Bright Lights Film Journal

Dispatch from the Desert: The Fifth Abu Dhabi Film Festival (2011)

“The cinema exists to record the moment when souls become visible.” –Jean-Michel Frodon

How often does history contribute to a film festival? The long-awaited capture and disposal of longtime dictator Moammer Gaddhafi in a Libyan drainage ditch caused an unexpectedly sensational conclusion to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. With the Arab world in ferment from Morocco to Yemen, there seemed a rough justice to thus concluding Gaddhafi’s 42-year-long horror movie, and the festival rightfully gave nods to local political and social developments, since the genie had undeniably wriggled out of the bottle.

In addition to 64 short films, 89 features played from some 28 countries (though who gets credit for the well-received musical El Gusto, a coproduction improbably uniting Algeria, Ireland, France, and the United Arab Emirates?). Despite some signs of belt-tightening, all were unveiled under a halo of glamour, supplied by numerous visiting directors and celebrities, including Abderrahmane Sissako from Mauritania, Michael Winterbottom from Britain, Yousri Nasrallah from Egypt, and Marjane Satrapi from France via Iran. New films came from the Japanese Kore-eda (I Wish) and China’s Chen Kaige (Sacrifice), plus an Italian short from Terry Gilliam (The Wholly Family) and another music documentary from Martin Scorsese (George Harrison: Living in the Material World).

On the festival’s fringe, one could sample from mini-festivals of Moroccan and Swedish cinema, take a master class from Todd Solondz (who brought his new Dark Horse), attend a roundtable on the changing rules of film production since the “Arab Spring,” or just ogle Tilda Swinton in person. For once, challenging artistic expressions crowded out the cineplex’s time-passing drivel, with many international selections breaking free of the box office imperatives of mass-marketed cinema. That’s actually one definition of cinephile heaven.

The prize for the Best Producer from the Arab world goes on Mohamed Hefzy’s bookshelf for Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician. Opening with impressive street-level immediacy on the first day of the Egyptian revolution, the film depicts a moment inciting millions of souls to become visible as demonstrators chant “The people demand the fall of the regime.” Director Tamer Ezzat then put flesh on the movement’s bare bones with attention to the usage of Facebook for organizing, wall posters for collecting slogans and thoughts from the citizenry, and impromptu infirmaries for dealing with the aftermath of blood, bullets, and gas. A less sure-footed section from director Aytan Amin, lacking a clearcut viewpoint, deals with the State Security officers who, of course, mostly defend their actions in facing down the demonstrators. The film’s final third, directed by Amr Salama, uses interviews with many respectable politicians to animate a cheeky guide called “How to Become a Dictator in Ten Steps,” beginning with ex-President Mubarak’s notorious use of hair coloring products. A useful and involving companion to the stirring daily coverage of the revolt on Al-Jazeera television, the tripartite film could nevertheless use a fourth part so that the audience does not leave with images of Mubarak stuffed in their heads, or with the disappointingly routine music used in the conclusion.

An engaging and spirited nail-biter, Troll Hunter introduces a long-hidden threat to humanity out of Norway’s forests and mountains, a new kind of monster obeying new rules, though trolls have made limited appearances in Lord of the Rings, not to mention college lit textbooks in the person of Beowulf’s Grendel. In André Øvredahl’s telling, trolls come in unpredictable sizes and with different looks useful for scaring Norwegian children into compliance. Among many other entertaining qualities, trolls can grow several extra heads as they age, love to gnaw on old tires (which could position Norway in the environmental forefront), and endure a pregnancy that lasts ten years, but might also turn to stone or explode and dissolve into gravel without warning. As with its less interesting predecessor The Blair Witch Project, the attempt to uncover a mystery leaves only a rough cut of camera footage behind, murky shaky-cam relics from the investigations of a mysteriously disappeared college TV crew. In the fjord country’s reliably filthy weather, the crew find a demolished car covered with slime (be sure to get a tetanus shot if you’re injured by a troll, and hope he didn’t carry rabies), and then encounter the seriously terse title character, who turns out to be a government employee for the Troll Security Service, tasked with keeping the beasts contained in their habitat, using apparently routine power lines to keep trolls in with electricity, while throwing reporters off the scent by wittily blaming local violence on German tourists, Russian bears, and freak tornados. Annoyed at the lack of overtime and bonuses in his position, the troll hunter agrees to help the feckless camera crew. Since trolls have the peculiar ability to smell Christian believers, he must ask, “No one here believes in god or Jesus?,” though to be absolutely sure, he directs them to rub foul concentrated troll stench on their bodies. (The trees in the forest are garlanded with hanging troll piss). Deep growls and unexpected outbreaks of lightning in the forest are sure signs of troll presence, and some are over 200 feet tall. Facing one obstacle, the young TV reporter reasons to his two hesitant helpers, “Do you think Michael Moore gave up after one try?”

Sweeping this year’s Berlin Film Festival awards for Best Film, Best Actor (the entire male cast) and Best Actress (the entire female cast), A Separation finally positions writer-director-editor Asghar Farhadi at the forefront of international cinema. This gripping and consummately acted drama follows a pending divorce that sets a well-off family against a poor one, with competing versions of truth and responsibility in modern society. Instead of ironing out any ambiguities, Farhadi keeps revealing further hidden ones, while finding ways to orchestrate routine problems so that they realistically tell us about ourselves, without undue dramatic exaggerations. As the audience is thrown from one ostensibly harmless evasion to another, matters build in wrackingly truthful encounters to unexpected court charges. One secret is that the characters are real individuals rather than a collection of assumptions, aided by the splendid performances, especially by first-time actor Peyman Moaadi as the decent family man and by the director’s own daughter Sarina Farhadi. The ghost of Jean Renoir hovers over all five of Asghar Farhadi’s films, with approval and understanding of the unvarnished truths of human behavior, all those moments when the inner soul can no longer be concealed. As in his previous films Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly, Farhadi excels at keeping multiple perspectives spinning in the air believably, right down to the exquisitely judged ending, while the inherent tension and live energy of the camera freed from its tripod imparts an exciting immediacy. Farhadi picked up the jury prize in Abu Dhabi, while also collecting Variety’s award as the Middle East Filmmaker of the Year. Not bad for a production made for $300,000 and crammed into realistic small spaces where people actually live. But once the drama takes off, nothing else matters.

“You just have to get crazier,” said the late German choreographer Pina Bausch to one of her international troupe of dancers, as recounted in Wim Wenders’s exhilarating and witty 3-D spectacle Pina. And they did escalate the craziness in the frequently slapstick style devised by Bausch, often using bizarre arm movements, clenched teeth, and lips pulled open. Indeed, how can we even categorize the following as dance: a woman stands silently, surrendering her body to a man who feels her hair, then another who squeezes her nose and plants kisses on her arm, then a dozen more men move in, all rubbing her stomach while manipulating her nose and chin. Wenders adds to the mix by positioning the dancers in unexpected venues to do equally unexpected actions that hardly fit the traditional definitions of dance: on a busy Berlin crossroads, a boom box plays music for a pas de deux unfolding amidst traffic and overhead subway cars riding past; a woman clad in Pina’s trademark pastel evening gown and high heels deploys a noisy leafblower through a forest; two men lie on the beach, playfully spitting water on each other; on a gliding subway car, a fierce woman, dark hair swept forward to cover her face, determinedly stomps on a pillow as crashing noises fill the soundtrack; another woman sits in a flowing river, caressing an animatronic hippo. Even real animals are recruited as dancers, as a man delightedly tap-dances with a yappy terrier nipping at his heels in rhythm. Wenders carries this happy-go-lucky freedom into his film’s 30 dance-segments, many exploring balance and falling as the human body’s dangerous outer limits. His distinctive use of 3-D, often dismissed by impatient adults as an expensive gimmick to amuse children, here uniquely succeeds in exploiting our spatial intelligence, most perilously in an impassioned but harrowing dance at the dangerous edge of a quarry, the very lip of disaster. Excerpts from several larger pieces, such as Bausch’s version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that opens the film, seem too bluntly symbolic, but Pina, who died shortly before Wenders started production, has the last word: “Dance, dance; otherwise we are lost!”

With all its close attention to how money divides people and splits families, Balzac could have written Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena, except for the imaginative use of an overdose of Viagra as a murder weapon. The director of Venice’s Golden Lion winner for The Return and the still more remarkable The Banishment, Zvyagintsev employs striking visual precision to paint Russia as an unsatisfying and unhappy society, in contrasting strokes of wealth and poverty, refinement, and vulgarity, the elegant and the slovenly. Elena is a matronly nurse and widow, now wedded to a much wealthier man, but regularly traveling from his immaculate residence of marble, tile, and glass to the run-down, garbage-strewn apartment block of her beer-swilling son and her whiny video-game-addicted grandson who needs to buy his way out of military service. The wealthy husband’s estranged daughter appears in cold, sullen, and cynical form (“Shit’s gotta be tasty. A million flies can’t be wrong”). Despite some surprisingly discreet musical nudging from composer Philip Glass, no one in this family seems to learn any productive lessons from class transgression, but the director seems to warn about the triumph of thuggery in Russia’s new society. No punishment ensues, except life.

If Zvyagintsev’s film invalidates the feel-good uplift of family myths, Arturo Ripstein’s The Beginning and the End (Principio y Fin) absolutely demolishes them. Beginning was adapted from the novel by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz (who astonishingly was once Egypt’s film censor), and presented in a centenary retrospective tribute to the author (the much-loved tale had been earlier filmed in Arabic in 1961, a version also shown at the festival). Boiled down with fierce economy and told at breathless pace, Ripstein’s 1993 Mexican adaptation gives the audience a front-row seat for a distressed family’s scrambles to survive after the death of the father. Plunged into poverty, this family keeps displaying its emotional dirty linen, along with numerous opera references, starting with the eldest son lifting the old man’s watch from the coffin (“Even at your deathbed, I am a thieving magpie”) but also weeping over the body. Startling in her bluntness and unforgiving in imparting hard lessons, the determined mother of three sons and one daughter tells her eldest, “Bring in money or leave. The others can stay because they have a future.” Despite a seat-blistering length of nearly three hours, the film’s sustained momentum hurtles us into multiple forms of unsparing tragedy that exhale the soul of Dostoevsky. After the artistically inclined youngest son is told that “studying arts is like throwing money and years down the drain,” he embarks on a feverish affair with a widow, culminating in a memorably erotic sequence where they rumba to a boom box on the steamy Vera Cruz waterfront, but she must finally reject him (“I need a man. You’re still somebody’s son”). The Dickensian cast of characters are framed by effortlessly eloquent camera movements, exquisitely detailed production design, including the garish squalor of a tawdry nightclub centered around a brilliantly sleazy revolving carousel, and compelling performances, right down to the frantic ending involving coerced suicide in a love hotel (“It won’t hurt. I’ll help you.”). Galvanic emotions suggest the ever-burgeoning tragedies of the tele-novela coupled with the unrestrained emotionalism of opera; along with a boxing milieu and the value of virginity, along with heavy-breathing intimations of incest, unmistakable links point to Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, with the strong mother trying to keep her brood alive in the gutters of the big city.

Egypt’s first film to address HIV-AIDS, Asma’a received its world premiere at the festival, and is handled with some vigor by Amr Salama, one of the Tahrir 2011 directors. Glossing a real-life character, a 45-year-old village carpet weaver who cannot keep silent about her condition when doctors are about to perform a routine gall bladder operation, the film also casts real-life Egyptian AIDS patients, bravely exposing themselves publicly, in the heroine’s support group. Juggling events cleverly to keep a bracing pace and to seed the narrative with continual emotional climaxes, the youthful director steers the plot through some elaborate cross-cutting as a TV show that features Asma’a sweeps throughout Cairo. Though skillfully presented, the film cannot even whisper the path of her HIV infection, so it cannot depict the hard reality or ask the really hard questions. There’s no indication of how her husband contracted AIDS in prison (can we guess?). Instead, the director prefers to dwell on the nearly saintly Asma’a. Perhaps this is the only way this film could have been made under the prevailing circumstances, but as of November 2011, it was still unreleased in Egyptian cinemas (although it wrapped production the day before the country exploded in revolt). Still, Asma’a took the festival prize for Best Director from the Arab World, and also Best Actor for Maged El Kedwany as an aggressive television host.

The Yellow Sea proves that into each festival a little genre filmmaking must fall. When it comes to action-packed hitman narratives, few film industries capture and exploit the genre’s complexities with more visual imagination than South Korea. From a confidently male frame of reference, director Na Hong-jin sends a broken-hearted cab driver from a dog market in China on a mission to Korea to assassinate a rival gang lord and bring back his severed finger for proof, as is the custom (cueing several mischievous comparisons of thumbs and sausages). Emerging from a padlocked container, the hero steps into a wintry atmosphere that pitches him into delightfully proficient action sequences: catastrophic car crashes, perilous chases through a cargo ship, then a heart-stopping swimming chase followed by a lethal truck chase, and ending in a flaming holocaust. All this involves plenty of painful injury and bleeding, not least from the hero, forced to lick his wounds in one spectacularly detailed grungy hideout after another. As the script provides the hero no one to talk to throughout much of the action, the story proceeds with uncommon visual strategies, unreeling like a silent film (though, rest assured the soundtrack is plenty noisy). One unique feature here is the avoidance of guns as weapons, with several massacres accomplished strictly the old-fashioned way, with daggers and the occasional axe. As in the best thrillers, this film’s ultra-widescreen city seethes with propulsive energy and provides absolutely nowhere to escape from onrushing fate.

* * *

Check out the complete festival winners here.