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by Brian Brooks
December 19, 2008 8:55 AM
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DISPATCH FROM DUBAI | "Masquerades" and "Treeless Mountain" Grab Dubai Accolades

Algerian director Lyes Salem's "Masquerades" and Korean/American director So Yong Kim's "Treeless Mountain" took top nods at the Dubai International Film Festival, capping the event's fifth year. "Treeless" won best film in the festival's AsiaAfrica competition, while "Masquerades" took the prize in the Arab Muhr competition. Algerian/French production "Adhen-Dernier Maquis" by Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche received a special jury prize in the Arab Muhr category for his story of disaffected immigrant workers in the suburbs of Paris.

Japanese director Hajime Kadoi meanwhile received a special jury prize for his film, "Kyuka" (Vacation), a feature about a prison guard whose imminent marriage is complicated by the fact he's assigned to be a 'supporter' to a condemned inmate. In Salem's "Masquerades," Mounir, an arrogant villager seeks the approval of his neighbors. The villagers, meanwhile, are convinced his sister will end up a spinster, though Mounir shows up one night revealing he found her a rich suitor. As everyone organizes for the ceremony, the only real thing missing is the bridegroom.

In Kim's "Treeless Mountain," two siblings are sent by their impoverished mother in Seoul to live with their mean aunt in a boring village where they are forced to sell fried grasshoppers. Their misery is worsened after word arrives that their mother cannot take them back and they will have to move again to their grandparents' rural farm. Yet it is here that the two finally find some security and love.

Like many regional events, DIFF is an outlet for showcasing international projects like "Masquerades" and "Treeless Mountain" to an audience that may otherwise have their cinema options limited. At the festival's main screening venue at the expansive Mall of the Emirates, the multiplex's many posters advertising films "coming soon" give a not so subtle hint at who rules the screen. "Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo," "Body of Lies," "Quantum of Solace," "Twilight," and "Australia" were among the upcoming highlights.

"In America, you have mega-churches, in Dubai they have mega-malls," said one Arab journalist to me when sharing a taxi to the Mall of the Emirates for a screening. "Oh we have mega-malls too," I said and then continued half-jokingly, "that's where Americans go after attending the mega-churches..."

Among the favorites on offer at the mall (which by the way had a surprisingly huge selection of many high end retailers and eateries commonly found in North America and Europe and even boasts an indoor ski slope) was Moroccan director Nour-Eddine Lakhmari's "Casanegra." Set in Morocco - a locale that was highly represented in this year's festival - two young hustlers take to the streets of Casablanca. One hopes to emigrate to Sweden, while the other hopelessly pursues a rich girl. His quest tears at preconceived ideas of life in Morocco with what the festival describes as an "honest slice of social realism." "I will do whatever I want and use my camera as a political weapon to tell the world that you are what you are and no one can tell you how to live," comments Lakhmari in the DIFF catalog.

Along with an extensive Arabic roster, DIFF spotlighted films from Africa, with several originating or taking place in South Africa. Anthony Fabian's "Skin" received a gala screening midway through the festival, though the anticipated film, which screened earlier in the year at the Toronto International Film Festival and AFI Fest garnered mixed reactions among some festgoers. Set in the Apartheid era of the 1950s, Sandra Laing faces a lifetime of challenges due to the uncertain nature of her race. Born to white parents, she appears black though she was originally classified as white. Later she is reclassified as black and is expelled from her all-white school, which grabs the attention of the world's media.

"To me, the theme [of the film] is family," said Fabian during an onscreen interview with a local station when asked about the absurdity of classifications under the Apartheid regime. "Everybody needs some group that they feel they belong to and that's the [emphasis] of the film... Through her experience the law was changed in South Africa and she 'became' white again..."

Additional Dubai International Film Festival winners:

Documentary (Arab Muhr competition)

First Prize: "Thakirat L sabbar: Hikayat Thalath Qura Falasteenia" (Memory Of The cactus: A story of Three Palestinian Villages) by Hanna Musleh

Special Jury Prize: "Samaan Bidiyaa" (The one Man Village) by Simon El Habre

Second Prize: "Marina Of The Zabbaleen" by Engi Wassef

Short Films (Arab Muhr competition)

First Prize: "La Route Du Nord" (The North Road) by Carlose Chaine

Special Jury Prize: "Bint Mariam" by Saed Salmeen A-Murry

Second Prize: "Sa'et Asary" (At Day's End) by Sherif El Bendary

Documentary (Muhr AsiaAfrica Awards)

First Prize: "Mental" by Kazuhiro Soda

Special Jury Prize: "Xiao Li Zi" (Survival Song) by Guangyi Yu

Second Prize: "Une Affaire De Negres" by Osvalde Lewat

Short Films (Muhr AsiaAfrica Awards)

First Prize: "Shao Nian Xue" (Young Blood) by Haolun Shu

Special Jury Prize: "Expectations" by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Second Prize: "Kam Sanabanyz" by Akjoltoy Bekbolotov

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