January 6, 2006

Dubai International Film Festival brings variations on everyday suffering

It’s difficult to categorize the cross section of humanity that calls film festivals its home. Sure, the rich and famous lurk in every corner, but often their stories are the least compelling. It’s those desperate people—beings who frequently check their dignity and shame at the door—who interest me. Sadly (yet predictably), their journey usually begins and ends at the red carpet with a view obscured by a security guard’s hand over their faces.

Here I was in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. Part Las Vegas and part Martian space colony. Construction was everywhere. The not-so-old joke goes that the national bird of Dubai is the crane. While Albert Brooks looks for comedy in the Muslim world in an upcoming film, I may have found it in all its Arabian banality.

Apparently at red carpet events, members of the press need to get to the event a solid two hours in advance. Well, let’s see. The nightmare that was Midway on December 8 caused the cancellation of my flight home. A three-hour ride to O’Hare from the marvelous Quad Club was followed by a three-hour delay and a 12-hour flight to Dubai. So, let’s just say that in the time it took for sleeping to move furiously up my “to-do list,” arriving at the opening gala early had nearly fallen off entirely.

Despite such obstacles, I walked up to the red carpet 20 minutes before showtime, with no chance in hell of seeing the first movie, Paradise Now (as opposed to later). My average stature gave me a mediocre (at best) and atrocious (at worst) view of the scene. Laurence Fishburne? Looks like he has a broken arm. Whatever.

It was then that I decided to back away from the rabid pack of press badges. Pathetic and desperate, words I thought I knew quite well, were redefined by two blond British girls trying to talk their way into the show. How? By blinding the volunteers with their unprecedented creativity and boundless stupidity.

“We’re the sisters of the star, Meryl Turner,” said Blond 1 in an effort to march past the gates.

For those keeping score at home, Meryl Turner was not in Paradise Now and may not even be a real person. The only two female leads were Lubna Azabal and Hiam Abbass.

“Umm, no,” the volunteer replied.

“It’s kind of a family emergency. We need to talk to her,” Blond 2 said.

“I think she has a drug problem. Rehabilitation is probably for the best,” Blond 1 said.

“You know, Oxycontin and such,” Blond 2 added.

I just couldn’t avoid being sucked into the dialogue. They attempted to use me as their ticket to Paradise Now. Blond 1 told the guard I was from a big American magazine covering the show.

“Which magazine?” he asked.

“Rolling Stone,” I said, playing along.

“Like the band?”

“Yes, like the band.”

“Of course.” The guard rolled his eyes in a way only the British can.

I was captivated by the energy of the two ladies and sufficiently entertained for the evening. I didn’t see any movies on my first day, but on the bright side, I was close enough to tell that Laurence Fishburne’s cast was navy blue.

Luckily, Paradise Now had an encore presentation the next afternoon in a gargantuan theatre, with mammoth upholstered couch chairs for all to enjoy. The film depicts the lives of two future suicide bombers, Said and Khaled. As a young Palestinian girl said to me, “Suicide bombers being portrayed in even the slightest of positive lights should be interesting.” Each character possesses real inner turmoil in the waning hours before the final day. The film has no music, underscoring the drama of the events. The same Palestinian girl I met referred to the sounds of the film as “sounds of home.”

Paradise Now is not a perfect film, but it tries to tackle a tired conflict from a new angle. The star of the film, Kais Nashef, who plays Said, said of the characters, “They are not heroes or devils, just human beings.” Paradise Now touches on sensitive issues with remarkable originality, and publicity for the film will only fuel an important debate. The director, Hany Abu-Assad, sought not to judge nor excuse, but to understand why ordinary men choose the path of martyrdom.

Bader Ben Hirsi’s A New Day in Old Sana’a is the first feature film from Yemen. The script and the story are quite simple. But given the difficulties created by the government during the making of this film, credit is rightfully deserved. A New Day in Old Sana’a is a romance between two people deeply entrenched in a world of tradition. While the film was not landmark in production, the mere existence of such a movie remains extremely significant.

Later that evening, I returned to the theatre to see L’Enfant, a dreary depiction of the struggles of a modern day, working class Belgian town (and winner of the Palmes D’or at Cannes). Directed by the Dardenne Brothers, the actors give wonderfully raw performances steeped in reality. Bruno (Jérémie Renier), the father of a newborn child, decides to sell the baby. In retrospect, this turns out to be a terrible call. The film was raw, real, and depicted bleakness from a uniquely Belgian perspective: by depressing and captivating the audience throughout.