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DISPATCH FROM DUBAI | Bridging Cultural Gaps on Screen and Off

DISPATCH FROM DUBAI | Bridging Cultural Gaps on Screen and Off

You can’t stop what’s coming,” says a character in Joel and Ethan Coen‘s “No Country for Old Men,” one of several films screening at the fourth annual Dubai International Film Festival that benefited from the event’s suspension of the United Arab Emirates censorship laws. It is a sentiment that can only be seen as exciting to residents of a city with a skyline of construction cranes, where the mass majority of property is listed as “under construction,” and even the least ambitious plans of what’s coming include the world’s tallest building, the world’s largest theme park, a land extension in the shape of three palm trees (one larger than Paris) and man-made islands that form The World.

The World in particular seems site-appropriate, as 80% of the population of Dubai is a foreign national. The corresponding theme of the festival is “Bridging Cultures, Meeting Minds,” a sentiment that got a workout in the festival’s Cultural Bridge Panel on Friday night, with new-age Brazilian author Paulo Coelho delivering the keynote speech in a rather oblique attempt to figure out exactly what a “cultural bridge” might be. After he compared the phrase to his experience getting stuck in the sand on a desert safari the day before (“there was no real cultural bridge there, in the sand”), panel moderator Cameron Bailey responded astutely by stating, “If you tell any contractor in Dubai exactly where you got stuck, I’m sure they’ll have a bridge up in a week. That’s just how Dubai works.”

The panel also included American actor Danny Glover, who was being honored at the festival with a Lifetime Achievement Award (the festival screened John Sayles‘ “Honeydripper” and Charles Burnett‘s “To Sleep With Anger” as a tribute). “This award has such significance to me,” said Glover in an interview. “It is not just the celebration of films that I’ve been privileged to work on, it’s the other work, the real work, that it’s honoring.” This work includes advocacy on human rights issues throughout the world, campaigning against the death penalty, and the creation of his production company Louveture Films — through which he is currently making the Haitian biopic “Touissant,” sponsored fully by Hugo Chavez. “We went to the Venezuelan government for funding,” said Glover. “That’s a cultural bridge right there.”

Indian star Raima Sen, Mira Nair, South Indian star Ramya, and producer Shernaz Italia. Photo by Charlie Olsky.

The programming did its part to provide cultural bridges, with its a geographic breakdown of its films. From Asia, audiences were given the chance to see Yamashita Nobuhiro’s delightful “A Gentle Breeze in the Village,” Japan’s answer to “Me, You, and Everyone We Know,” in which adolescents in a small village go through the typical motions of teen angst amidst a beautiful backdrop, scored to an ethereal moog soundtrack. Turkish director Fatih Akin brought his intriguing but uneven entry “The Edge of Heaven,” a Babel-style cultural and chronological mash-up through Germany and Turkey in which the film’s sense of human interaction mostly redeems its muddied political stance.

Several film festival veterans had strong entries on view. Werner Herzog‘s stunningly photographed “Encounters at the End of the World” had an interesting read on a cultural bridge, exploring the residents of Antarctica, a diverse crew joined together by their mutual need to escape their respective societies, and their shared pessimism as to the future of both Antarctica and the human race. Ira Sachs showed off his 1950s domestic-drama-turned-noir “Married Life.” The story of marital breakdowns between terrific actors Patricia Clarkson, Chris Cooper and Rachel McAdams, the film represents a major artistic step forward for the traditionally indie director.

Indian director Mira Nair was in town with her omnibus film, “AIDS Jaago,” a collection of four artful Public Service Announcements, each by a different director and starring Indian celebrities, all meant to address the growing AIDS crisis in India. The film was the gala centerpiece of the festival’s “Celebration of Indian Cinema” program, and Nair took time before the screening to praise the festival’s goal of providing a platform for Arab cinema. “We hear so much about this part of the world from without,” said Nair, “it is about time we hear about Dubai and the middle-east from within.”

Horses were everywhere. “This city, this entire country, they are moving so fast they are like a running horse,” says festival director Abdulhamid Juma. “We are using that as the image for the festival, which is much the same way.” The festival merchandise is all emblazoned with horses, a young woman in black robes rides a horse in the frightening Wagnerian festival trailer, and the festival’s awards are named the “Muhr,” or young horses.

Danny Glover at the Dubai International Film Festival. Photo by Charlie Olsky.

Those awards were given out in a strange ceremony that included an impressive stage production and light show, as well as the dancer’s from last year’s Oscars ceremony, but which had truly bizarre teleprompter and translation mishaps and halting attempts at awkward banter. The award for Best Emirati Filmmaker was intriguingly split into “Best Male Filmmaker” and “Best Female Filmmaker,” and one award-winner dedicated his award, and film, to “Palestinian Martyrs” (often a synonym for “suicide bombers”), without any reaction from the crowd.

Standouts in the awards include both gold and silver Muhr winners for documentary, Karim Gouhry‘s “Made in Egypt,” the story of a French man exploring his Egyptian roots, and Palestinian filmmaker Buthina Canaan Khoury‘s “Maria’s Grotto,” about the culture of honor killings of Islamic women thought to have made sexual transgressions.

Flamboyant director Michael Cimino (“The Deer Hunter”) presented gold Muhr for Nest Narrative Feature to Philippe Aractingi‘s “Under the Bombs,” a hit with the Dubai crowds, about a Lebanese Shiite woman trying to find her son with the help of a Christian cab driver, filmed during the 2006 Israeli bombings amid people who were not aware it was a fiction film.

After the awards, the audience filed over to the after-party, in a Vegas-styled faux Moroccan fort, where East and South Asian waitstaff served Japanese dumplings and Lebanese schwarma. The DJ played a wide selection of Indian dance music, segueing into Shakira and Ludacris, as Emirati men tentatively flirted with Australian women. That was a cultural bridge right there.

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