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 SalÄ— 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.

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