Carving out an identity as a film festival is harder than ever these days. In the States, highly local and niche film festivals compete for audiences and seem unable to form a reputation outside of county lines. Europe is its own bag of markets, mega-festivals, essential and nonessential smaller fests and the like, but the Middle East has yet to really establish a festival that attracts the attention of a South by Southwest or Locarno—let alone a Berlinale or Sundance. The Middle East International Film Festival, located in Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, and now in its third year, is hoping to change that. Desiring to form an identity in a region full of flashy, one-stop destinations, the festival and its host city will have an emblematic challenge of self-definition.
A critic friend in Toronto recently opined to me how we are now living in a new golden era of cinema, due to the increasingly globalized nature of influence, commerce, and consumption resulting in exciting new works from all over the world that seem to be in dialog with one another. That may be all well and good for the end product—the films—but finding the right venue to show them to the right audience is another matter. Problematic for this potential boon of international cinema is what globalization does for its local consumption, and the film festival in Abu Dhabi embodies this new issue.
The experience of a film festival is a union between the city and the festivities, and despite being fairly familiar with the MEIFF’s line-up—which mixes a healthy dose of well traveled international affairs with a substantial portion of films from the Arab world—I did not head to the festival with a good idea of what this experience would be like. Landing in Dubai and not in Abu Dhabi only confused things further (most people who I told where I was going thought I meant Dubai anyway), requiring a ninety minute drive between the cities that began down the strip of ominously lit but, to the naked eye, largely uninhabited mega-skyscrapers in Dubai before hitting a long swathe of mega-highway whose surrounding country, town, or city-side was obscured by the night. While those flying into Abu Dhabi were shown videos on their flight about the glories of the festival’s host city, the video on the plane ride to Dubai advertised not the MEIFF but the 6th Dubai International Film Festival, being held a remarkably short two months afterwards (and not to be confused by the Doha Tribeca Film Festival being held in nearby Qatar at the end of October).
Still trying to figure out the character of the festival I was about to attend, the drive through the cityscape of Dubai at night did little to encourage an idea of actually arriving in the UAE. Every giant building not blacked out seemed to be sculpturally adorned with construction cranes and lit for their use, as if the recent high-rise boom has resulted in a kind of perpetual constructive state of being, no inhabitants, no practical use, just always building, up and across. (Closer to Abu Dhabi, I could have sworn that a gathering of nothing but aesthetically angled and green-lit cranes was definitely an artist’s installation rather than a new construction plot. Even the official festival animation that preceeds the films shows the city's silhouette complete with incomplete buildings covered by cranes) It was like driving through Las Vegas at night, if Las Vegas was evacuated of everything but cars traveling down the strip. Where the people were who inhabited the goliath skyscrapers, who worked there, or worked on them, where those people lived and what they were doing now—and, most importantly, if they were attending the film festival—was a mystery lost in the passing darkness.
The city seemed burst sui generis from the desert from a misconstrued idea of South East Asian skylines and the feigned glamour of Vegas, and I leave it to people who’ve actually visited Dubai (and, of course, its residents) to verify the sense I had of a neo port city identity, a hodgepodge mash-up of cultures and aesthetics into a totally unidentifiable morass of population, construction, and an illusion of wealth. Whether this holds true for Abu Dhabi, I don’t know—so far I’ve seen my hotel, a mall which houses a multiplex of theatres being partially used for screenings, and the center of the festival, the Emirates Palace, a sort of royal exaggeration of the Bellagio and an impressively golden and air-conditioned maze to get lost in.
But how a city will forge a cinematic identity is a concern united to its audiences’—local and visitors—understanding and experience of each city’s interaction with its festival. In this regard, I’ve always wondered about the makeup of CineVegas (an event that for 2010 has been put on hiatus)—how film-going can interact with such a synthetic city—and it’s hard to think of other film festivals so recently created and so specifically founded in and for its specific location than the MEIFF. It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the newer film festivals and one trying its darndest to make a brand for itself in the oldest skyscraper paradise, the Tribeca Film Festival, is making some kind of headway in the same region with its Doha experiment. But the very idea of transposing something so specifically New York—as Tribeca would have you believe—to the Middle East may perhaps provide a clue to what’s going on here: we may be in danger of effacing identities instead of creating them.
In any festival of international products there is, of course, always the possibility that the look and feel—the experience—of the festival will be overwhelmed by the diversity of its contents—look no further than Toronto to see that effect in action. But instead of an isolated evolution of a specific festival such as Toronto, what may be going on in the Middle East is something more challenging. Too many cities up-and-coming and desiring for international attention may at once fragment the possibility for an internationally influential Middle Eastern film festival. Is it the programming that brings the character to the city, or the other way around? And how does the audience define and shape both those things? It is too early to tell the character of MEIFF, but what is apparent is that with its attempt at a rounded lineup aimed at a heterogeneous audience in a unique kind of international city, its strategy may be less about stark definition than forming a new kind of festival, one literally at a crossroads.