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Dubai Film Festival: A Gilded Event Spotlighting the Good, the Mediocre and the Fundamentalist

Dubai Film Festival: A Gilded Event Spotlighting the Good, the Mediocre and the Fundamentalist

After about 24 hours in Dubai attending the 7th annual Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), I realized that the trip was going to redefine three words, minimum: Surreal, contradiction and ironic. At that was before I’d seen a film.

Like any other festival in the world, there are things to be critical about at DIFF and I’ll get to them later, but their hospitality cannot be beat. Due to their relative remoteness from Europe and the US, the festival is forced to fly in and host many guests and journalists which is the only way they could likely get as much coverage as they do. There is also a longstanding tradition of hospitality in the Arab world as well as in Islam, and DIFF embraces that tradition.

We were greeted at the gate and ushered to a lounge to wait while our passports are checked and bags collected, and while I am not sure doing it myself wouldn’t have been quicker, the offer of juice and pastries in a quiet setting at the end of a long flight was welcome. The hotel at which most of the industry are billeted, the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, seems to be modeled on a Vegas-style family hotel (sans gambling, of course) and is loaded with Brits, Aussies, Chinese and seemingly most of all, Russians. In fact, it’s such an international crowd that each day the hotel’s daily info sheet states how many different nationalities are staying (and working) at the hotel. Every day each count was in the 60s!

DIFF’s opener this year was the perfect film to kick off a festival. “The King’s Speech” is well made, well acted, fun and leaves the audience in a good mood which is more than I can say for most openers. The opening night party on the beach was my first exposure to the customer service that would inform the entire 9 day stay and which fellow journalists, jury members and filmmakers would remark upon.

DIFF is the kind of festival where complaining about something like a press screening being cancelled for technical reasons (it was) or a spectacularly botched awards ceremony (more on that later) seems petty when your glass of Moet et Chandon never runs dry and the supply of prawns and cheesecake seem endless. I often think the best festivals at which to see films would be in cold, barren wastelands (Siberia International Film Festival, anyone?) not where the choices are between swimming in the Persian Gulf, a world record water slide, having your feet exfoliated by toothless fish (I shit you not) or an excursion to Old Dubai. Faced with these options, one might be forgiven for being tempted.

That said, there were films on offer and many of them unseen by me or most Western audiences. The fest is heavy on Arab world cinema (natch) as well as a large selection of African and Asian cinema, giving attendees a huge choice of films to see that they’ve probably not seen before. DIFF is the launching point for many of the Middle Eastern films seen around the festival circuit and according to DIFF Managing Director Shivani Pandya, the festival has an arrangement with Sundance wherein Dubai is essentially treated as a “home country” screening, even for non-UAE films.

Photo by Mark Rabinowitz

One of this year’s world premieres is Mohammed Hushki’s excellent “Transit Cities,” a story of a young woman (Laila, played by the stunning Saba Moubarak) returning to Amman, Jordan after 14 years in the United States only to find that the society has moved significantly to the right and that Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise, something that Hushki told me is most certainly true. “It’s been going on for a while…since the Iranian Shah fell.” He also pointed out that Islamic fundamentalism isn’t necessarily something that comes from the top down, politically. “It’s not just one opinion. It’s not like the government comes out with a press release saying ‘we’re conservative, now.’ It depends on ministries, it depends on institutions and usually it depends on personal beliefs of individuals. The higher you get in the authority, you have certain powers and you use them. It could be a school principal and it could be a (government) minister.”

As for how it’s affecting the ability for filmmakers to do their work, Hushki says that he’s not worried about government censorship. “The biggest problem is when the public becomes self censoring because then there’s no one to fight with.” The Royal Film Commission (RFC), on the other hand, is very helpful to filmmakers, adds “Transit Cities” producer Rula Nasser. Their programs are free, including placing filmmakers at USC and Sundance, as well as providing hands on help. “They are giving us equipment, editing suites and sound studios,” says Nasser, all at no cost. Additionally in 2006 the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts opened as a joint effort of Jordan’s RFC and USC’s School of Cinematic Arts which Hushki says is scholarship-based.

One of the consequences of the public move toward fundamentalist Islam, according to Hushki is that artists and intellectuals are no longer seen by the public as important members of society, a point addressed in his film. Laila’s father is a former well-respected professor who has been completely broken by the country’s move to the right and his daughter’s absence.

L to R: “Transit Cities” Producer Rula Nasser, actors Mohammad Al-Qabbani and Saba Mubarak and director Mohammed Hushki. Photo courtesy of Dubai International Film Festival.

The main theme of the film, that of people being unable to adjust when they return to a changed homeland, is being experienced not only by young people in Jordan but by expats in Dubai, as well. When the film screened at DIFF, Hushki says, the reaction from Dubai’s expat population was similar to the reaction they expect from Jordanians. “They feel that being away for a while and going back home messes with your view of what home is and you’re stuck with these memories [of what home was like] because you’re not there, you’re not adapting so the change is very abrupt. A lot of people come back to Jordan and they can’t cope. The choice that Laila was left with was either that she copes and changes who she is to fit into the society, or she becomes a rebel and she’s rejected by the society (and this happens a lot) or she just goes back to the States and stays there, even though she knows that it’s not home.”

The fundamental question of “where do we belong?” is what Hushki says is being asked by a generation of young Jordanians. “Are we Muslims and part of a bigger nation called the Nation of Islam? Are we Arabs? Are we global citizens? Are we more Western than Eastern? It’s a mess and it’s partly because of this huge revolution in communication. It’s like we’re all going through a midlife crisis from the age of twenty.” “Transit Cities” has yet to screen in Jordan and Hushki is excited to see the reaction.

On the documentary side is Norma Marcos’ “Fragments of a Lost Palestine,” a film that takes a little while to reveal its true nature but once it does, it’s an entertaining, original and even funny look at some of the frustrations facing modern Palestinians, both within and outside of Palestine. Marcos is a Palestinian by birth and holds passports from both Palestine and France. Wanting to visit her ailing mother in Palestine, Marcos is denied entry by Israel despite their treaty with France because Israel views Marcos as Palestinian, not French because she is “not of Franco-French origin.” Some of the films laughs come watching Marcos try and deal with the well-meaning but overly bureaucratic French government employees as they try to help her get permission to enter Israel.

Khaled Abol Naga as Khaled in Ahmad Abdallah’s “Microphone.” Image courtesy of Dubai International Film Festival.

Finally gaining approval, the rest of the film initially feels like almost random fragments of footage of Marcos and her friends and family in both Palestine and Israel but random they are not and a pleasant feeling of family and community emerge from the experience. This is a series of stories, of vignettes of life within the occupation. As in any state of war or, as Jimmy Carter called it, apartheid, life must go on. Children go to school and run for class representative (like Marcos’ precocious and intelligent niece Yara), people have to share their showers because of water rationing and even have festivals. “No one mentions our beer festival,” grouses one of Marcos’ Palestinian friends, when he is pointing out that all anyone talks about is war and struggle when discussing Palestine, ignoring the fact that they do in fact have lives. It’s a humanizing and illuminating documentary.

Arguably the titan of Arab cinema is Egypt. According to the Dubai Film Market’s Focus 2010 World Film Market Trends book they produce the most films in Africa and Egyptian films count for the most box office dollars in several Arab and Middle Eastern countries. Egypt’s film industry is traditionally Cairo-centric which is one of the things that sets Ahmad Abdalla’s Alexandria-set “Microphone” apart. A flawed but interesting film, “Microphone” follows a similar theme to “Transit Cities,” that of the native returning after years abroad in the US. In this case it’s Khaled (Khaled Abol Naga) returning to Alexandria to find that the ex that he’s been carrying a torch for is emigrating because she finds life in Egypt stifling and oppressive and his father, with whom he lives, is uncommunicative.

Depressed by what has greeted him upon his return, Khaled wanders around the city in a funk and stumbles upon the city’s underground scene of skaters, hip hop performers and graffiti artists. Feeling like he has discovered a new and vibrant part of his hometown, Khaled sets about trying to promote this counter culture as a way to counter his ex-girlfriend’s insistence that Alexandria is a conservative and oppressive society.

While the film is full of vibrant performances (both acting and musical) and the story is interesting, overall it’s a mixed bag. The editing is clever, jumping between a single coffee shop conversation between Khaled and his ex-girlfriend, and Khaled’s time with the musicians, skaters, etc. but several moments at the coffee shop are repeated throughout the film, giving the feeling that there wasn’t enough to that storyline and they were trying to flesh it out artificially. Some of the most interesting things about the film are its likely unintentional parallels with Charlie Ahearn’s seminal pseudo-documentary, 1983’s “Wild Style,” with its look inside the rising subculture of graffiti art and hip hop. A perfect film this is not, but a worthwhile look inside contemporary Alexandria culture, it is. It’s too bad the ending falls so flat. Khaled spends the whole film passionately trying to help these artists and in the end, I was left with a feeling of abject failure.

More than films and parties, DIFF is a full-fledged market, Filmmart, with the Film Forum series of seminars and the Young Journalism Award competition, The Dubai Film Connection co-production market (since its launch on 2007, 50% of the 46 projects have been made) and a post-production funding initiative called Enjaaz. There were hundreds of delegates from all over the world in Dubai to do business, including distributors, producers and filmmakers looking for funding.

Of course DIFF isn’t without its problems, no festival is. I thought their English-language film selection could use some brightening up, especially the American indies. “Winter’s Bone” was really the only US indie “favorite” that screened at the fest and while I understand the need to cater to the audience, I’m reasonably sure there were better films available than “Tron: Legacy” with which to close the festival.

Photo by Mark Rabinowitz

Then there was closing night. I’ve been to a lot of closing ceremonies, but none quite as odd as DIFF’s. On the one hand, there was a nicely designed set and video screen on a wide stage in the festival’s largest venue. On the other hand there were four presenters, alternating the announcements awkwardly in English and Arabic off of a teleprompter that seemed to be continuously giving them the wrong information. Either that or they were going “off book.”

Either way, several times during the evening the films announced on the video screen didn’t match the announcements and the presenters’ attempts at ad libbing were…odd. As jarring as it was for the audience, I can’t imagine what it was like for the filmmakers who initially didn’t know if they’d won an award or not. Considering the amount of money at stake, it must have been excruciating. Then there was the policy of not allowing any of the winners to speak from the microphone. I understand that it saves time, but it made for an uncomfortable spectacle, with each winner collecting their awards and shaking the hand (or sometimes not) with DIFF Artistic Director Masoud Amralla Al Ali and various members of Dubai’s royal family and walking off.

Even surprise honoree DIFF programmer Sheila Whitaker didn’t say a word. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that big a deal, but I can only imagine that the winning filmmakers might have wanted to say a few words. This is a problem easily fixed by a veteran awards producer. Drop me a note, guys. I’ll point you in the right direction!

My only other real complaints about this overall excellent festival were the relative lack of morning press screenings (a measly one/day) and the timing of the awards vs. the closing night party. I would urge the organizers to consider moving everything up by about 5 hours. An afternoon awards ceremony followed by a closing party that runs from 5:00pm to 9:00pm makes much more sense (and allows for a desert sunset) than the party that started at 9:30pm when so many guests had flights home starting at midnight, making it necessary for many attendees to either miss or cut short their experience and this party was not one anyone should have to miss.

45 minutes out into the desert at Jumeirah’s Bab Al Shams resort, the place was tricked out into some sort of an acid trip version of a Bedouin camp….in a very good way. There were pyramids of fruit, grilled crabs sliding into a bowl, an army of prawns, brigades of various meats (I was told there would be camel, but I didn’t see any), sausages, sweets, breads, etc., etc. Along with Shisha pipes for the asking, camel rides and the best fireworks display I’ve ever seen, it made for a magical evening that I, alas, had to cut short due to my impending early morning flight.

All in all, Dubai is a festival that everyone in the film industry, regardless of their position, should experience at least once. My personal list of things I wanted to see and do in Dubai in addition to the festival was overly ambitious, but I expect I will return in the coming years to tick things off on my list and to learn more about Arab cinema, which from what I have seen may very well be a fertile ground for some of the more imaginative and interesting films in the years to come. As the saying goes, there’s gold in them thar hills!

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