Bright Lights Film Journal

Cinema, Virginity, and Swans: The Abu Dhabi International Film Festival 2010

“For a brief week or two, adventurous filmgoers can capture elusive truths found in works of complexity, moral ambiguity, and seriousness of purpose, all uncensored.”

Before one deals with any films at all, there’s a massive triumphal arch for attendees to pass through, the entrance to the magisterial Emirates Palace, host structure for the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival. Boasting a near surreal display of inlaid marble and unalloyed gold, the building suggests the elaborate sets from 1964’s notoriously spectacular dud, Fall of the Roman Empire. Just one example of the lavish accoutrements on display awaits visitors in the men’s room: a tray bears a mountain of snowy washcloths, all artfully folded and whimsically arranged in the shape of swans kissing, and then the final flourish has stray orchid petals of red and yellow sprinkled on as decoration.

In all its splendor, Abu Dhabi presents an image of sand-choked glamour, with Los Angeles-sized expressways and sprawling boulevards, fronted with glass towers set amongst thousands and thousands of palm trees. Thrift and restraint are banished as this emirate seems to function as a fountain that spurts and spews precious fresh water with sunny extravagance, making a nearly Babylonian display of prosperity that bubbles up from the unforgiving desert.

Once called the Middle East International Film Festival, the newly renamed Abu Dhabi International Film Festival energizes its guests with smooth organization, an evocation of the national identity of proud confidence. Well-drilled fleets of free shuttle buses transport viewers between several cinema locations, ensuring good attendance by providing reliable access to visiting stars such as Uma Thurman, Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Adrien Brody, while also importing directors from around the globe, as well as distinguished names to head the various juries, including Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, Palestinian Elia Suleiman, and Brazilian Karim Ainouz, to determine the generous cash prizes.

While any film festival must present some popular-scaled entertainments to lure multiplex denizens to the new event, the genuine value lies in crowding off the screen, however briefly, the bickering rom-com couples, the mouthy door-slamming adolescents, the bromance slobs, the outlandish superheroes, and the lurking serial killers of today’s pop cinema, mostly characters fashioned with simplistic moral polarities and sanitized for widest mass appeal. Instead, for a brief week or two, adventurous filmgoers can captureelusive truths found in works of complexity, moral ambiguity, and seriousness of purpose, all uncensored.

Executive Director of the festival Peter Scarlet, after clocking in almost twenty years as the head of the San Francisco International Film Festival, and another half-dozen years as Artistic Director of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, has committed to building a culture of filmgoing as a social experience in Abu Dhabi, to support its nascent film industry. International in spirit, the festival presented sixty-nine features (that’s counting restored classics like Egypt’s Al Mumia/The Mummy and Fritz Lang’s longest version of Metropolis yet), plus 104 shorts, largely the output of Arab filmmakers.

The Ditch/Jiabiangou, a powerfully disturbing record of forced labor camps in 1960s China, during the three-year period of dire famine when political activists found themselves accused of right-wing deviation and then condemned to servitude in underground holes in the unimaginably vast and barren Gobi Desert. Long rows of men dig an endless ditch as their only activity, not only a pointless one but thankless as well, the only reward being a spoonful or two of pitifully thin soup, never mind the occasional feasting on a stray rat, not to mention disturbing hints of cannibalism.

Men who collapse and die throughout the workday are pulled out of the way for the wagon that picks up that night’s corpses at dawn. Gathered around a fire, the half-dead prisoners speak in exhausted whispers: “My whole body is still very swollen,” “My situation is desperate.” It’s a no-exit situation, with the question of submission to authority long ago decided, as any plans to escape seem doomed by their debilitated physiques, and the entire country seems on alert to trap them as renegades. Their faces remain shadowy as befits their ghost-like existence, and it’s half an hour before the camera moves in for the first close-up.

Amidst the expanses of reddish sand, as dust flies into shafts of sunlight, one prisoner’s wife unexpectedly arrives in the booming wind and blowing snow, but the men discourage her from searching for her husband (“There are hundreds of graves. You’ll never find him”), but she continues with mounting hysteria that pushes misery to the extreme. Indeed, the director, best known for 1999’s marathon four-hour documentary West of the Tracks, wrests intense, committed performances unhampered by vanity, to match the harrowing depiction of this gulag existence. Is this the most depressing picture made in the fifty-plus years since De Sica’s Umberto D? Perhaps, but the joy is in the art as it’s also a film freighted with humanity and immaculate clarity.

Olivier Assayas also entered his gripping biographical-thriller Carlos into competition, in its 159-minute cinema release version, keeping virtually intact its most sensational sequences, including the Paris apartment shootout and the Vienna kidnapping of the OPEC oil ministers. Astonishingly full of life, his fluid and observant camera looks everywhere with pointed intelligence and moves in decisive directions, never arbitrarily. In the title role of the international revolutionary, Edgar Ramírez probes not at all deeply yet convincingly makes Carlos a compelling character without indulging any sympathy whatsoever for his fate, all while negotiating at least four languages. Always keeping us a step behind and racing to catch up, Assayas has delivered his best film yet, although the real aficionados will hold out for the 5-1/2 hour television miniseries cut, so long that both the British and French DVD releases take up three DVDs each.

Also entering the narrative competition was Julian Schnabel, artist and cinema adventurer, best known for his not completely convincing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. His new production, Miral, is adapted by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal from her own autobiographical novel. This could have resulted in a movie both exciting and significant. It offers a bravely unflinching inside account of Jerusalem under occupation from 1947 to the present, with Israeli soldiers seen tearing down Palestinian residences, an important visualization of the continuing inequity in that country. Also important to see depicted on the big screen are the extreme conservative settlers. “They are religious and think god told them to live here. The main reason for the soldiers here is to protect the settlers.”

The film has an estimable cast, headed by actress Freida Pinto (Abu Dhabi’s lively Indian community turned out to see their home-grown star, first introduced in Slumdog Millionaire, in person and credibly playing a Palestinian), though alongside awkward cameos by Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoe. The film also enjoys expert lighting from France’s masterful Eric Gautier, deploying a narrow range of golds and blues, though he can’t seem to decide where to rest his camera.

Unfortunately, Miral‘s script leapfrogs through the experiences of four different women but feels seriously underwritten and poorly structured. One thread concerns a woman (played by Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass) who starts an orphanage for children bombed out of their homes during the 1948 takeover. Indignation burns throughout this section, but this simplistic save-the-children story feels thinly sketched in rather than painted in detail. The script insists on characters addressing each other through naively direct lines out of a PowerPoint lecture (“This is a very crucial moment for our country”). By the end of the film, the actress must even grow into a chalk-dusted wig to signify advanced age, an indignity that should have disappeared with the Hollywood studio system. With Jerusalem under occupation, one woman starts a career of insurgency against the Israelis by planting a ticking bomb in a cinema. Since the crowd is watching Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Schnabel gets to piggyback on Polanski’s fast cutting to accelerate the suspense in his own storytelling.

During the Intifada, Miral’s reaction is typically and naively direct: “Why isn’t anybody doing anything about it?” Why, indeed? Arrested and beaten in prison for involvement in bombing a settlement, Miral pulls off her sweater in the courtroom to display her bloody scars, and this gets her freed. If it were that easy, the prisons would be empty.

Throughout the film, the actors prove more interesting to watch than their characters, especially Alexander Siddiq, a resourceful Sudanese-British actor who cannot bring his routine role to meaningful life when it has no convincing conflict, and burdened with soap opera dialogue like “You have always been my daughter.” Dealing more in exposition than true dramatization, Miral doesn’t play like anyone’s life story, in fact, but at least it educates the audience about the paltry 22 percent solution enshrined in the 1993 Oslo Agreement which, Miral explains in another burst of naked exposition, guarantees Palestinians control over 22 percent of the land, yet it’s an agreement that has still not been honored, as the film rightly points out.

Among the ten films in the non-competing Showcase category, the one with the spikiest edges was the singular provocation called I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You. Energy crackles through this experimental fiction narrated by an unseen speaker to his absent girlfriend; he’s a geologist taking a thirty-day exploratory trip through the parched terrain of Brazil to study the feasibility of cutting a canal through the dry, harsh countryside. The same way he measures the fractures in the landscape, he tries to forget his lover in the exasperating monotony of killer heat and drought as he drives through a storm over the desert. Shot through with veins of despair and regret, the film pauses to note truckloads of religious pilgrims crowding into a shrine, also a monument announced as “a tribute from the people of the 19th century to the people of the 20th century.” As the narrator finds time to interview numerous local prostitutes (and sleep with some of them), the story seems to go nowhere yet sends us out in some altered state of being. Co-directed by Marcelo Gomez (director of 2005’s innovative Cinema, Aspirin and Vultures) and Karim Ainouz (director of 2002’s striking Madame Satã), the film builds a tactile immediacy from the use of grainy Super 8 film stock, 16 mm, as well as stills and slides, which all bring a rough visual authority with out-of-focus shots, doubled images, extreme telephoto, distortion through smeary windshields, and rampant heat shimmer. With consummate irony, the blurry images won a cinematography award for Eloisa Passos, who feared that her imaginatively stylized color and grain would lose her jobs. Meanwhile, the soundtrack keeps busy with pop ballads, electronic squeals, intense harmonium work, and a tinkling music box. Actually, this film straddles categories as it was originally shot as a documentary in 1999 but abandoned for a decade, and then turned into a collage fiction adding 20 percent new material, including the concluding sequence showing Acapulco’s cliff divers. According to Ainouz, the co-directors were seeking to suggest the contents of an anonymous diary found somewhere on the road. Chosen as a sidebar at the Venice Film Festival, but also shown at an art gallery, the film still exists in a dual mode, just as it layers a muezzin’s call to prayer over the picture of a Christian church.

In Orion, a young Iranian woman tries to get a back alley restitching of her virginity but gets caught by the religious police, not to mention her despairing parents. This second feature film of young Iranian writer, editor, and director Zamani Esmati appeared among seventeen contenders in the New Horizons Narrative Competition. The controversial theme is immediately emphasized under the credits as we watch a mechanical sewing machine pounding away, but the story begins in media res, as the terrified woman and her astronomy professor lover (hence the starry title) and several accomplices are all hauled into a police station, thanks to tip-offs from spiteful neighbors. Set in provincial Yazd, far from the more sophisticated capital, and shot in secrecy, the provocative film steps gingerly around the police and their intrusive questions about drugs and sexual activity. One filmmaker character not only looks like Jean-Luc Godard but also spouts Godardian aphorisms obsessed with women’s betrayal, such as “The distance between a woman’s love and hate for you is tiny.” Undeniably, the film largely amounts to people talking in rooms, relieved by several chase scenes that are in fact repeated, but in a decisive concluding sequence, her parents fight during a powerful sandstorm, with the father dragging his daughter out into the elements, questioning what he should do with this disobedient child. According to his way of thinking, everyone in the family (and indeed in society) seems affected by her actions, but the ending presents no solution, underlining only that personal integrity should be the first right of every person in every country.

In the Documentary Competition, thirteen filmmakers, including well-established directors such as George Sluizer, Kim Longinotto, and Patricio Guzman, brought their latest works. Also competing was How Bitter My Sweet/Bahebbak Ya Wahsh! by Lebanese film critic and film historian Mohamed Soueid. A director for 20 years, he dedicates this film to John Ford, upon whom he patterned himself and his career. His documentary follows six characters in two cities in Lebanon, intercutting a half-dozen private worlds that reflect on each other and comprise a vivid portrait of the country today. Fluttering into the director’s butterfly net is the taxi driver who consorts with communists, the Sudanese man who likes Ethiopians, a quiet Syrian shopkeeper, a raucous Palestinian woman who works at halawa-pulling hair-removal treatments, a woman who sells costume jewelry, and a blowhard tour guide and jack-of-all-trades who fashions himself as the “king” of his town. Handsomely shot Digi-Beta visuals are not images to be sold, even as newsreels of the 1982 invasion and war cross fault lines of history, religion, politics, and culture. Perhaps Ford was an equal influence on the artful soundtrack, with its loosely focused meditation on song, love, and marriage, ending with compelling example of Arab rap. The cultural and historical content may need some explaining, but this is a documentary of unusual textures that refuses to run on predetermined rails.

Appearing outside the competition, as the documentary remains a work in progress, In My Mother’s Arms (Fi Ahdan Ummi) was co-directed by Iraqi brothers Atia Al-Daradji and Mohamed Al-Daradji, although the latter announced that “I hate, hate, hate to show an unfinished film.” Nevertheless, this galvanizing record of Baghdad orphans who saw their parents kidnapped or killed peels several layers of skin off recent history. One of four projects supported by Abu Dhabi’s SANAD Fund, the first 35 minutes of the film were screened as a charity event to collect donations for the very tightly budgeted orphanage run by Mr. Husham, a tough influence on his thirty-two resident children. Supplying both structure and caring, he still faces eviction by the landlord, and feels stymied by the realization that “our life has become wall after wall after wall” (Husham has given his surname to all the children to grant them official status). The doc starts on the day that the US reduces its troops to 50,000, though soldiers are seen roving through town nervously huddled in groups, quite the flip side of The Hurt Locker. Some children have survived hospitalization in critical condition, and even severe psychological damage. Seif, one impenetrably guarded child, who lost both parents in a suicide bombing and can no longer remember what they looked like, responds only to a song called “In My Mother’s Arms,” explaining that their orphanage now shelters them like their mothers’ arms. If anyone can do justice to this story as it develops, the charismatic Muhamed Al-Daradji can, after shooting the uneven but often astonishing Ahlaam in 2005, working on the explosion-wracked and sniper-filled streets of Baghdad to tell the story of a bomb scattering the frightened inmates of an insane asylum into the hostile streets and how they found their way back.

* * *

And the winners are . . .

Narrative Feature Competition: Best Narrative Film: Silent Souls (Ovsyanki), directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko, Russia; Best Narrative Film from the Arab World: Here Comes the Rain (Shatti Ya Dini), directed by Bahij Hojeij, Lebanon; Best Actor: Andrew Garfield in Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek, United Kingdom/USA; Best Actress: Lubna Azabal in Incendies, directed by Denis Villeneuve, Canada/France; Jury Special Mention: Carlos, directed by Olivier Assayas, France/Germany.

Documentary Feature Competition: Best Documentary (tie): Pink Saris, directed by Kim Longinotto, United Kingdom, India; and Nostalgia For the Light (Nostalgia de la luz), directed by Patricio Guzmán, Chile/Germany/France; Best Documentary from the Arab World (tie): Homeland, directed by George Sluizer, The Netherlands; and We Were Communists (Sheoeyin Kenna), directed by Maher Abi Samra, Lebanon/France/United Arab Emirates

Afaq Jadida/New Horizons Competition: Best New Narrative Film: Gesher, directed by Vahid Vakilifar, Iran; Best New Narrative Film from the Arab World: OK, Enough, Goodbye (Tayeb, Khalas, Yalla), directed by Raniah Attieh and Daniel Garcia, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates; Best New Documentary: Bill Cunningham New York, directed by Richard Press, USA; Best New Documentary from the Arab World: El ambulante, directed by Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano and Adriana Yurcovich, Argentina; Jury Special Mention: Living Skin (Jeld Hayy), directed by Fawzi Saleh, Egypt; Audience Choice Award: West Is West, directed by Andy De Emmony, United Kingdom.

For more details, see the festival’s website here.