Friday, October 31, 2008

The Middle East International Film Festival

I recently had the great pleasure of serving as a juror at the Middle East International Film Festival, held in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, from October 12 – 19. The Middle East Film Festival, in its second year now, was organized to bring together filmmakers from all over the world, particularly filmmakers from the Middle East. It’s part of the country’s multi-pronged approach to building a film industry from the ground up in Abu Dhabi. That approach includes building studio space to attract film production, offering budding filmmakers a focused education through the soon-to-be opened New York Film Academy, and providing financing for both international and local films.

MEIFF Director of Programming Jon Fitzgerald (who was also the founder of the Slamdance Film Festival) put together a fabulous line-up of Hollywood films, Bollywood Films, and student films, which shared the venues with a smorgasbord of films from the Middle East. The festival was headquartered at the stunning Emirates Palace, a luxurious seven- star hotel in the heart of Abu Dhabi; additional screens at the nearby Marina Mall and the Abu Dhabi Mall were also enlisted for the eight days of non-stop film showings. Hollywood star power was in residence, with Actor Adrien Brody and Director Rian Johnson present for the Opening Night Film, “The Brothers Bloom.” Susan Sarandon participated in a “Spotlight on Women” panel about environmental and cultural issues facing women throughout the world, which were addressed in the film “The Shape of Water,” which Ms. Sarandon had narrated. Catherine Deneuve participated in a debate about humanitarian concerns in Lebanon; and Jane Fonda was there to receive the Cinema Verite Lifetime Achievement Award. Famous Egyptian actress Youssra served on the Feature Jury.

At MEIFF, Middle Eastern film was represented by films from the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Nashwa Al-Ruwaini, the Executive Director of MEIFF introduced many of the films and filmmakers. Of course the government of Abu Dhabi supported this effort, led by Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, Chair of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

I am probably not alone when I say that MEIFF took networking and hospitality to a whole different level, with some of the best parties ever hosted at a film festival. After the last screening of the evening, festival participants would gather in the gardens outside the Emirates Palace, overlooking the Arabian Gulf, for entertainment that was truly out of 1001 Arabian Nights. At the Bedouin Party, festivalgoers lounged on couches in Bedouin tents and smoked shisha (Arabic tobacco) with a water pipe (hookah); camel rides were offered to the daring, animal lovers could get up close and personal with a trained falcon, and a sensational belly dancer entertained the captivated audience. On Bollywood Night, we were treated to the ritualized, gracious dance of India; and after the screening of the documentary “Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love,” N’Dour himself, one of Africa’s most adored musicians, gave a concert, accompanied by his band. The Middle Eastern cuisine, the hospitality, and the graciousness of our hosts was truly incomparable.

It is amazing that oil was only discovered in the Emirates in the 1970s. They are now the world’s 10th largest producer of oil—and of course it has transformed their society. It was an eye-opening, mind-bending experience to witness this transformation, and to be part of the blossoming culture of film, art and architecture in the UAR.

Congress Extends Federal Tax Incentive

The Section 181 tax incentive has been extended through December 2009. This program which was first enacted in 2004 was extended and enhanced by being attached to the $700 billion financial markets rescue plan passed by Congress.

The new legislation improves upon the prior law by applying the tax incentive to the first $15 million of all motion picture productions in the USA. The prior legislation was flawed because this threshold amount included all costs, including difficult to predict residuals and participations. This quirk in the law made it risky to accept the incentive if your budget plus these extras might exceed $15 million.

The new provisions are retroactive to January 2008.