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Dubai International Film Fest Day 1: ‘Bekas’ & ‘Life of Pi’ Gala

Dubai International Film Fest Day 1: 'Bekas' & 'Life of Pi' Gala

The breakfast buffet at the Beachcomber restaurant just past the more impressive of the two impressive swimming pools of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel is overwhelming.  My judgment collapses in the face of its multiple offerings — Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, western. Somehow I find myself consuming excellent chicken curry, roti bread with sambal, dim sum, smoked salmon with garnishes, assorted French cheeses, fresh fruit with yogurt, a couple of tiny pastries – and I still only sampled a fraction of its possibilities.

I’m greeted by Dana Archer of the PR firm Dennis Davidson Associates, and join Variety’s Alissa Simon, who I just saw in Morelia. She’s a five-year veteran of the Dubai festival. She mentions that there is indeed a press screening of an Arab film this afternoon at 3. The only other scheduled event is the opening night film, Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” which I will attend even though I saw it when it closed the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 14. It’s a black-tie gala, complete with the de rigueur red carpet arrivals and separately-ticketed afterparty.

I shuttle to the Madinat Jumeirah, a hotel and conference center, designed to look like an ancient Arab town complete with souk, as opposed to the architecturally cutting-edge Burj Al Arab and the Vegasy Jumeirah Beach Hotel.   It also houses the Madinat Arena, where the gala screenings are held, and the Madinat Theatre, another screening location. Most of the Festival screenings are held in a multiplex in the Mall of the Emirates (which famously holds the indoor ski resort that Tony Bourdain visited in “No Reservations,” which I re-watched as part of my Dubai research).

I stop at the box office, where you can request tickets for the next day’s screenings, and secure passes for each of the three time slots for the first full day: “Me and You,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s first feature in a decade; “Bekas,” the Gala representing the Arab film programme; and “Here and There,” a Mexican film which won the Critic’s Week prize in Cannes.

I have a bit of trouble finding the Press Office, and am aided by a towering glamazon who’s also en route there. I admire her flowing locks, expertly-applied makeup, and count-the-trend outfit: tight blue-jean pencil skirt, peplummed jacket, stiletto heels, designer handbag. She’s like a creature from Planet Vogue.  Seeing her almost makes me want to sit down at one of the MAC makeup tables just outside the press room and request a free makeover. But the knowledge that long before the evening’s festivities, the makeup will melt away – plus the fact that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – deters me.

Instead I go to the lunch location, the hotel’s Wharf restaurant, picturesquely located on a man-made lagoon traversed by little poled boats.  There’s another overwhelming multicultural buffet, coming hard upon the last, and I can’t quite rise to the occasion.  I do sample delicious roast lamb, and another lamb dish, a stew more Frenchy than tagine, with a bit of cold corn salad, as well as two life-giving iced coffees.  There’s a rumour that somebody heard Alicia Keys practicing during the sound check for tonight’s party. Wiser heads shake no, but hey, I figure anything’s possible.

I join my friend Shelly Kraicer, a Toronto-based writer and Festival consultant, and we go to the 3 p.m. press screening, one of only five scheduled during the entire week, it seems.  It’s in the glamourous, vaguely Moorish, large Madinat Theatre – about 15 attendees in 432 seats. It turns out to be “Bekas,” about two young Iraqi Kurdish homeless orphan brothers, who set out on an impossible quest, inspired by a glimpse of a “Superman” movie: to travel to America, which is, after all, only “this far” (a few inches between thumb and forefinger) on the map. 

It’s designed to be a heart-tugger – everything but the bloodhounds snapping at their rear ends, including random beatings, falls off high roofs and moving vehicles, evil smugglers, menacing border guards, and land mines.  But I sit there relatively unmoved, partly because the young director, Karzan Kader, himself fled Iraq with his family at the age of six and ended up in Sweden. The movie, filmed in Iraq, is a Swedish-Finnish-Iraq co-production.  Coca-Cola figures prominently as a plot point, more than once, which leads me to search the credits – in vain – for a thank you.

Afterwards I return my “Bekas” gala ticket to the box office and get one instead for “Berlin Telegram,” part of the Arab features selection. I’ve assembled something of a passable black-tie outfit from the venerable houses of Target, Forever 21, and Goodwill. The shuttle bus drops me at what turns out to be the wrong entrance for the Opening Night gala, and again, incredibly, I’m rescued by the glamazon of this morning, now wearing a truly incredible confection of flowing teal-colored chiffon, jeweled and embroidered from neck to hip and transparent below. Her name turns out to be Shireen, and we clomp around the hotel in our stilettos until we get to the checkpoint. I’m let through while Shireen argues with the guards – it seems her friend has her ticket and has already gone through.

I’m condemned to walk the endless red carpet. I know my editor would love it if I paused and took a picture of the hundreds of photographers that line the route, some of whom listlessly squeeze off a shot or two of me on the off-chance that I turn out to be someone (ha!), but I fear if I stop I will turn to stone.

Inside I’m given a glass of champagne and wait until the doors open, at which time I’m directed to the back half of the huge ampitheatre (1800 seats), a large portion of which is also already reserved. I sit next to a French couple, residents of Dubai for a few years; she works for Getty Images, and he for MBC, Arabic pay-cable movie channels that he paints a rather bleak programming picture of (“nothing before 2000, favorite stars Tom Cruise, Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme”). Still he’s cheered and I’m impressed when they project an MBC commercial on the screen, and it turns out to be chic and impressively edited. I’d watch it!  It’s a treat after watching silent footage of the red carpet arrivals and interviews– I only recognize Cate Blanchett, here as the head of the IWC Schaffhausen jury for an $100,000 award to a rising filmmaker from the Gulf region, in a rather unflattering grey-and-red gown with cap sleeves and a high neckline. Later I read that it’s a Rodarte Spring 2013 creation, and what reads grey-and-red onscreen is reported to be actually pale lilac and copper. 

My French companions are cheered that the festivities actually start almost on time – last year, they told me, the program began an hour late, because Tom Cruise spent more than that signing autographs and posing with fans outside. Tickets for last year’s gala were being scalped at between $3000 and $5000 dollars, they say.

Onstage, after welcoming remarks, some translated, some not (we’re told to listen to simultaneous translations on headsets, which are not to be found) by various local dignitaries and Festival heads, Michael Apted is given a Lifetime Achievement Award, which he accepts with brief and graceful remarks, lauding the “colorful and cosmopolitan” Dubai Festival. He’s also the head of the Arab Documentary Jury. (I wish his most recent doc, this year’s “56 Up,” or indeed any of his films, which look great in the well-edited tribute clip reel, was being screened here.) And then the Egyptian actor Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, veteran of 48 different films, none of which I think I’ve seen, receives his Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ang Lee is not in attendance, but three stars of the film are: the young lead in his film debut, Suraj Sharma, Adil Hussan, who plays his father, and Shravanthi Sainath, also debuting as Pi’s girlfriend. The first time I saw the movie, I felt I was sitting a trifle too close. But in this huge amphitheatre, I’m too far away, both literally and figuratively.  I’m a big Ang Lee fan, but on second viewing I’m less impressed by the technical achievement and more critical of the story. Still love the meerkats, however!

Afterwards there’s a trek down to the beach party, a white-on-white space with a loud overamplified cover band smack in the center of the room (the lunchtime rumour must have been sparked by overhearing the blonde English singer singing a Keys song; she also impersonates Beyonce). There’s easy access to multiple food stands dotted around the room, along with passed hors d’oeuvres: Mediterranean antipasti, two rich pastas, grilled steak and fish, Willy-Wonka-esque dessert displays.  It’s the third overwhelming buffet of the day, and I’m not up to the task.

On the stroke of five minutes past midnight, too-densely-programmed fireworks go off above the ocean for about six minutes. I catch a golf cart (known here as “buggies”) up to the shuttle back to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. Inside my room a letter has been left on my bed, warning that “a short fireworks display [is] scheduled to take place for approximately 4 minutes shortly after 23:40 hrs.” Looking at it that way, I got 50% more fireworks than I would have expected had I read it before I left for the evening.

Tomorrow I can see four movies (not to mention the Mall of the Emirates), which seems even more festive.

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