13 December 2005

Dubai International Film Festival Opens

It opened yesterday, actually, with a gala showing of Palestinian film 'Paradise Now', but I wasn't invited to that, of course.

Laurence Fishburne was, though, and Morgan Freeman was back, as well as assorted Hollywood, Bollywood and Arabian film stars. The festival lasts till December 17th and most films are shown either at Mall of the Emirates or the Madinat Jumeirah. I have tickets for 19 movies, so will be living at the local Starbucks in the Mall of the Emirates between movies. I expect my diet to get even worse than it normally is.

Todays films have been 'From Dust', about the aftermath of the Tsunami on Sri Lanka's fishermen; 'An Ordinary Day', a fiction short; 'Under a Desert Sun', a collection of sequences from a nature series about the desert; 'Shooting Dogs', set in Rwanda during the genocide; and 'The Axe', a French black comedy.

'From Dust' is a rough and ready documentary filmed on mini-DV over most of this year. The director/camera operator went there in January to capture a story of how people re-build their lives only to find himself without a crew, having to teach his Tuk-Tuk driver to become his sound man and living with people who were not actually able to re-build their lives because of government policies and inefficiency. Soon after the Tsunami struck the Ministry for Tourism realised that by creating a 100 meter exclusion zone for re-building for local residents they could claim valuable coastal lands to sell to international developers for tourism projects, even if that meant that people who had lived there (and some of whom needed to live near the sea, being fishermen) were made homeless. The film follows a few young men struggling with red tape and empty promises who try to be re-located or re-build, as well as an Australian acupuncturist who travels the coast trying to organise new housing for families.

'An Ordinary Day' won best short at this year's Abu Dhabi film competition. It was snappy and looked good, with the clever idea of being non-verbal, thus broadening its potential audience, but I felt that the initially straightforward story of a man who, while minding his own business in a cafe, suddenly sees lots of people who look just like him everywhere around him, got a bit lost when he is suddenly transported to roam the desert until he falls over from exhaustion. The titles were cool, though, with nifty animations based around the debris on the cafe table.

'Under a Desert Sun' is a collection of sequences culled from a nature programme about the environment of the Arabian Peninsula. It focusses on the conservation efforts being made to rescue the Arabian oryx and local variants of the gazelle from extinction. It documents the efforts of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and other countries to take the fast disappearing animals from their natural habitats to breed them in safety at wildlife centres before attempting to re-introduce them back into the wild. This last step has been thwarted over and over again as the main threats to the animals survival, poaching and human encroachment onto their natural habitat, can't be prevented from endangering them again. While the film itself was mildly critical of the fact that there seems to be little official will to stop poaching, as some of the demand for animals (they are captured live for private zoos) comes from very high levels of society indeed, I was gob-smacked to hear from the director in the Q&A session afterwards that some of the so-called eco-tourism hotels in the desert buy these animals from possibly illegal sources to use in their own 'wild habitats'. Oman actually has to guard its herds of oryx with armed rangers who trail the animals across the unfenced nature reserve.

'Shooting Dogs' is Michael Caton-Jones' (director of 'Scandal') latest offering, a fictionalised account of the events taking place in a Catholic school compound during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. An important subject, that has this year already been covered in 'Hotel Rwanda' (strange how there is nothing on a subject and then two films come along at once), this film is let down by the symbolic characters that turned the story into more of a series of tableaus than an engaging narrative. There was the wise Catholic priest, the naive NGO teacher, the jaded journalist and her hardcore camera man, the helpless UN commander, the promising black student, and fated pregnant woman, and so on. From his post-film talk it sounded as if it was a life-changing experience for Caton-Jones and his lead actor, who filmed on location in Rwanda and had a lot of help from their local crew and extras who had actually lived through the genocide. Their first-hand knowledge saved the film from too much cliché, as well as the director's attempt not to sensationalise the subject matter - "almost like a horror movie, where there is more tension because the monster isn't shown".

'The Ax' is a French black comedy directed by Costa-Gavras, of an unemployed man who attempts to get his dream job by killing any potential competition. It's smirky rather than hilarious, and I swear the lead actor is a re-incarnation of Jack Lemmon.

Best film so far: 'From Dust', for the directors persistence in the face of adversity.

That's it for today, more films tomorrow.

PS: You can download the complete festival guide with a description of all the films in the festival from the DIFF website. Very useful if you want to get an idea of what's new in Arab cinema.

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