Castles Made of Sand
Genevieve Yue reports from the 2011 Abu Dhabi Film Festival

Abu Dhabi isn’t exactly a superlative city, save, perhaps, for its interest in superlatives. As the glitzy, modern capital of the UAE, a country that gained independence only 40 years ago, Abu Dhabi is an exceptionally recent invention, having constructed much of its air-conditioned environment within the past five years. While it can’t claim distinction through ancient cultural heritage, it has aggressively tried to make up the difference through grandiose titles designating things as largest, tallest, or most opulent. Take, for example, the Emirates Palace Hotel, the most expensive hotel in the world, and site of last year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival, or, the plasma signs in the Marina Mall prominently displayed during the fest, which read “Guinness World Record Achievement for Road Safety Awareness,” whatever that means. Sadly, many of the honors have ceded to neighboring Dubai or Doha, including, at the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, what used to be the largest (and, possibly, the most bedazzled) chandelier. Luckily the mega-mosque can still lay claim to the world’s largest rug.

Flanking the city’s long boulevards and seaside Corniche with cheerful flags, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, now in its fifth year, is one of the city’s most treasured events. Along with the projects at Saadiyat Island, where a campus for NYU Abu Dhabi recently opened and construction is currently underway for the Guggenheim and the Louvre, these ambitious undertakings loudly telegraph the kind of cultural cache the city seeks, or as some see it, import. Where it concerns the festival, this means Hollywood glamour, miles of red carpet, and yes, “the world’s largest open air cinema.”

The latter, provided by Swiss Open Air Cinema at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, seated crowds of 1300 before a 4000-ft screen in the balmy night air, and besides showing the festival opener, Simon Kaijser da Silva’s Stockholm East, it also provided, for me, a more dubious honor: a screening of The Double (2011), by far the worst film of the festival. Partly funded by UAE production company ImageNation (who also financed Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, also on view at the festival, and The Help), this spy-v-spy thriller, with a script seemingly defrosted from some Cold War vault, pairs Ben Geary (Topher Grace), a rookie G-Man, with formerly retired Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere) to track down a Soviet assassin named Cassius. It may seem like a spoiler to reveal Shepherdson to be Cassius, but that would only be true if writer-director Michael Brandt had any sense of narrative suspense; the fact is given away in the first half hour, not to mention the film’s trailer. The Double offers a standard if lackluster game of cat and mouse, with Shepherdson, the former lead agent on the case, somehow eluding the jejune Geary, who, because he wrote a master’s thesis on the spy (at Harvard no less), is meant to appear “bookish.” Geary, though, must have been Harvard’s most disappointing grad; as he pours over his notes with an actual magnifying glass, he comes to the stultifying revelation that Shepherdson “this whole time…[has] been “hunting…himself.” Even the film’s sound mix is sloppily timed, as it builds, in the penultimate scene, to the kind of thumping techno music that signals the roll of the credits. By The Double’s dénouement, more than half the audience was already walking out of the theater.

To be fair, what the exceedingly young festival may have lacked in focus or quality was made up with exuberant, see-if-it-sticks programming, resulting in a mostly satisfying array of cinematic fare. Many selections, culled from the rosters of other international film festivals, made for strong, substantial viewing in a country that rarely sees anything beyond the kind of middling mainstream represented by The Double. A Separation (2011), for example, was as warmly received in Abu Dhabi as it’s been everywhere else, and its director, Asghar Farhadi, was awarded Variety’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish (2011), the director’s most family-friendly, Ozu-indebted fable yet, might still have been too slow for the mixed expat and Emirati crowd I heard whispering through it, but Chen Kaige’s lavish The Sacrifice (2011), based on a medieval Chinese opera about a royal infant switched at birth with a commoner, dazzled its audience, with one small boy, sitting in the aisle, edging a step closer with each jaw-dropping plot twist. Sam Neave’s Almost in Love (2011), which received its world premiere here, was an unexpected but welcome crowd-pleaser. Smartly written and unremittingly talkative (due, in large part, to the presence of Alan Cumming), the film offers an enthusiastic burst of American indie neuroses that conceals deft, near-seamless camerawork in two 40-minute takes. But unlike Russian Ark and many other long-take feats, the film’s formal rigor is more than a gimmick; instead it contributes structurally to the story, compressing and distending the turbulent relationships among a set of shiftless thirty-somethings.

Wisely, ADFF also gave strong emphasis to Arab filmmaking, a region which varies from the well-established film and television industry in Egypt to places like Saudi Arabia that, in addition to lacking the support of production companies or film schools, have placed outright bans on public cinemas. With SANAD, a development fund established last year, the festival has helped to fund a handful of projects, and Moroccan director Leila Kilani’s On the Edge (2011), which premiered at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight earlier this year, was an electrifying example of what independent filmmaking could look like in the Middle East (even if exhibition opportunities are largely restricted to the festival circuit). Factory worker Badia (Soufia Issami) is intense, fast-talking, and increasingly manic as she and her friend Imane (Mouna Bahmad) get involved in crimes far over their heads. While the film’s latter half loses some of its verve to generic contrivance, it retains in remarkable detail the texture of Badia’s scraped-out existence (perhaps owing to Kilani’s training as a documentarian), whether we see her masked and peeling shrimp, nearly chafing herself with lemon to rub out the smell, or, lifting her jeleba, dropping coy hints to the middle-aged men she’ll later sleep with and steal from. Though she’s smarter than everyone around her, Badia’s twitchy resolve to better her lot extends only as far as getting a job at a textile factory in Tangier’s heavily barricaded Free Zone, and she’s as much imprisoned by the limits of her imagination as the borders of her country, or the actual arrest that kicks the film’s action into its inevitable and accelerating descent.

The festival also paid tribute to Egyptian Nobel Prize–winning author Naguib Mahfouz by showing a number of films based on his stories and screenplays. Among these were two renditions of his novel, The Beginning and the End: Salah Abu Seif’s 1961 version, set in Cairo (Abu Seif and Mahfouz were frequent collaborators), and Arturo Ripstein’s 1993 restaging in Mexico City. Like Ripstein’s other ADFF film, a loose adaptation of Madame Bovary entitled The Reasons of the Heart (2011), the Mexican auteur’s take on Mahfouz’s realist tale is heavy-handed and tightly controlled, leaving little room for levity or even tonal variation. Abu Seif’s adaptation, however, remains brisk as it chronicles the financial struggles a family endures after the death of the father. Like Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, Abu Seif’s view of the working class is lively, and, in a climactic scene fraught with emotional distress, it incorporates surrealist touches in the form of distorted views to suggest an imperiled moral order. While the adult sons eventually achieve varying degrees of success, the women suffer for them, none more so than the sole daughter, Nafiassa (Sana Jamil). Fallen in more ways than one, she is her family’s wounded heart, and the film’s greatest tragedy is that no one understands her sacrifice until too late. More than circumstantial hardship, The Beginning and the End cautions its audience, certainly the post-revolutionary Egypt of 1961, to consider those forgotten in the rush to financial gain, the lost souls that made everything possible.

The highlight of the festival, for me, was Ahmed el-Maânouni’s Oh the Days! (1978), the first Moroccan film to ever screen at Cannes and showing here in the Mapping Subjectivities program, a joint collaboration between the Museum of Modern Art and ArteEast. Only two of the Mapping Subjectivities films, which were being concurrently shown in New York, were screening in Abu Dhabi, but the brilliance of Oh the Days! was enough to light up the entire city. With folksongs and vivid documentary snapshots of rural life, from the slaughter of a camel to a group of farmers who, with arms linked and feet kicking, wash and sort a carrot harvest, the film centers on a young man who wishes to depart for France. His mother strenuously objects: “I need your shadow, I need your light, I need your face here,” she cries, and his grandfather agrees. But as the film attends to various scenes from the country, his story blends into other departures, other names, other sad songs. Maânouni’s sense of an evacuated generation, gone to seek opportunities abroad, finds expression in the closing image: a wide shot of a field that seems still until a distant crowd appears on the horizon. In the indeterminacy of this movement, of this moment, we see both the brightness of the people who live here, and the emptiness they leave behind.

Leonard Retel Helmrich won one of ADFF’s Black Pearl awards for Position Among the Stars (2011), the third installment of the Dutch director’s study of the Sjamsuddin family. Here, the film charts a journey from country to city as Rumidjah, fetched by her son Bakti, travels from her quiet Javanese village to the slums of Jakarta. After the political change depicted in The Eye of the Day (2001) and the religious coexistence of Shape of the Moon (2005), each of which is briefly treated in the prologue to Position Among the Stars, this latest and, according to Helmrich, last film looks to the future in the form of granddaughter Tari’s graduation and, as Rumidjah hopes, her higher education. Helmrich’s probing two cameras, outfitted with homemade steadicams, seem to see everything, from the close-up view of a cockroach that, to the horror of the audience, finds its way into a young boy’s lunch, or the wider look at alleyways choked by dengue fever spray. The ominousness of the latter scene, however, is tempered by Bakti’s clownishness: wearing his wife’s bra as a gas mask, he runs through the streets to the scandalized delight of giggling neighbors. More serious concerns burden the family, however—when they learn the exorbitant tuition fees required to send Tari to university, her ambitions seem dashed. Bakti and his wife argue more, Tari misbehaves, and Rumidjah helplessly watches her family fall apart. Yet despite their troubles, the Sjamsuddins are resilient, here and especially across the decade of films Helmrich has made about them. With an unrelentingly and generously humanist view, the filmmaker aggrandizes the story of a single, three-generation family into a larger portrait of a nation in a moment of profound transformation.

The most energizing films of the festival were those made in the wake of, and in some cases during, the Arab Spring. ADFF was one of the first regional festivals to take place since the events that rocked the Middle East earlier this year, and in addition to hosting a spirited panel on cinematic responses to the Arab Spring, it showed two films made on the streets of Cairo during those heady winter days: The Good, The Bad, and the Politician (2011), a documentary, and 18 Days (2011), an omnibus collection featuring some of Egypt’s most prominent filmmaking talents. It may be true that the sudden rush to make some of these films has meant a sacrifice in quality—18 Days was uneven at best, and unremarkable most of the time. The episode “Interior/Exterior,” directed by Yousry Nasrallah (whose El Madina also played in the Mapping Subjectivities sidebar) was the exception, a provocative combination of documentary and fiction portraying a middle-class Egyptian woman as she joins the people assembled at Tahrir Square for the first time, in defiance of her husband’s wishes. When he eventually finds her, they raise their hands together in the air. Then the film’s tone suddenly shifts; after this joyful if somewhat staged moment of reunion, an elderly man appears, marching beside the couple, and he joins his hands with theirs. We see an arm from behind the camera push the man away, and the camera quickly shifts to keep him out of frame. The precarity of the moment, however, remains. In the fervor of the protests, “Interior/Exterior” shows, directly, how events can overwhelm and redirect a story, and how the crowd finds articulation in the urgency of its coming together.

18days.jpg I attended a gala screening of 18 Days at the lavish Abu Dhabi Theater (which is anchored to the world’s second-tallest flagpole), but what was most spectacular about the screening was the mostly Egyptian audience’s response. During the film, people laughed and jeered at Mubarak, cheering each time his resignation was announced (a recurring scene in most of the ten short films). After it, the entire crowd jumped to its feet and began chanting not one but two refrains celebrating its revolutionary pride; long after the credits had ended, the auditorium was still filled with these impassioned and for many, tearful, cries. Political expression in Abu Dhabi, even under the protective aegis of the festival, had been relatively understated until then—I didn’t hear any discussion of Jafar Panahi’s sentencing in neighboring Iran, the upholding of which was announced midway through the festival, nor was there much talk of Qaddafi’s death when the news came a few days later. The impromptu cheering after 18 Days was ecstatic, exciting, and completely unexpected.

Given the growing scale of the Occupy movements and the demonstrations of solidarity from Egypt and Iran, I was curious to see how If a Tree Falls (2011), an American documentary about the violent tactics of the radical Earth Liberation Front, might play to ADFF audiences. While the film, which contained shocking footage of police interrogators dabbing protestors’ eyes with pepper spray, gave a straightforward, mostly sympathetic view of former ELF member Daniel McGowan, the audience responded with polite applause, and in the case of one Emirati woman, confusion. During the Q&A, she asked directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman whether the ELF arsonists had psychological problems to account for their actions. When she wasn’t satisfied with their answer, she insisted again: “But I don’t understand. In the U.S., you have democracy!” Cullman explained that many people in the United States felt that democracy had failed them. The woman sat back, silent, but still visibly perturbed. For her, maybe, democracy was a distant ideal, something that, despite the luxe comforts of Abu Dhabi’s malls and cabana-dotted beaches, was only conceivable as a fantasy, something you see onscreen or imagine existing elsewhere. I could sympathize with her outrage. Her willingness to voice it might have been the first step in getting to that perfect, impossible place.