Friday, 31 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 5: Politics and religion

In addition to a range of films from the Arab world, the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival has been showcasing award-winning movies from other festivals, including Cannes winners Winter Sleep and Leviathan (above); Venice winners A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, The Look of Silence and Hungry Hearts; Berlin winners Black Coal Thin Ice and Stations of the Cross; Sundance winners Whiplash and 20,000 Days on Earth; plus the likes of Two Days One Night, 99 Homes, Return to Ithaca, The Homesman, '71, Men Women & Children, Miss Julie. It's impossible to see everything, but I've given it a good try!

Meanwhile, the festival is winding down, but the parties haven't let up. The food has been pretty awesome, with a lavish breakfast buffet in the hotel (St Regis) and another buffet for lunch in the press area at Emirates Palace. Each evening's dinner party has been themed, with minor variations of food in even bigger buffets spread out in various areas outside the palace. A Jordanian pop star turned up for Jordan's party, Bollywood Nights offered music and dancing, and there have been Lebanese and even French themed parties. Last night's was the best so far: Arabian Nights, with carpets and kiosks scattered around the palace's beach. A high bar has been set for tonight's closing bash. Here are films from Wednesday and Thursday...

Leviathan has been winning awards since it premiered at Cannes (and won best screenplay) in May. I missed it at the London Film Festival (where it won best film), but knew I'd have a chance to catch up with it here. Worth the wait, this is a staggeringly clever exploration of power, specifically the church and state, with a plot that is clearly inspired by the biblical story of Job. Lyrical photography and open performances make it utterly gripping as the story of a man who calls in an old friend to help when the local mayor decides to demolish his family home. Plot wrinkles abound, making no one heroic. Everyone is deeply flawed, but not everyone pays the consequences. And the themes resonate far beyond the rural Russian setting. It's a stunner of a film that's sure to scoop more accolades before the awards season wraps up.

El Ott, from Egypt, is a noir thriller with a rather aloof sense of plotting. Global star Amr Waked (most recently seen in Lucy) plays the title character, a mysterious thug who takes on a preening gangster who is grabbing street kids and selling their organs on the black market. The film is edgy and grubby, with a plot that should be darkly compelling, but the characters and situations are deliberately undefined, which makes it difficult to get a grip on why anyone does anything. And several scenes feel so oddly set up that they give the film a corny and contrived tone. On the other hand, there's a fascinating undercurrent about power and belief - glimpses of ancient ruins, synagogues, churches, mosques and rave culture - all of which plays into a story about the blurry lines between politics, capitalism and crime.

The Man From Oran, from Algeria, is a period drama set at two points during the nation's struggle for independence. In the late 1950s two friends become involved in the fight against the French colonial rulers, which turns both of their lives upside-down as they rise to positions of power in the new government: one begins making morally dubious decisions while the other struggles to live with past events. This story is involving and complex, but later events set in the mid-1980s are a bit more muddled, partly due to how the screenplay requires previous knowledge of Algeria's culture and history and partly because the timescale is badly handled (apart from some iffy make-up, a child born in 1958 appears to be a surly teen in 1987). But the film is well-acted and shot in a vivid '70s noir style.

Pirates of Salė documents the first circus school in Morocco through the eyes of four young students who come from rough backgrounds. For them, this is clearly a potential path out of poverty, and as they prepare for their first big performance they discover the first sense of their own worth, finding joy in artistic expression, physical fitness and the camaraderie of the company. So it's frustrating that the film feels somewhat simplistic in its approach, showing the setting vividly without ever quite cracking the surface of either the students or their teachers. Only one of the teachers emerges as a fascinating character, and he simply vanishes along the way.In addition, the filmmakers oddly opt to chop the colourful circus performances into tiny pieces, never letting us get a feel for the work. This is a real shame, because the snippets we see are pretty amazing.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 4: Past, present and future

Passing the halfway point in the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival, I still have quite a few movies to see before I'm done. We have 16 films on the short list for the two Fipresci awards (for narrative and documentary features), and there are films in other strands that I want to catch as well. Several of my colleagues from London have been arriving over the last two days - it's been fun to hang out in a new context.

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying the chance to get to know filmmakers like Naji Abu Nowar (Theeb), who was presented with the Variety Arab filmmaker of the Year award on Monday, and Samir, whose Iraqi Odyssey (above) was screened here in 3D to an audience that included about 20 members of his family, most of whom appear in the documentary. And on Tuesday I took advantage of a free morning to visit the Grand Mosque (incredible!) and Central Market Souk here. Comments on films from Monday and Tuesday...

Iraqi Odyssey is a two hour 45 minute 3D documentary that's utterly riveting. Iraqi-Swiss filmmaker Samir ambitiously traces his own family's history in the context of the past century of Iraq's constant regime changes (generally sparked by the British or Americans), in the process not only providing one of the most lucid chronologies of Middle East events but also offering a moving look at a diaspora that has seen more than four million Iraqis abandon their country for a variety of reasons, Samir's relatives are spread from Russia and Europe to America and New Zealand, and as he travels around he collects memories, old photos, footage and details that piece together the family's history. Yes, there are long sequences that don't feel strictly necessary, but it's beautifully shot and edited, with some superb stereoscopic touches.

Return to Homs is a documentary about the young men taking a desperate stand for freedom in their hometown in Syria. Director Talal Derki assembles this with all-original footage shot on the frontline of battle, edited together as a blockbuster war action movie with a wonderfully charismatic protagonist in singing football star Basset. Except that this is all real: people are actually shot and killed on-camera, while others disappear without a trace when detained by the regime. All of which makes watching the film a thoroughly harrowing experience. The central question these 20-ish students-turned-freedom-fighters ask is why their country's president is killing his own people, and more crucially why the military, whose job is to defend the country, is now murdering innocent people and reducing cities to rubble. It's a difficult film to watch, but absolutely essential as a document about both Syria and the nature of oppression and courage.

The Silence of the Shepherd, also from Iraq, is a drama connecting the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s with the US invasion in 2003 as a family struggles with its sense of honour after their daughter goes missing, presumably running off with a man. The truth is known only to a shepherd, who refuses to speak about what he has seen. The story is fascinating, but it's shot in a style that doesn't play well internationally, mainly due to an overwrought, melodramatic acting style reminiscent of a Latino soap opera. There's also the problem that, at the centre, there's a family that would prefer their missing daughter to have been violently murdered than to have married a man she loved, simply to preserve their honour. Which makes most of the characters difficult to sympathise with.

The Valley is a Lebanese drama that takes a minimalist approach to the story of a man who becomes amnesiac after a car crash, then is taken in by a group of people in an isolated valley, where they are manufacturing some sort of illicit drug (meths? generic pharmaceuticals?). Nothing is explained, the characters remain mere hints of human beings and the events are only vaguely defined in this overlong, elusive thriller, which has hints of sci-fi in the final act. It's well shot, and acted with plenty of mystery and internalised intrigue. But its deeply pretentious. And without any context or characterisation, there's simply nothing the audience can properly grab on to. There's clearly some important meaning here, but most audience members will feel left in the dark.

Um Gayeb: Mother of the Unborn is an Egyptian documentary about motherhood, focussing on a woman who has struggled for 12 years to conceive a child with her husband. In this culture she's valued as a cow who takes food but gives no milk: useless. But she has an unusually warm and supportive husband (a likeable stoner dude!) and family around her. The film is shot with real intimacy, as if we are eavesdropping on her conversations, which makes it startlingly honest and revelatory. It's also a hugely a valuable document of a world in which ancient traditions and superstitions sit alongside modern medicine. But most of all, it's a portrait of a strong, witty, likeable woman who is doing the best she can against the odds, which makes the film feel like a universal, resonant exploration of the innate desire most people have to be parents. 

Monday, 27 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 3: Sand and sea

Had a free morning yesterday so took advantage of the slightly cooler weather (only 34C/93F) and went to the beach at Saadiyat island. Gorgeous to swim in the clear salty water of the Gulf. Back into the cinema in the evening, with the premiere of Theeb followed by a lavish Jordanian party starring pop star Omar Abdullat, who sang late into the night (he was still going strong when I left). Here are films from Saturday and Sunday...

Theeb, from Jordan, is set around the time of Lawrence of Arabia as an Englishman (Jack Fox) ventures into the Arabian desert to work on a railway that is having a huge economic and cultural impact on the local culture. The story is told through the eyes of the young Theeb (Jacir Eid, above), who tags along on what will become an odyssey into discovering his own nature. It's a remarkable story told with minimal dialog but a clear sense of a boy developing his own ideas about integrity and identity in a world that is drastically shifting around him. It's also beautifully acted by the young Eid and directed with skill and artistry by award-winning filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar. 

Timbuktu, by Abderrahmane Sissako (Waiting for Happiness), is an oddly quirky story about jihad that sits very uneasily in the present news climate. It's about a gang of fundamentalists who ride into Timbuktu (the film was shot in Mauritania) under an IS-like flag and impose their random laws on the feisty residents. These interlopers are depicted as relatively benign, disorganised opportunists who only slowly become more violent in the face of civil disobedience from locals who don't like new rules banning music, footballs and bare hands and feet. The focal plot thread is about a nomadic cattleman who lives peacefully outside town until his actions catch the attention of the new rulers. It's beautifully observed, nicely played and has a sharp sense of the clash of cultures and languages. But portraying oppressive thugs as relatively reasonable goofballs is rather hard to take.

Memories on Stone is a cheeky drama that will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever worked on a low budget movie. It's about a group of filmmakers trying to make a drama about the 1988 Anfal genocide in Kurdistan. The key problems hinge from the difficulties in securing a lead actress - from getting her family's permission to making sure her passport is up to date. But there are issues with equipment, extras, weather and a hilarious diva-like pop star who joins the cast. And behind the comedy is the sobering story they're telling about an atrocity that has been covered up and ignored for decades. That the film's low-yet, deadpan tone never shouts its themes is remarkable. 

A Second Coming is Susanne Bier's return to Denmark (after the part-Danish Love is All You Need and the Czech-American Serena, both also this year) along with Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Bier regular Ulrich Thomsen. It's reminiscent of Brothers with its high-concept premise and morally compromised characters, as well as some plot contrivances and a bit of intense melodrama. But it's extremely well shot and edited, with sharply emotional performances and a proper sense of dread as the story wrenches itself through bigger issues and darker emotions than expected. In the end it's haunting and provocative.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the Swedish winner of the best film award at Venice. It's a surreal collection of vignettes exploring the bizarre ways people deal with thoughts of imperfection and mortality. Filmmaker Roy Andersson mixes constant silliness and absurdity with deeply thoughtful undercurrents as he follows a series of fairly ridiculous characters around a slightly fantastical colour-drained old European city. The most recurrent characters are two depressed door-to-door salesmen trying to flog novelty joke items to help put a bit of fun in their lives. That they have no fun at all in theirs is the point. Yes, it's irony-intensive and perhaps a bit too quirky for audiences who don't enjoy arthouse fare, but it's also unforgettable. 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 2: From 18 to 99

The film viewing schedule here at the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival isn't too strenuous for our Fipresci jury (just two or three films per day), but I am also trying to catch a few outside our remit. The festival organisers are feeding us to within an inch of our lives - skipping meals will soon become imperative, I think. And the transitions from hot sunshine to chilly air conditioning have already started me sniffling. Otherwise, this is a fascinating city, and I'm enjoying the chance to see bits of it in between screenings. Yesterday I visited the central souk, a stunning marketplace with a modern design that feels intriguingly classic. I also saw two films...

The Wanted 18 is a documentary by Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan offering a remarkably fresh perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict as it traces the actions of the residents of Beit Sahour, who in the late-1980s bought 18 cows in an effort to gain a bit of independence from the regime (which forbade private enterprise and most other things). These cows became public enemy No 1 to the Israeli security forces, who searched the town as the residents moved them around, continuing the supply of milk. The film's light, comical approach makes all of this into a kind of caper heist, even though it includes references to arrest and torture and essentially is exploring the nature of the intifada, a system of civil disobedience and (mostly) peaceful protest against the occupying Israelis, who were demanding that the oppressed population pay its taxes (even one Israeli official acknowledges how unfair this is). The filmmakers take an inventive, comical approach using interviews, dramatisations, comic book frames and even claymation (giving voices to the cows as rather ridiculous Sex and the City type divas). It's a little fragmented and frantic, but it sharply highlights the absurdity of the situation.

99 Homes is an American drama by Ramin Bahrani set during the housing crisis in 2010. It centres on a Florida builder (Andrew Garfield) who loses his job and is evicted from his cruelly foreclosed home by an estate agent (Michael Shannon) who later offers him a job working with him. The script skilfully highlights the issues, even if the plot feels over-constructed and a bit too reliant on coincidence. It also gets darker and darker, which makes it clear that something is going to have to snap somewhere - and that there will be an obvious moral message to trumpet at the end, which indeed there is! Still, it's well shot and acted with raw intensity by Garfield and Shannon, plus a strong but somewhat truncated supporting turn from Laura Dern (as Garfield's mum). And it's the performances that hold the interest right through the story's creepy progression into a moral quagmire and out the other side. Garfield in particular brings a real emotional kick to the whole film.

> NB. Internet access can be a bit hit and miss here, but I'll keep updates coming whenever possible. I'm also tweeting and posting Instagram photos along the way.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Abu Dhabi 1: From A to B

This is the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and my first visit to this part of the world. I'm here on the Fipresci jury, which is tasked with giving prizes to two Arab films: narrative and documentary features. 

Last night the festival kicked off with a lavish opening night event, complete with an epic red carpet, ceremony honouring producer Edward Pressman and filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb, and then the opening film From A to B, the first film from the Emirates to open the festival. It's a lively road movie with an unusually sharp script that combines character-based humour, introspective drama and a sharp sense of the political scene as three 25-year-olds drive from Abu Dhabi to Beirut, recreating a trip they were supposed to take five years earlier. 

This is a wonderfully involving story, with solid performances from the likeable, camera-friendly cast. The three central characters are very clever - all lifelong expats (from Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) who met at an American school in Abu Dhabi), each with his own personal issues and a distinct sense of humour. After last night's world premiere it should play well at other festivals, and also with at rouse crowds who have probably never seen a film from this part of the world that's so packed with sparky humour.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

LFF 10: At the end of the war

Brad Pitt invaded London to wrap up the 58th London Film Festival tonight with his World War II batttle epic Fury. He was accompanied by his entire tank team (around Pitt above: Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal) as well as filmmaker David Ayer, and their press conference following the morning screening was a combination of reverence for veterans and brotherly camaraderie developed over the shooting process.

Meanwhile, journalists feel like we've been through a war since press screenings started in mid-September - averaging three or four movies a day since - but it's all over now, and hopefully we can get back to full nights of sleep. Although on Wednesday, I'm heading to Abu Dhabi to serve on the jury of their film festival 23-31 October. But that will feel like a holiday compared to London! Until then, here are some final highlights....

dir David Ayer; with Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf 14/UK ***
Writer-director Ayer makes no attempt to update the rah-rah bombast of the WWII genre, indulging in big action, the usual plot points, faux heroism and "war is hell" rhetoric. The film is sharply assembled and very nicely acted by a terrific cast, but it ultimately feels oddly pointless.

3 Hearts
dir Benoit Jacquot; with Benoit Poelvoorde, Charlotte Gainsbourg 14/Fr 1h46 ***.
A twisty love story shot and edited as if it's a dark thriller, this odd film is utterly riveting mainly because it's impossible to predict what the characters are going to do next. At its core, this is a love triangle. But the film is assembled with attention to the most insinuating, creepy detail, confident enough to allow the characters to slip in and out of sympathy along the way.

Second Coming
dir Debbie Tucker Green; with Nadine Marshall, Idris Elba 14/UK **
Beautifully shot with an attention to internal intensity, this low-budget British drama should carry an emotional wallop. But filmmaker Tucker Green infuriatingly refuses to fill in any details, leaving dialog incomplete, the plot blurry and the characters' feelings as mere hints of something bigger. The acting feels raw and very personal, but without having a clue what's happening the film remains maddeningly elusive.

dir Mohsen Makhmalbaf; with Misha Gomiashvili, Dachi Orvelashvili 14/Geo 1h45 ****
Now based in London, exiled Iranian filmmaker Makhmalbaf pulls no punches in this blackly comical political adventure. Set in an "unnamed country" (it was filmed in Georgia), it's a story of political oppression told from perspectives that are rarely represented on screen with this much honesty and warm humour, forcing the audience to consider the themes from unthinkable angles.

Friday, 17 October 2014

LFF 9: A little chaos never hurt anyone

Alan Rickman turned up at the 58th London Film Festival to present his latest directing effort A Little Chaos, in which he stars alongside Kate Winslet, Matthias Shoenaerts and a scene-stealing Stanley Tucci (is there any other kind?). Also on the red carpet tonight were James McAvoy with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (which oddly wasn't properly screened for the press) and filmmaker Julius Avery with Son of a Gun (see below). There are just two more days before I sleep. More highlights...

A Little Chaos
dir Alan Rickman; with Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts 14/UK ****
A cracking screenplay and sparky acting go a long ways to making this British period drama, set in 17th century France, thoroughly entertaining. With both spiky politics and swoony romance, the film has something for everyone, but it only works because the writing and directing allow the characters to have their own inner lives. Which makes the silly story surprisingly involving.

Son of a Gun 
dir Julius Avery; with Brenton Thwaites, Ewan McGregor 14/Aus ***.
Rippingly entertaining, this Australian thriller never quite breaks the surface but has strong characters well-played by an eclectic cast. And its pacing is so brisk that it holds the interest even if the plot twists and thematic metaphors are all painfully obvious. But without any subtle subtext, it's still a solid guilty pleasure.

Winter Sleep
dir Nuri Bilge Ceylan; with Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen 14/Tur ****.
The extra-long running time may put some viewers off, especially since the film is essentially made up of a series of issue-oriented conversations, but there's never a dull moment. As it explores the issue of justice and conscience in an increasingly economically divided world, the film is relevant, witty and startlingly moving.

The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom
dir Jacob Cheung; with Fan Bingbing, Huang Xiaoming 14/Chn **
An epic tale of conspiracy and war combined with a sweeping romance, this film has all the elements to be a classic. But filmmaker Cheung rushes through it erratically, leaving the plot nonsensical, the battles incoherent and the love story utterly flat. While it has plenty of energy, the film feels like a 12-hour miniseries roughly chopped down to 103 minutes: overcrowded, rushed and exhausting. And the 3D doesn't help.