Stars strut on the red carpet

Festival opening culminates efforts to nurture Middle East film industry, and to celebrate cultural dialogue in films across the region.

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ABU DHABI // Known as the Brad and Angelina of Egypt, Mona Zaki and Ahmed Helmi will walk the red carpet tonight for the opening of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

The golden couple of Egyptian screen will appear at the Emirates Palace hotel before the festival begins at 8pm. Joining the Arabic stars will be Golden Globe winners Gerard Depardieu and Clive Owen.

Eissa Saif al Mazroeui, the festival's project director, said he is proud the event bears the capital's name for the first time. Previously, it was called the Middle East International Film Festival.

"It is a positive step forward," he said. "Abu Dhabi is the base for this festival, so it is important that it bears the name. Nevertheless, it will still shed light on the Middle East and on international films." At tonight's opening gala ceremony, audiences will see the first UAE screening of Secretariat, a film about the American thoroughbred horse that won the Triple Crown in 1973. The film, directed by Randall Wallace and starring Diane Lane and John Malkovich, was released last week in the US.

Peter Scarlet, the festival's director, announced yesterday that a short film called The Accordion, by an Iranian director, will precede Secretariat. Jafar Panahi was jailed earlier this year while making a film described by the Iranian culture minister as "anti-regime". Although the director was released on bail in May, he was not able to attend the Venice International Film Festival last month and will not be in the Abu Dhabi event. Iranian authorities have confiscated his passport.

"Festivals are a place where filmmakers have the opportunity to meet and talk and when there is somebody missing it is noted," said Mr Scarlet. "We are showing Panahi's film to assert the importance of the community of filmmakers all over the world." He also announced several additions to this year's programme, including Afaq Jadida (New Horizons), a competition for first- and second-time directors.

The Abu Dhabi Film Commission opened the contest late last year, and will present 17 films to a five-strong panel headed by Elia Suleiman, the Palestinian director whose 2002 film Divine Intervention will screen at the festival. Also new this year is the Audience Choice award, which allows audience members to vote on films that are not in the official competition. The winning director in this contest gets a US$30,000 Black Pearl award.

All the awards and prize money, which totals more than US$1 million (Dh3.5m), will be handed out on closing night, October 23.

The other notable change is that the Emirates Competition, which features 46 short films from the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman, will be in the same award programme as all the international films - a shift from previous years when it was a separate event. Pointing to this and to the new US$500,000 Sanad film fund for development and post-production for Arab filmmakers, Mr al Mazrouei said the festival represents the "culmination of [their] efforts to nurture regional film culture and celebrate the spirit of cultural dialogue and excellence in filmmaking".

Mr Scarlet added,"I was told two years ago that there was no audience for independent films in the UAE, but I found out this couldn't be further from the truth."