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. 

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CRITICAL WEEK: Life goes on
Yes, during all the festival chaos, I still have to keep writing my usual reviews and reports on what's happening in cinemas. All of this is on the website. I didn't see any non-festival films in Abu Dhabi, but several are getting cinema releases, including Big Hero 6, Leviathan, Timbuktu and The Look of Silence. And I watched Third Person on the plane - it opens in the UK in November.

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