A gluttonous day of five movies, one after another: first, a press screening of “Wadjda.” There’s been some confusion as to whether it was scheduled to start at 9:30 or 10 a.m., and I arrive at the Mall of the Emirates multiplex to find that it did, indeed, start to screen at 9:30, but was halted and will start up again at 10. First instance of anything even approaching a glitch at this superbly-run Festival: everything starts on time, introductions are brisk, with talent on hand for virtually every screening, and end credits are silenced so Q-and-As can start while they’re still unspooling. I never have to wait for a shuttle between the several locations for more than a couple of minutes, and I also never stand in line at a box office for more than perhaps ten minutes. I couldn’t get a ticket only twice: both times for the same movie, the multiple-award-winning “My Brother The Devil,” set among Egyptian immigrants in London. Everybody has been preternaturally helpful and polite.
“Wajdja,” touted as the first movie shot in Saudi Arabia, as well as being helmed by a woman, is about a ten-year-old girl who wants a bike, a common-enough desire, but not permitted within the strictures of her society. She sets out to earn the money for the bike herself, weaving bracelets for sale (the bracelets themselves not to be worn at her traditional school), and entering a Koran competition in order to win the prize money. Her mother is coping with problems of her own: she can no longer bear children, and her handsome husband is being pressured by his family to take a second wife in order to achieve a male heir. There’s something of a twist ending. The story-telling is conventional but satisfying – the main pleasure and surprise of the movie is the compelling, even nuanced, performance of the young main actress, Waad Mohammed, handsome rather than cute or pretty. They got lucky when they found her.
At 12:15 I see “Hanyut,” by U-Wei Haji Saari, introduced as one of Malaysia’s most important and prolific directors, and the first Malaysian director invited to the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, in 1995, with “Kaki bakar.” I see that it also played at Telluride, that year (why am I not surprised?). It might not only be the first time I’m aware of Saari’s work – this might be the first Malaysian film I’ve ever seen.
It’s based on Joseph Conrad’s “Almayer’s Folly,” and not for the first or last time I wish again that I’d caught Chantal Akerman’s version of “Almayer’s Folly” earlier this year, in Toronto. Saari’s melodramatic version of the story is handsomely mounted. A Dutch trader dreams of finding a mountain of gold in order to escape his expatriate life in the Malaysian jungle and return to Europe with the daughter he had with a local woman he has rejected. The atmosphere is properly sultry, thick, dense – there’s an inescapable sense of inevitable doom. The meaning of the title is revealed only at the end — something about being lost, drifting, in peril. I ask Haji Saari which of the characters he thinks is referenced by the title, and he turns the question back on me: I think everyone.
3:45 pm finds me at a Bangladeshi film, “Television,” a comedy about the tensions in the family of the village elder who has banned television, photography, even mobile phones (but not landlines – business is business!) from his small rural village. The youth of the community – including his son, who is trying to conduct a love affair with a modern young woman – rebel against him. The very youthful, very Indian and Bangladeshi audience greets them film with hysterical enthusiasm – it’s like they’re at a different movie.
Just when I’m thinking that the film is overlong, uneven, and repetitive, I’m impressed by a surprising, powerful, even emotional ending. When the elder leaves his village in order to join a religious pilgrimage, his travels are abruptly ended because of an unscrupulous tour operator. He breaks down and hides out in a crummy hotel, where he finds to his surprise that he can join the celebration by means of the television he so feared. His religious fervor, even ecstasy, is something of a transcendental moment.
6:45 p.m.: “When Monaliza Smiled,” a slick chick flick from Jordan, about a repressed office worker finding true love with a younger, lower class, Egyptian boy who makes tea and snacks for her government colleagues, and who is threatened with deportation. Negligible, pleasant, but even so, a glimpse into another culture. Director Fadi D. Haddad enlivens the narrative with several amusing and jokey sequences alluding to traditional romantic movies from the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema, starring Omar Sharif and Faten Hammama, popular in Jordan, as well as a quick-cut opening introducing the main characters in silent-movie style.
9:45 p.m. – the classic film festival mistake. The day before, when turned down for a ticket for “My Brother the Devil” in this time slot, with the pressure of others standing in line behind me and breathing down my neck, I hastily scanned the list of possibilities and asked for ”Valley of Saints.” It’s not until the film begins that I realize I saw it, nine months ago, at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Oops. Unfortunately all the other movies in this time slot have already started. I consider just getting up and going home, but the beauty of its images – set on a lake in Kashmir – as well as its tender, elusive story of love and friendship, set against unsettling political unrest, keep me glued to my seat. It was a pleasant surprise in San Francisco, and I like it even more, this time around. There’s also the added pleasure of a Q-and-A with the young Indian American director, Musa Syeed [http://musasyeed.com/], as well as two of the non-professional stars of “Valley of Saints.” The sensitive, poetic lead, Gulzar Ahmad Bhat, has returned to his job of ferrying tourists around Dal Lake in his boat – this is only his second trip away from Kashmir; the first was when he saw the film in Hamburg.
He favors the rapt crowd with two songs. It’s a magical way to end the day. I’m happy I accidentally found my way there.