had seen only two films at Sundance so far, devoting his time to meeting with agents and producers. One of those films was Restrepo, the documentary film debut of Sebastian Junger, about a platoon of US soldiers on a hilltop in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. "I guess he was trying to say how wrong it was for the American soldiers to be where they've been," he said. "From the way it was edited and the way it was shot, that was the message."
With al Janahi was Ali Mustafa, the director of the feature City of Life. He also saw Restrepo and hesitated when asked about the war film's representation of the Islamic world. "It was difficult to represent us in a small mountain village, so I didn't take offence to any of that," he said, wondering about the American film's representation of US troops. "They were put basically in the middle of a bull's-eye, and saying 'fire'." It didn't make any sense."
Both al Janahi and Majid Alansari, who makes short films, admired Howl, the opening dramatic feature of the festival about the poet Allen Ginsberg. It was snowing outside and the filmmakers were dressed warmly. The atmosphere seemed right. "I go to a lot of film festivals, but being at Sundance, with the whole message being independent and low-budget film, which is where I come from, I felt at home," said al Janahi, who added that he had been receiving scripts from Canadian and American writers for the past two years.
"Filmmaking is about collaboration, and I believe a lot in international collaboration," he said. One encouraging sign, said Mustafa, was that the Americans at Sundance seemed to know something about the Middle East. "All of them had heard of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. They'd heard of the Dubai International Film Festival. I think about 90 per cent of the people I had met had even heard of my film," he said.
There's no question that Sundance, once reserved for American independents, is becoming more international. You could see the evidence in an annual staple at Sundance, the feature film directed by an actor. This year, that director is the Mexican actor Diego Luna, who was at Sundance two years ago with the football comedy Rudo y Cursi, co-starring his friend Gael Garcia Bernal. Luna's film this year is Abel, named for its main character, an unusual child in an unusual Mexican family. When Abel, who's nine, returns home from an asylum to join his mother and two siblings at their collapsing house, he takes a clear approach to the chaos around him. He seizes control of the household as if he were the father. He asserts that role, often comically, when his father returns to the family after years of absence.
Abel has been described as an example of domestic surrealism. After the screening, Luna acknowledged that the script that he co-wrote was personal. The actor/director lost his mother in a car accident at the age of two. "I decided to develop a story about a boy who's in love with his mother and pretends to play the role of the father," he told the audience. The director maintained that his film was no mere comedy. The oddities of Abel's family, he said, have their roots in the departure of fathers all over Mexico to work elsewhere, usually in the United States. "There are towns in Mexico where you just don't see any men between the ages of 20 and 50, because they all left to look for work. Fathers leave all the emotional work of raising children to the mother, and children can feel that," Luna told the audience.
Among the films that have generated controversy this week is The Killer Inside Me, by the British director Michael Winterbottom. For his latest, an adaptation of a classic American crime novel, Winterbottom filmed the story of a small-time Texas sheriff who is a killer. Casey Affleck plays a young office worker who looks like a boy scout but kills without any moral hesitation. Violence is at the core of independent American cinema. Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino's debut movie about a crime caper that goes violently awry, premiered here in 1991, and Sundance launched Tarantino on a career that is still exploring brutality in a range of genres and most recently, in a historical period drama, Inglourious Basterds.
Winterbottom's new film isn't expected to lift his career, but perhaps to stall it. Extended scenes in which Affleck's character beats women are likely to keep the film from being distributed in the US. To complicate matters, the film was shot in two US states that have rebate programmes to finance films, involving returning a percentage of the funds spent in the state to the film's producers. Could the notoriety of The Killer Inside Me bring new scrutiny to these state-funded programmes, and to the kinds of films that they underwrite?
A different kind of notoriety is accorded to Banksy, the graffiti artist and street art trickster, who was in town long enough to paint pictures on walls in Park City. Yet he failed to show (or at least to identify himself) at screenings of his new documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. For the audience at one screening, the film worked well enough without its subject present. The film introduces the makers of street art and graffiti, including a hooded Banksy in shadows. Yet its bizarre hero is Thierry Guetta, a hanger-on who videotapes the street art scene and yearns to be an artist himself when he sees how easy some art is to make.
With Banksy's endorsement, Thierry gives himself an art name, Mr Brainwash, and sells most of his property to finance an art show in Los Angeles. He doesn't make the art himself, but hires artists to make improvisations on the work of Andy Warhol. Hyped fiercely, it was a huge success. Had Banksy created a newer and more outrageous version of himself? One of Mr Brainwash's latest projects is the cover of the new recording of Madonna's greatest hits, with Madonna painted to look like Marilyn Monroe.
As the film ended, Banksy admitted that he would have second thoughts about promoting artists who seemed defined only by their ambition. Yet he had already let Mr Brainwash loose, and the audience loved it.