The just-concluded Dubai International Film Festival is the oldest in the Gulf; sister Festivals in Abu Dhabi and Doha held earlier this year have had fewer editions. Dubai, with 158 movies spread over several sections is also larger with far bigger prize money on offer. But all this does not necessarily make it the region’s leader. Seven-year-old Abu Dhabi is a potential rival and fierce competitor to Dubai, though neither will admit this.
If all three Festivals vie with one another not just to get hold of good films, they also have an underlying desire to be one up on the glamour quotient – a common feature in European festivals which is being increasingly replicated in the Middle East. The Gulf festivals have begun to try very hard get their Red Carpets as glitzy as possible invariably with top stars.
But no festival is going to make a mark or get good press unless it props up its glamour with good cinema. If a pinch of controversy is added, there is bound to greater publicity, but of course. Cannes has its Lars Von Triers, Venice its own quirky tales to pep up the proceedings. The Gulf may not have the luxury of such controversy, at least not as yet, though there were reports of a horror movie called Djinn, helmed by Tobe Hooper, being excluded from the Dubai Festival.
According to the Guardian New Service, Djinn had been promised a Red Carpet premiere last year and a 2012 UAE release date. But that did not happen, and an Italian website, Moviesusushi, printed a possible reason for the film’s disappearance. “According to a source on the production, ‘someone close to Abu Dhabi’s royal family had seen the movie and does not appreciate its portrayal of the UAE, and considers the film to be politically subversive.” The old suspicion surrounding the Emirati industry had risen again: that it was too tightly supervised from above (usually through the National Media Council censorship body) to blossom freely.”
Despite Dubai having missed out on Djinn, which had the possibility of boosting the UAE movie industry, the Festival has been reflecting the impressive growth of the local cinema industry. This year, premieres attracted crowds and interesting discussions as also some gripping cinema. Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda, the first ever film to have been shot by a woman in Saudi Arabia, was critically acclaimed at Venice as it was in Dubai. A moving tale of a child’s ingeneous efforts to acquire a bicycle in a country where girls are forbidden to ride one captures the pathos of living in a shackled society.
There were other movies that clearly told us that the region’s cinema was flying high in terms of plots and narrative styles. Karzan Kader’s Bekas traces the lives of two little orphans boys in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and their dream to escape to Superman’s America. Syrian romance Round Trip plots a couple’s dilemma to snatch moments of privacy. Tired of stealing kisses in the taxi the boy drives, the two decide to take a train journey to Tehran and back. A couple of Egyptian dramas – Chao Disorder and Winter of Discontent – underlined a certain maturity in scripting and direction.
There was some interesting work from South Asia. Sri Lanka’s Him, Hereafter, is disturbing film about a former Tamil militant trying to find acceptability in his own community. While India’s Shahid spoke about a young lawyer’s battle to save innocent men termed as terrorists, Gulabi Gang documents the fight of a group to women to better the lives of the downtrodden classes.
Outside these areas, Dubai offered a fair sprinkling of “World Cinema” that included Michael Haneke’s superbly poignant Amour about an elderly couple, Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson on President Roosevelt’s not-so-clandestine sexual escapades, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a magnificent work about the troubled relationship between a cult leader and a World War Two soldier.
But why did Dubai kick off with the widely-seen-in-theatres Life of Pi by Taiwanese director Ang Lee, who was not even around on the opening night?
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an India-based veteran film critic, journalist and author, and may be contacted at email@example.com)