Producer’s Notebook: A Film Festival Journey Like No Other

From its enormous aquarium to its international film festival, the affluence of Abu Dhabi is on full display. (photo: Karin Chien)

Part occupational hazard, part occupational bonus, I attend a lot of film festivals. Sometimes three a month, often back to back. I have friends I only see at film festivals. But this October I experienced a first: I attended a film festival officially on its own dime.

There’s something they don’t tell you when you start producing independent films: in addition to earning a microsalary on microbudget projects, you must attend film festivals at your own cost. You have to go to launch your film, sell your film, publicize your film, raise money for your next projects, meet/lunch/drink/dine with people you want to work with, look after your director/actors/investors, and participate in the industry in general. So you have to go.

So it was a surprise when the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF) invited me to attend at their expense. Round-trip flight, luxury hotel, ground transportation, breakfasts and lunches included. At first, I assumed they invited me as the distributor of a new Chinese documentary called Beijing Besieged By Waste. But the director was already attending Abu Dhabi. So ADFF was inviting me just for the hell of it? Later I found out ADFF also assumed I was the producer of Beijing Besieged. Even more incredible! Zero is the number of times a festival has offered to pay for my travel as a producer.

But going to Abu Dhabi meant leaving the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) early. BIFF had been pressured by Chinese authorities to close down, then to retreat to their offices, and was finally “raided” during the Opening Film. It was from this festival experience that I left on a midnight flight to Abu Dhabi.

I met Beijing Besieged’s director Wang Jiuliang at the airport. It was his first film festival, and his relief at my accompaniment was a big deciding factor for my attendance. His film is a rare environmental documentary investigating the landfill problems of over-construction, food supply contamination, and the black market of recyclables – plastics and oil – in China. It was only Jiuliang’s second time out of China. The first time was to Berkeley, California, where he spotted a shipping container of American trash bound for China’s landfills. So it was perhaps natural that Jiuliang boarded the flight to Abu Dhabi with a Google Earth satellite printout of Abu Dhabi’s lone landfill, 2 miles in diameter. He was determined to visit it and he knew from experience that governments don’t advertise their trash.

Our trip to the landfill turned out to be only one of many highlights during my 4-day trip. I cannot do proper justice to the exquisite care that our guest liaison Ben Thompson showered upon us, but suffice it to say, we were never without a private chauffeur or a festival escort. It’s also thanks to Ben’s ingenuity that we were connected to an Abu Dhabi professor who took us to the hidden landfill site, negotiated our way in, and then aided us in covert filming of Abu Dhabi’s trash.

Though I missed out on a dune-bashing/camel-riding expedition with Terry Gilliam (Brazil is one of my favorite films), the landfill trip was a rare treat, and a much-needed return to reality. We had a chance to chat with the truck drivers and hear about local class conditions from our professor-guide.

But the most emotionally charged moment of the trip came, of all places, in the Emirates Mall. When Jiuliang walked into the theater, and saw his film projected onto a gigantic screen, both of us got a little choked up.  The fact that his film could never show on as large a screen in China was not lost on us. Later in the Q&A, when an audience member asked about distribution possibilities in China, Jiuliang replied simply, “My government does not like my film, so I have to come to Abu Dhabi to show it.”

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The true hero of this story is ADFF’s programmer Jim Browne for championing Beijing Besieged By Waste and recommending it to ADFF’s programming director, Teresa Cavina. Thank you to them both, and again to Ben Thompson.

What else did we manage to accomplish in 3 days at ADFF? Here’s an index of my non-film-festival-like activities:

  • Hours spent lost with indie film legend Todd Solondz and Dark Horse/Avenue Q star Jordan Gelber in sprawling hotels and malls of Dubai: 4.
  • Guided tours to Masdar City, the carbon-neutral city of the future designed and planned by Norman Foster’s firm: 1.
  • Projected cost of said future city: $22 billion
  • Number of rides in a Masdar City car, which drives itself on magnetic tracks at the push of a button: 2.
  • Square footage of the bathroom in my hotel room: roughly 300.
  • Rank in size of the open-air waterfront cinema on the grounds of the Fairmont Hotel: #1 in the world.
  • Concierges who greeted me each time I exited the elevator for my room: 2.
  • Length of time spent on the hotel’s private beach: 3 hours
  • Time spent in a private hair & makeup sessions before the premiere: 90 minutes
  • Hair & makeup sessions experienced before ADFF: 0
  • Films I actually watched, other than the one I was representing: 0.2 (a 12-minute short film by Terry Gilliam).

Karin Chien is an independent film producer based in New York City, the recipient of the 2010 Independent Spirit Producers Award, and producer of eight feature-length films, including Circumstance (2011), The Exploding Girl (2009),The Motel (2005), and Robot Stories (2002). Karin is also the president and founder of dGenerate Films, the leading distributor of independent Chinese cinema to North America and beyond.

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