It naturally came as good news, shortly before the 6th Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) wrapped – with more prizes than there are in the heavens – that Abu Dhabi had jumped into the Emirate’s financial crisis with $10bn and saved the day, but it had already been business as usual in the senior citizen of the Arab world’s film festivals.
Dubai seemed to scale back slightly around its lavish edges this year – less spectacular shows in the desert, more of a business-minded focus on the region’s cinema it has done so much to help develop (the widely-popular Amreeka, for example, is a graduate of Dubai’s project market and industry initiatives).
Much has been achieved in the six years, and the glossy drama City of Life – another result of Dubai’s industry nurturing– was a high-profile gala screening at Dubai, the first from the Emirate itself. Another local talent. Mohammed Saeed Harib, along with JBM, also created an impressive identity for the festival, which screened unusually in 180-degrees in the festival’s gala screening hall.
Sitting where it does, Dubai can feel highly politicised; each year heartfelt documentaries from Lebanese or in particular Palestinian film-makers make personal points – and some howls - which can feel cumulatively repetitive and a little rough around the edges. But there are very few festivals where the audience will eschew glitzy opening film Nine or closing title Avatar to give the people’s choice award to a documentary called 12 Angry Lebanese, about a theatre group in Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison.
The razzle dazzle gold and sequins were still out in force in Dubai, however – Jordan’s Queen Noor turned up to give the keynote speech for the festival’s main seminar, the Cultural Bridge panel, Gerard Butler turned up for an onstage interview and the region’s heavy hitters such as Omar Sharif (there for cheesy French melodrama I Forgot To Tell You) and Lifetime Achievement Award winner Amitabh Bachchan were on hand.
The festival’s focus on France this year gave it some high-wattage (if not always high-quality) titles - Petit Nicolas, The Last Flight (pictured), Cartagena, I Forgot To Tell You - and there were a smattering of buzzy titles scheduled for bigger festivals (Morocco’s precocious The Man Who Sold the World, an interpretation of Dostoevsky’s A Weak Heart, is slated for Berlin’s Panorama, while Fix Me, Palestinian film-maker Raed Andoni’s slow-moving psychological examination of his life in Palestine, will go to Sundance).
Dubaimay have scaled down slightly – although it is still an affluent festival – but it certainly didn’t hold back when it came to handing out awards, all 28 of them. As a shorthand, however, the festival is split into two Competition sections, the Muhr Arab awards and the Muhr AsiaAfrica awards. Each of these has a shorts, documentary, and feature fiction section and three, even four, awards were given out in each in quite a lengthy ceremony. Then there were two separate sets of Best Actor/Actress/Cinematography/Screenplay/Music awards for each category, plus a smattering of human rights and FIPRESCI style prizes.
All you need to know is…
Brilliante Mendoza’s Lola, which competed in Venice, took the top honour in the Asia/Africa section. It was followed by San Sebastian title White Meadows, from Iran’s Mohammad Rasoulof, which took the special Jury prize.
And Zindeeq, Michel Khlefi’s opinion-splitting title about a Palestinian film-maker who returns home to Ramallah to film eyewitness accounts of what took place in 1948, won the Arab section. Set over a single day and night, this is a unique piece but a sometimes bumpy ride.
Trailing it was Harragas (see below), which won special Jury prize but also took the FIPRESCI prize and the Human Rights Film Network Award.
Harragaswas possibly the cream of the crop at Dubai this year in terms of discovery. Harragas are the “burners” – the refugees who flee veteran director Merzak Allouache’s down-at-heel Algerian port town of Mostaganem for the uncertain shores of Spain, a mere 200k away by rickety old boat.
Harragastells the story of three such refugees; Rachid, the narrator, and his best friends Nasser and Omar, who decides early on to hang himself rather than stay in a town with no future. His sister, Imene, takes his place on the boat fixed up by Seasick Hassan. “If the engine starts, it’s good,” he says, before loading the boat down with the three Algerians and seven others from Sub Saharan Africa and setting them on their perilous route.
Harragas,though leisurely, turns out to be a tense and gripping trip as the boat is hijacked by an on-the-run policeman, one false note in an otherwise intriguing expedition. The trials of the migrants becomes all the more urgent by the closing credits, which inform us how many refugees die at sea in this perilous last leg to Europe.
And a final note
Moloch Tropicalis Raul Peck’s intriguing, creepy drama about a corrupt Latin American dictator on what turns out to be his last day of power in a cloud-shrouded mountain-top fortress. Coming straight to Dubai from Toronto, where it is picking up word of mouth, it’s one for art fans but is nonetheless a stylised, disturbing look at this President Theogene (Zinedine Soualem), a pill-popping weak, venal, delusional yet human dictator in his hermetically sealed-off world as he prepares for a celebration.
Real life starts to crash through his armed goons at the doors before the day is done, however. As his beautiful wife tries to call the White House and his chief of staff loots all around her, the despicable president sexually harasses his staff and declares himself to be “Mohamed,. Jesus Christ, the Easter Lamb”. A theatrical piece, this is very reminiscent of Edward II and was a highlight in Dubai’s programming.