It seems a tad peculiar to find Michael Apted at the 9th Dubai International Film Festival, but here he is, heading up the jury for the Muhr Arab Documentary section and collecting a Lifetime Achievement Award. (And that was his take when he playfully recounted the "strange order" his Dubai Festival invitations arrived in.) He also took part in a panel on non-fiction vs. fiction filmmaking, a natural fit for the prolific British filmmaker who has spent much of his career flitting between the two. "56 Up," the latest installment in his "Up" documentary series picking up on the lives of several British children at seven-year intervals, was broadcast in the UK earlier this year. And he stepped into the fray mid-shoot last year on the surf drama "Chasing Mavericks" after Curtis Hanson was forced to pull out with health troubles. Apted has 16 documentaries to watch in Dubai but did find time to chat on a terrace at the swanky Al Qasr hotel in the Madinat Jumeirah resort complex, which hosts the Dubai Fest each year (manfully ignoring the interruptions of an attention-seeking flock of squawking jays).
How is the documentary watching going?
It's what I'd hoped it would be coming here. You look at a lot of Western documentaries and they're straining for subject matter or are just incredibly narcissistic vanity pieces, and I come here and see these films that are raw and powerful and full of vitality. They're meaningful not just about the politics but about women's roles in society, the break-up of family life, parents and children. The context is so powerful. I'd love people in America to see some of these documentaries to reassure them that Middle Easterners don't have three heads or anything like that. I remember someone telling me when they knew I was coming here, "Don't go – they hate us!" And these are sophisticated people, but they really think the Middle East is just full of terrorists.
Had you been to the region before?
It's my first time this year. I’d been to North Africa and then I had a trip to Jordan and Saudi Arabia earlier in the year. There's a book I want to adapt about women in the Middle East.
What's the book?
"Eight Months On Ghazzah Street," by Hilary Mantel. It's an autobiographical story set in the '80s about going to the Middle East with her husband while he's working there. It's about the cultural divide between a Muslim woman and a Western woman, which I find very interesting. It's political with a small p but being here it feels like the social revolution that's been part of my life – the role of women in society – is happening here, and may even be beginning to rumble in Saudi Arabia. If I want to do another film about women in society, the Middle East might the place to do it.
You're known for drawing powerful performances from actresses, notably Sissy Spacek in "Coal Miner's Daughter" and Sigourney Weaver in "Gorillas In The Mist"…
Yes, but it goes deeper than that. Bearing in mind that I grew up in the United Kingdom, the greatest social revolution of my lifetime has been the changing role of women in society. That was vividly pointed out to me in the "7-Up" series because we didn't choose enough women. I can't beat myself up for it because when we started in 1964, it was inconceivable that Margaret Thatcher would exist.
Are you proud of the portrayal of women in your films?
I just think I've tried to avoid clichés. I've never allowed women to be ciphers or caricatures; I might have done that more with men than with women in my films.
"The World Is Not Enough" was the first Bond film to have a properly strong and well-rounded female villain…
Yes, that's true. When they asked me whether I'd like to do one, I thought it was a joke because why would they want me? But then I discovered it wasn't some great epiphany they'd had, they just wanted to get more women in to see Bond films. They couldn't really get beyond fathers and sons and wanted to see whether they could make it more friendly to young girls – which, when you look at "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games," is an even bigger audience than fathers and sons!
Did you enjoy "Skyfall"?
Yes I did, but it isn't a Bond film. I did [Bond] 19 and this is 23 and whoever plays Bond changes the whole tone of it completely. You go from Brosnan to Daniel [Craig] and it's different. As soon as Daniel started, it was much, much tougher. "Skyfall" is terrifically well done but it is different. There's a lot of competition in that marketplace for those kind of testosterone-driven action films. That whole business of the pretty girls and the double entendres – maybe those days are over for good and they're right to roll with the punches and move on.
Did you feel constricted by the formula and what you were able to do with Brosnan?
A little bit but you knew that going in. I'd suggest something grittier and they'd say, "Bond wouldn't do that." "Well, why not?" "He wouldn't." They'd done 19 so I figured they knew better than I. But it does change and that's what's allowed it be as successful as it is.
You're about to receive the Director's Guild of America's Robert B. Aldrich Award for services to the DGA. Are you proud of what you achieved there?
I was the first non-American president and I was the second longest-serving president in its 75-year history. I have done well there, navigating through very difficult times with the growth of new media and the issues of how do you monetise it and how do you deal with piracy, which are two huge issues that were launched on my watch. And whereas the Writer's Guild overreacted and went on strike about, you know, this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, well, it might have been but it's a very slow dawning.