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 Chance 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. 

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