Dubai Film Festival frees filmmakers from the politics of competition

By Oliver Mosier

Heat. Sand. Sun. Snow? In 2005, the first three could finally welcome the fourth into the vast desert of the Arabian Peninsula. Dubai’s enormous Mall of The Emirates houses the region’s only ski resort, an indoor 800-meter slope. When someone wearing shorts looks from the mall to the slope, words like “ridiculous” and “unbelievable” can only begin to illustrate the hilarity of such a scene. At the mall I saw two movies, From Dust and Moolaadé.

From Dust depicts the devastation and struggles of Sri Lanka following the tsunami that hit the country in 2005. This documentary gives a face to the sadness and often showcases the futility of rebuilding. Homes that were destroyed near the beach were moved away and bulldozed, leaving their former inhabitants homeless. The film focuses on Ravi, a man who lost most of his family and, after months of struggling with the Sri Lankan government for land, picked up and moved to South Korea. The land he once lived on has now been deemed acceptable for the construction of hotels and resorts. It is only 100 meters from the sea—still a perilous location, seeing as the tsunami’s reach far exceeded 100 meters.

Moolaadé was directed by the 82-year-old “master of African cinema,” Ousmane Sembène, and tells the story of an African village where Colle, a circumcised woman, fights to have her daughter avoid the same fate. The shots are beautiful and the film demonstrates the harsh realities of cultural conflicts. The tribe depicted in the film struggles to accept progress and thus suffers for it. It is a story of misogyny, strife, and unadulterated bravery.

Friday, December 16 was the closing evening of the festival, and the film screened was Joyeux Noel. A short film called West Bank Story was chosen to preceed it. It was a musical comedy adaptation of West Side Story set in the West Bank. Two rivaling falafel joints waged a war while an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian girl fell in love. The film was funny, light, and received extremely well by the audience.

Christian Carion directed the main feature, Joyeux Noel, which follows the lives of a Scottish priest, a German opera singer, and a French lieutenant during World War I. The film documents the famed Christmas ceasefire of 1914. Carion carefully crafts his work and illustrates the bonds that the trio share. The only problem with the film, or rather the version of the film given to the Dubai Film Festival, was that it had French, German, and English dialogue with Arabic subtitles. I have not taken French since 10th grade and speak no German aside from guten Tag and führer. However, in many cases the French was easier to understand than the often-indecipherable Scottish accent scattered throughout the film—you can begin to imagine my struggle. All in all, the fact that I was still able to enjoy the film despite my inability to understand much of it speaks to its true universality. Seeing the film again is definitely a must. The festival director, Neal Stephenson, invited the audience to come to the closing gala party following the showing. That was at least some consolation for our linguistic struggles.

The next morning, my final movie was thankfully in English. It was Albert Brooks’s Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World. The world premiere of the film had taken place the previous evening. Brooks, playing himself, goes to India and Pakistan under the order of the U.S. government to find out “what makes Muslims laugh.” In Dubai, Brooks may have found what he was looking for. The film was greeted with thunderous applause. Ending the festival on a positive note was welcome in light of the depressing opening film (Paradise Now).

The Dubai International Film Festival is still young, only in its second year, and that makes its success only more astonishing. In Dubai, the festival has managed to retain an element of cinematic purity because prizes have not yet taken over such a fledgling festival, and the movies, not the awards, still appear to be the primary focus. The growth from last year is just as amazing, increasing the number of selections from 75 to 98 films in just a year. I saw eight of those films and generally enjoyed them all.