Review: Dubai International Film Festival 2010

The First Movie by Mark Cousins (image from www.thefirstmovie.n

The First Movie by Mark Cousins (image from www.thefirstmovie.n

I'm back after spending a week at our cinemas attending the 7th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival. At the opening ceremony, Masoud Amralla Al Ali, DIFF’s Artistic Director said, “If I could choose one word to describe our 2010 programme, it would be 'discovery'. We have discoveries of new talents, new styles and new collaborations.”

I am always very enthusiastic about our film festivals, but this year’s edition of DIFF didn’t have that effect on me. There were a lot of discoveries, but this year’s edition lacked uplifting stories compared to last year (Zanzibar Musical Club, Les Plages D'Agnès, The Silver Fez, Amreeka to name a few). Maybe I missed out on watching some films that could have changed my mind but friends that watched many other films that I couldn’t shared the same feeling. Or maybe it’s a reflection of the year in general.

Don’t get me wrong, there were some good films shown, but from the selection I watched, I ended up with a handful of favourites compared to previous years.

My favourites: 

1. The First Movie
A documentary written and directed by Mark Cousins is my number one film from this year’s festival. Filmed in the village of Goptapa in Iraqi Kurdistan, Cousins wanted to capture the village’s memories of war and suffering during the years of Saddam Hussein by focusing on the children and using cinema as a communication tool. 

He set up a makeshift open-air cinema and screened five classic films (The Boot, ET, Palle Alone in the World, The Red Balloon, The Singing Ringing Tree) and then gave the young children cameras to make their own films.

Watching the children experiencing and enjoying cinema for the first time was such a moving scene for me, I could not hold back the tears. As I type this and remember that scene, it brings tears to my eyes again (or maybe I’m just a tearful wreck). The beautiful short films made by the children were a selection innocence and profundity, which was just as moving.

The First Movie is so poetic and if there is any justice in this world, I hope these children have a bright future ahead of them.

2. Khusel Shunal (Passion)
A lovely documentary/road movie about Mongolia’s film history, which is almost non-existent compared to the pre-democratic revolution days, which had a healthy film industry funded by the state.

Throughout the film, we follow Binder Jigjid, son of the legendary Mongolian director Jigjid Dejid, as he takes his film from village to village trying to find venues and viewers to watch it and his struggle to make art movies that must fight for attention against Hollywood blockbusters.

3. The King's Speech
This was screened at the opening gala of the festival and was wonderful, an absolute joy to watch. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush captured a great friendship on screen. I heard its director Tom Hooper describe it on a radio interview as a “period bromance”. It deserves all the critical acclaim its been receiving since it’s release across the world.

4. Amin
A beautiful and heartbreaking story about Qashqai music (folk music of the ancient Qashqai tribes of southern Iran) and one man’s struggle, Amin Aghaie to keep it alive.

I always call people like Amin Aghaie music nerds and I mean it in the most endearing sense. Their effort in trying to preserve, record and archive music that is at the risk of disappearing is very commendable.

This is what else I watched:


Imams Go To School follows a group of apprentice imams at Paris' Great Mosque undergoing a programme of secular training in the Catholic Institute of Paris. It’s an interesting look at inter-faith dialogue, but I wasn’t sure how convinced some of Imams were with this programme. Some of the dialogue felt stiff, it was as if some of the Imams couldn’t ignore the presence of the camera in the class room.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child made me appreciate Basquiat's work more than before, it was a great insight into the life of the artist and his work.

All About My Father left me very disappointed, even though I was hoping it would be one of my favourites.  Its main character Elie Sfeir is a charming man and a barber who has coiffed the heads of politicians, princes and presidents since 1942. So I was expecting to hear some amazing stories, but most of them felt incomplete, lacked depth and throughout the film Elie Sfeir just looked very uncomfortable in front of the camera.

Hamama follows the lovely and strong-willed 90 year old Hamama from Al Dhaid, Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Known for having the gift of healing people, which was simply explained as a God given gift she one day discovered as a young woman, so it will sound like mumbo jumbo to many, but nevertheless, it was compelling to watch. I hope this gets picked up and screened at our local cinemas.

Tagnawittude takes a look at Gnawa music from North Africa and the traditional practice of trance state its musicians and listeners get into. Its director Rahma Benhamou El Madani used to watch her mother meditate and enter a state of self-induced hypnosis when she was a child and wanted to discover the roots of this practice. She interviews several musicians including members of Gnawa Diffusion's Amzigh Kateb and Aziz Maysour. We also get to witness some intimate musical performances and the trance it leads to, but the end of the film left me wondering if El Madani was satisfied with the result or still looking for more answers.

Madinat Al Mawta (The City of the Dead) was a good introduction Cairo's thriving and densely populated four mile long cemetery but it didn’t go in depth about life (and death) in this area.

Full length films

Harud (Autumn), a great display of the 'psychological decay' (as described by the director Aamir Bashir  in a discussin after the screening) of life in Kashmir. It was a very slow movie, but it had some very moving moments.

Jimseung Ui Kkut (End of Animal), the synopsis for this Korean film directed by Sung-hee Jo described it as a “gripping and absorbing psychodrama”. It was very tense to watch and left the audience quite baffled at the end.

El Maktoub (Taxiphone) is about a young Swiss couple who are crossing the Sahara desrt and bound for Timbuktu, Mali on a truck that breaks down leaving them stuck in a tiny settlement in the Algerian desert. During their stay they discover the local culture and lifestyle that eventually leaves them questioning their lives and choices. Its director, Mohammed Soudani later explained he wanted to explore  the role of westerners coping in an eastern environment and the film had some funny moments and beautiful desertscapes, but overall it felt bland and just wasn't powerful enough to get high marks.

Microphone, one of the most talked about film at this festival written and directed by Ahmad Abdalla is a love letter to Alexandria and an insight to its underground music scene. It follows a group of young and talented musicians looking for an opportunity to be seen and heard, yet, traditional society doesn’t offer them the opportunities. The soundtrack is good, the dialogue quite funny and despite its length (t could have been a bit shorter) and some of the plotlines lost its direction, I enjoyed it.

Norwegian Wood based on Haruki Murakami's novel and directed by Tran Anh Hung was one of the most beautiful looking films at this festival, filled with complicated and raw emotions.

The Piano in a Factory is an endearing film about Chen, a steel factory worker and a  father trying to keep his daughter after his estranged wife reappears asking for a divorce and custody of their daughter. The daughter who loves music thanks to her father decides to live with whoever can provide her a piano. After several failed attempts at trying grant her wish, Chen decides he will build a piano from scratch with a help of his friends at the derelict steel factory. The film has another layer to it - it's a nostalgic look at fading factory towns in northeastern industrial China in the 1990s.

Copacabana starring Isabelle Huppert and her daughter Lolita Chammah wasn't as quirky as I was expecting but it had superb acting by both mother and daughter. The bonus of the night was having both of them along with the director Marc Fitoussi present for a post screening discussion and question/answer session.

Short films

The Philosopher by first time filmmaker Abdulla AlKaabi and starring Jean Reno is a sweet look at trying to free yourself from possessions to find true happiness. 

Hayat min Sakhar (Life of Stone) by Moath Bin Hafez takes a look at he harsh life of Saeed Al Thuhoory, a 70 year old man from Shaam, Ras Al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates who has been quarrying rocks and stones from the mountains since he was 10 years old. A very patient and content man who knows no other way of life. It felt like he finds spiritual satisfaction in these mountains.

Ghawas Gaza (Gaza Diver) by Ali Khalifa Bin Thalith is a heartbreaking yet uplifting look at Khalil Aljdeili, a young man who lost his legs during the Gaza bombing two years ago. He underwent treatment in the UAE and despite his disability was able to learn underwater diving and enjoy the freedom of movement underwater.

Brownbook Urban Series is comprised of 10 interviews with people making a difference to the Middle East through arts, music, food, and architecture brought to us by the same people behind Brownbook magazine. Although beautifully shot, it felt like an advertorial and is more suited for TV or an online series  - it really didn’t fit the festival line up.

One film that I must mention although not viewed at DIFF because I watched it in London few weeks ago is Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I heard mixed reviews from the Dubai crowd, but I must say that had I watched it at this festival, it would have been a favourite. It's very hard to describe this film as it combines mythology, horror and humour. It's dark, yet optimistic. I am still trying to figure out the ending and I want to post a separate review about this film soon, so watch this space. I also want to add that I had the opportunity to meet one of its producers, Simon Field and had a brief chat with him about the film and the filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Last few remaining thoughts about the festival (if you are still reading this, thank you for your interest and patience).

- The website -  I've already ranted about this in a previous post, but I just want to mention that I did not encounter one person that didn't have problems with the site. I even had a friend that flew in for the festival and struggled with the schedule, finding theatre locations, etc. Please, please, please DIFF invest in a decent website. This is your 7th year, you should have a consistent and working website by now. Trust me, it will be worthwhile. Find an agency that can design and build websites and stop treating it as an online version of your catalogue.

- The YouTube Channel - DIFF announced a "curated" selection of online videos in collaboration with students from Zayed University. But throughout the week, DIFF’s Twitter feed felt like a spambot with a lot of posts showing links and names with no description, so it wouldn’t entice me to click. Not all the names are well known filmmakers, so perhaps a missed opportunity to get more people to click on the links.

A small example of what I am talking about from

A small example of what I am talking about from

After the festival, I spent some time on the YouTube channel, and most of the interviewees are just saying how happy and excited they are to be in Dubai attending DIFF or even worse, being asked if they use the Internet. I mean, seriously, if you have a few minutes with Colin Firth, Ed Harris and Jean Reno, surely there are far more interesting questions to ask them. You can almost feel the awkwardness watching these clips.

- The outdoor venue for the Rhythm and Reels section of the festival, The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence location - again, I've already ranted about this before, and due to the "overwhelming response", the screenings ended up free of charge, so yes, it was easy to fill up. But for next year, I hope DIFF makes an effort to invite the whole city to be part of the festival, find a central venue and not just focus on the "new" parts of Dubai. Introduce venues to people that are not familiar with the rest of the city, let DIFF become a discovery of the city as well.

What were your thoughts of this year's festival? What was your highlight, lowlight?