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.

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