Saturday 1 November 2014

Abu Dhabi 6: Heroes and villains

At the closing ceremony for the 8th Abu Dhabi Film Festival last night, awards were presented from the series of juries who have been working here for the past nine days. Our Fipresci jury handed out two prizes: Naji Abu Nowar's Theeb (narrative) and Nadine Salib's Um Gayeb: Mother of the Unborn (documentary). As for other feature awards, The festival's Black Pearl Awards were presented to Leviathan (narrative), The Wonders (New Horizons), and Virunga (doc). The Audience Award went to The Salt of the Earth, the Netpac award to Iraqi Odyssey and the Child Protection awards to In Her Place (film) and Sivas (script). There were also a range of jury prizes, acting awards, special mentions and prizes for Arab films and filmmakers. The closing night film was Big Hero 6 (above).

I flew back to London this morning, and was happy to find that it's rather warm here - which means that I never used the coat I carried to Abu Dhabi and back home. So I'm going through a stack of post, running a load of laundry and getting ready to take a short nap so I can stay awake tonight and get back on local time (which is now 4 hours earlier, although it was 3 hours when I left - figure that out!). Here are the last few films from Abu Dhabi...

Big Hero 6 is an animated Disney/Marvel action-comedy about an orphan who teams up with a gentle-giant robot and a gang of techie nerds to stop a nefarious villain from wreaking havoc in San Fransokyo. Yes, the film has an enjoyably mashed-up Japanese/American tone, even if the characters and plot are extremely formulaic. There aren't any surprises in the story, the characters represent the basic types, and the approach to grief feels sentimental and superficial (namely that grief makes us desperate for violent revenge). But then, this probably isn't the kind of film that should close a festival like Abu Dhabi's, which is packed with unusually complex explorations of big topics. Still, it's a lot of fun, with plenty of whizzy action that's animated with terrific energy (this was the world premiere for the 3D version). And boys will especially enjoy the gadgetry.

The Look of Silence is Joshua Oppenheimer's companion piece to last year's award-winning Indonesian doc The Act of Killing, and it manages to be an even more harrowing experience. As the title suggests, this is a more introspective approach, as optometrist Adi asks residents of his hometown about the brutal events around the 1965 revolution and purge, during which his big brother was violently killed by men who are still in positions of authority today. Adi's questions are startlingly bold in a culture that would rather let the past lie. Amid efforts to rewrite history, knowing the truth is an urgent priority. And the way Oppenheimer quietly documents a complete lack of regret is seriously shocking. 

Queens of Syria is a relatively simple Jordanian doc about a group of women who are staging a production of Euripides' The Women of Troy. The hitch is that they are all refugees from Syria who fled to Amman for their lives - some running from violence, others forcibly removed from their homes. In other words, they have had the same experiences as the characters they are playing on-stage, and have in some cases integrated their stories into the dialog. Their accounts are seriously wrenching, especially as they talk about lost loved ones. But the film is never quite cracks the topic, perhaps because the filmmakers are understandably unable to get too deep into the lives of these women who are still unsettled and displaced.

Fevers, from France, is a generational drama about a man who discovers that he has a 13-year-old son whom he needs to care for. Where this goes is very dark: the kid is a thug who challenges everyone, leading to a series of harrowing clashes. The filmmaking is somewhat heavy-handed even as it struggles to make its point clear. Is this a film about the making or breaking of an Arab family that moved to Western Europe? It's hard to tell which, although aside from some warm moments most of what happens is pretty grim. But at lead the performances are so sharp that the characters become prickly and rattling. And even if the story gets even more difficult in the final scenes, it's haunting and thought-provoking.

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