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Dubai Festival Diary 3: ‘New Arab Films’ Panel, ‘Wadjda,’ ‘Detroit Unleaded,’ ‘Chaos Disorder’

Dubai Festival Diary 3: 'New Arab Films' Panel, 'Wadjda,' 'Detroit Unleaded,' 'Chaos Disorder'

There are only two screening slots scheduled for today, both in the evening, so in the afternoon I attend one of the industry panels that are part of the buzzing Film Market.  This one is entitled “New Arab Films: A Story of Success,” although after listening to a broad spectrum of views, it seems that the panel could also have been entitled: “As William Goldman famously said, Nobody knows anything.”  There’s Fadia Abboud, a director of an Australian Arab film festival; Rasha Salfi, who programs half-a-dozen Arab films for the Toronto International Film Festival annually; Anaïs Clanet, international film sales for Wide Management; Eve Gabereau, who buys films for exhibition, and Roman Paul, a German film producer who is at the Festival with “Wadjda,” which his company produced. The panel is moderated by Marion Masone of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Clanet is blunt when she says that television channels only want movies that can fit a 90 minute slot.  Gabereau points out that festival and critical success doesn’t always translate into financial returns – see “This is Not a Film,” by Jafar Panahi. Social media is lauded, but it remains to be seen whether VOD will be a savior, since even VOD seems still to be tied to a theatrical release.

At times it seems as though “Wadjda,” which premiered at Venice, and since has traveled the festival circuit, hitting Telluride and Toronto among others, has highjacked the conversation. It’s playing here as the Arab Programme gala. I learn it’s not only the first Saudi feature to be shot by a woman, but also the first feature shot inside Saudi Arabia, which, it seems, does not have a single movie theater (why do I not know this?  Where have I been?  I guess this is why they say travel is broadening). Paul tells us that the original title, “Wadja,” confused people who thought it was about Andrzej Wajda, the Polish film director. After trying to come up with another title – “The Girl with a Bike” was facetiously considered, to draft off the Dardenne brothers “The Kid With a Bike” – it was decided that adding a “d” to the name, i.e. “Wadjda,” would have to suffice.

The most important thing for me is that I’ve experienced one of those come-to-Jesus moments: I have to see more Arab films – and not just while I’m here, where they’re thick on the ground, but in the future. I’ve already internalized the sort of advice handed out by DIFF’s programmers in the Festival Guide: “watch as much as possible” from Nashen Moodley, Director of the AsiaAfrica Programme, “Pick ‘wildcards’ – never seen a Korean, Moroccan, or Senegalese film?  Now’s your chance!” from Antonia Carver, programmer of Arabian Nights; “Don’t just watch the films you know you like, but choose one or two from left field,” from Sheila Whitaker, director of the International Programme; “Pick a film from a country you always wanted to visit,” from Dorothee Wenner, consultant to the celebration of Indian Cinema.

With that in mind, I pick out an eclectic and entirely non-Western slate for tomorrow’s films: from Malaysia, Bangladesh, Jordan, and India, as well as planning to see that first-ever Saudi film about the girl with the bike.

After I pick up my next-day tickets, I run into Peter Scarlet, veteran director of international film festivals including San Francisco, Tribeca, and Abu Dhabi. He’s en route to see “Moondog,” a 136-minute-long film billed as an experimental look into the psyche of the Egyptian filmmaker Khairy Beshara, shot over 11 years, mostly in the US. He introduces me to a beautiful young woman, Sara Al Qaiwani, telling me that she’s going to the London School of Economics, speaks uncounted languages, and is also an astonishing opera singer, about to burst upon the world stage. “Google Emirati opera singer,” he tells me, and I do.

I head off to see “Detroit Unleaded,” billed as “the first Arab American romantic dramedy,” which won the Discovery award in Toronto.  It’s specifically Lebanese-American, and in a day of learning new things, I am told that Detroit has the largest Lebanese population outside of Lebanon.  

It seems that a number of them – not just Lebanese now living in Dubai, but Lebanese who have lived in Detroit, or have relatives living there now — have managed to find their way to this screening, as they attest during testimony during the enthusiastic q-and-a afterwards. They laud the director, Rola Nashef, who spent nine years in her quest to make it, and her three main actors: EJ Assi, a Detroit native in his feature film debut as the guy with ambitions beyond operating his family’s gritty gas station/convenience store; Nada Shouyahib, fresh out of college in her first-ever role as the middle-class daughter also eager to escape working in her brother’s cellphone business; and Mike Bateyeh, playing EJ’s cousin and co-worker, the veteran of the group, another Detroit native who’s knocked around LA as a standup comic and actor with a couple dozen credits, including an arc on “Breaking Bad.”    

It’s not a flawless movie, but it has interesting and unexpected rhythms both in its dialogue and situations, and believable chemistry between the romantic leads. I’m not surprised when Nashef says her next film script, also set in the Lebanese-American community, revolves around a group of girlfriends: two of the best scenes in “Detroit American” involve the tight-knit group of Nada’s gal pals.

Segue from a interesting but conventional Hollywood-type film, however independently produced, to the world premiere of “Chaos, Disorder,” the debut feature film from a young Egyptian woman, Nadine Khan, who graduated from film school in Cairo, has worked as an AD and made short films. An isolated community, living among garbage is dependent on quixotic outside forces for food, water, and electricity, while a love triangle brews among the disaffected youth. You don’t have to be particularly sophisticated to see a political parable. It’s hard not to think of Samuel Beckett when you see people on top of garbage, and because of the enclosed setting and brisk 76-minute running time, I think that “Chaos, Disorder” could also be a satisfying play.

A guy asks me where the shuttle bus is, and he turns out to be a Tunisian film professor who has also just seen “Chaos, Disorder,” which he didn’t like – specifically because it was both a parable and theatrical. I tell him that I also found it theatrical, but that Samuel Beckett is very good company for it to be compared with.

What, I ask, have you seen that you liked?  “Moondog,” he says.  When I get back to my hotel room, I email Peter Scarlet : “How was Moondog?”  “I ankled it after an hour,” he replies, in Varietyese. Knowing that not everybody watches everything all the way through, I ask: “I’m assuming you wouldn’t recommend it?”  “Perhaps to curiosity-seekers with a strong masochistic streak…”  

That’s what makes horse races.

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