It's always fair to give someone time to get acquainted with a job before making any judgements on how effective they are. For Peter Scarlet, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival executive director, that settling-in time came last year, although he made an indelible mark when he famously brought out some goats for the closing night gala screening of The Men Who Stare at Goats. It was a Marmite moment that divided the audience, but it confirmed what some already suspected: that Scarlet is a man prepared to do things in his own inimitable style. Now, his second edition of the festival, the first that he's had a full year to prepare for, will be a time for more serious judgements.
The change of name to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival from the Middle East International Film Festival is the first noticeable improvement implemented by Scarlet. It makes sense: globally, the profile of Abu Dhabi as a brand has never been more prominent - it now carries more cachet than the broad, all-encompassing term, Middle East. Nonetheless, the name change will mean nothing unless audiences feel as though they are being served a festival that is delivering the best movies available, while also providing access to filmmakers and actors talking about their work. Scarlet says that such a way of judging a film festival means that his job can be a poisoned chalice. "People in my business, we get praised and blamed for the films we show, but we're working in the vineyards trying to bring in the grapes, and if the stuff isn't there, it isn't there. I think overall we have a strong programme, and the presence of the Middle East on screen is going to be as strong as last year."
While there is an obvious need to show films about the region, there is also a desire from audiences to see the latest Hollywood fare. It's something Scarlet is acutely aware of, but he believes that any expats living in the UAE should want to learn more about the culture that surrounds them. A concerted effort was made last year to encourage audiences not just to watch films from well-known directors but movies set in the region, too. The former artistic director of the Tribeca Film Festival adds a caveat: "A film festival is not a United Nations. We don't feel like we have to have this many films from this many countries. We're looking for the strongest films we can play."
On the strength of their showings at Cannes, Venice and Toronto, it's hard to dispute that the mix of feature films on offer will entice audiences. The highlights include the much-anticipated adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go, starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield; François Ozon's Potiche, which teams up Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve; Julien Schnabel's epic Miral, which is set in the Middle East; and another tale set in the region, Incendies by Denis Villeneuve. Also on the schedule: regional premieres of Fair Game, starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts and Let Me In, the excellent remake of Let the Right One In. The opening night film is Secretariat, about the famous Triple Crown-winning horse, starring Diane Lane and John Malkovich. Among the documentaries to be shown, there are three new and particularly strong films about the Palestinian conflict.
They will be showing the three-and-a-half-hour cinema version rather than the TV version of Olivier Assayas' Carlos, the biopic of Carlos the Jackal because: "I have the feeling people would find five hours a tough sit," says Scarlet. "Also, Susanne Bier's In a Better World - it's a very tough film that gets better and better and better. Another tough film is Wang Bing's The Ditch, which showed at Venice and Toronto and is the strongest film I've seen from China this year."
There are also three films in the narrative competition that are from the Middle East, one from Syria, Egypt and Lebanon (which was co-produced with Sanad). Scarlet says that the crop of films being made by Middle East directors was not as broad as last year, although he hesitates to give a reason as to why this is so. "There was a smaller crop, a sparser vintage than we'd seen last year, which in a way confirmed the importance of the Sanad film fund, which we started. We provided post-production funds for Mohammed al Daradji's documentary In My Mother's Arms as well as development money for his forthcoming feature Train Station, and we're also helping filmmakers such as Annemarie Jacir, Joana Hadjithomas and Cherien Dabis, Omar Amiralay, and other major names in regional cinema. They were all saying how desperately it's been needed and how it's going to help them get projects off the ground - some of which they've been trying to get done for years. So if this year's crop is a little thinner than last year's I'm encouraged that next year looks very promising."
Sanad is the Abu Dhabi development and post-production fund that dishes out a total of US$500,000 (Dh1.8m) to filmmakers. It's one part of an ambition to ensure that the Abu Dhabi Film Festival is not a once-a-year showcase but a focal point for the development of cinema in the region. Scarlet explains: "If we are serious - and we are - about inspiring a generation of filmmakers here, a lot of people think that they are starting a film industry. I tend not to agree with that; I think you don't start a film industry the way you start an automobile industry or refrigerator industry. It's not a question of having a factory.
"You start a film industry when you have a few crazy people who are crazy enough to want to make movies and have enough inspiration and guts and energy that they make movies people get really excited about. Look what happened out of nowhere in Romania - who was expecting a Romanian new wave?" Such diverse fare is unlikely to be found in the cinemas in Abu Dhabi's malls any time soon, but Scarlet says signs of a developing film culture are promising. He's encouraged by the number of cinema clubs that have been opening up both in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, suggesting audiences are searching out more independent film.
The question of how to promote less-mainstream work is not just a challenge for the Middle East, either. Toronto this year opened a cinema attached to its film festival, the Lightbox, to encourage the exhibition of art-house and more off-the-beaten-track films. There's also a new venue in Abu Dhabi this year, where the 450-seat Abu Dhabi Theatre on the breakwater will be used to show films for the first time. As Scarlet points out, the benefit this has is that it's more intimate than the Emirates Palace and provides a different ambience to films shown at a mall.
Another positive step brought to fruition under Scarlet is that the festival will have a closer relationship with the established Film Financing Circle: "This year, it will overlap with the first few days of the festival and have the industry-focused event, the Sanad Lab. "We are bringing sales agents over as well as filmmakers, and in the Lab we will bring producers to see the work. So there is going to be an industry emphasis on the first few days of the festival, I think - there will be a lot of cross-pollination between the Circle and the festival."
The ability of the festival to help launch a film was highlighted last year with the success of Son of Babylon, which after its screening in Abu Dhabi was snapped up by the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. The director Mohammad al Daradji will this year return to the festival to pick up the Variety Middle East Filmmaker of the year award. Scarlet has an impressive CV that boasts a propensity for growing film festivals. For 18 years from 1983 Scarlet worked as the artistic director of the San Francisco International Film Festival and during his tenure the attendance at the festival tripled. He then took on the prestigious position of director general of the Cinematheque Française, one of the world's oldest and largest film archives. Then from October 2002 he became an executive director and then the artistic director of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
His ambitions for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival relate to quality rather than quantity: "I'm not a size guy. I don't think things getting bigger is necessarily better. More than Tribeca, I think of the model of San Francisco, which is the oldest festival in the United States, where there is something called the Pacific Film Archive over in Berkeley that has two films a night with filmmakers from all over the world coming in. That was the kind of personal attention that helped to train me and I think has been becoming rarer and rarer in the world."
The personal touch is a big mantra for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival head: "Atmosphere and hospitality are what a film festival is about." And while atmosphere and hospitality are hard to measure, Scarlet states that for him the festival will be a success this year if it continues to attract audiences in the same number to the screenings, especially in the malls, where attendance skyrocketed last year.
As for what he's most looking forward to at this year's festival, he gives, with the cunning of a politician, a response designed not to offend any of the filmmakers on the slate: "I'm looking forward to the surprises because what makes a festival exciting are the things you couldn't ever imagine would happen."
Online ticket sales begin September 30. For more information see www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae