Twenty films to see from Cinema of the World at Dubai International Film Festival 2017

This year's edition of Dubai International Film Festival has 49 films in Cinema of the World section. Here are my top 20 picks. Out of this selection I have already seen LovelessNo Date No Signature and You Were Never Really Here and strongly recommend you don't miss them, especially You Were Never Really Here which is one for the big screen and big speakers.  I've added a bonus reason to watch each film recommended below. I hope the film schedule will allow me to see as many of these films. 

Click on each title for more information, schedule and to buy tickets. 

A Ciambra

Director: Jonas Carpignano
18+ | Italian dialogue with English subtitles | 120 min 

A coming of age story abou Pio Amato, a Romany teenager in rural Calabria. Despite his tender years, Pio’s got the attitude and the connections – he moves effortlessly between the locals, the Romany and the immigrants as he shadows his streetwise older brother Cosimo around town. But when things go wrong and Cosimo vanishes, Pio finds that he has to be a man now, for real.   

Bonus reason to see it: This is Italy's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.


Director: Aktan Arym Kubat
PG | Kyrgyz dialogue with English subtitles | 89 min

Anyone who craves adventure, black humour, dark deeds, mysterious legends and mythical beasts, will find much to love in Centaur. A rare submission from Kyrgyzstan, Centaur revolves around the epic titular hero, who lives in the depths of the countryside, with his deaf-mute wife and son. 

Centaur has quite a bit of peace and quiet then, to dwell on his obsession with horses and specifically, the loss of Kyrgyz national pride and unity. As the two concepts become ever entwined in Centaur’s mind, he hatches a crazy scheme that will, in his mind, restore his countrymen to their state of former glory and power. 

Bonus reason to see it: How often do we get to see a film from Kyrgyzstan? 

Custody / Jusqu'à La Garde

Director: Xavier Legrand   
15+ | French dialogue with English subtitles | 90 min 

Through the eyes of young Julien Besson (Thomas Gioria), we watch the harrowing breakdown of his parents’ marriage. Yet, amidst the turmoil, our suppositions and assumptions are constantly challenged, in a storyline that twists and turns back and forth. 

Is Antoine, Julien’s dad, a violent, unpredictable monster? Is his mother Miriam manipulative, dishonest and controlling? It would be spoiling the eventual climax to tell you more, so we will just sincerely urge you not to miss this one.  

Bonus reason to see it: It won Silver Lion for Best Director and First Film Winner at the Venice Film Festival. 

The Death of Stalin
Director: Armando Iannucci
15+ | English dialogue with Arabic subtitles | 106 min

A gripping, hilarious drama based on the real-life demise of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. A surreally satirical and blackly comedy with a cast (including Michael Palin, Paul Whitehouse, Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi and Rupert Friend) portraying the lunacy and chaos that explodes after Stalin’s messy passing.

The searing script, meanwhile, offers slyly pertinent political commentary, with Iannucci skewering the sheer idiocy, craven ambition and doctrinaire oafishness of Stalin’s inner circle.

Bonus reason to see it: Armando Iannucci’s credits include The Thick Of It, In The Loop, Veep, Alan Partridge. 

The Disaster Artist
Director: James Franco
18+ | English dialogue with Arabic subtitles | 103 min

James Franco transforms the tragicomic true-story of aspiring filmmaker and infamous Hollywood outsider Tommy Wiseau—an artist whose passion was as sincere as his methods were questionable—into a celebration of friendship, artistic expression, and dreams pursued against insurmountable odds.

Based on Greg Sestero’s best-selling tell-all about the making of Tommy's cult-classic disasterpiece  The Room (“The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made”), The Disaster Artist is a hilarious and welcome reminder that there is more than one way to become a legend—and no limit to what you can achieve when you have absolutely no idea what you're doing.    

Bonus reason to see it: This film has been receiving nothing but great reviews over the past couple of months. 

A Gentle Creature / Krotkaya
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
15+ | Russian dialogue with English subtitles | 143 min  

This powerful, slow-burning Russian drama, inspired by the Dostoyevsky story of the same name sees the unnamed central character – a taciturn young women running a petrol station in the middle of nowhere – embark on a long, difficult journey to the heart of deepest Siberia, where her imprisoned husband has apparently vanished. 

Once she reaches the chaotic end of the line, her quest for answers comes up against unexpected - and sinister - opposition.   

Bonus reason to see it: Sergei Loznitsa's filmography includes stand out films like Maiden and The Fog.


Hunting Season / Temporada De Caza
Director: Natalia Garagiola
15+ | Spanish dialogue with English subtitles | 105 min 

The feature debut by Argentinian director Natalia Garagiola, Hunting Season is a heartwarming drama, set amidst the gorgeous, dramatic scenery of Patagonia. 

When young Nahuel’s (Lautaro Betton) mother dies from cancer, he goes off the rails in pretty dramatic fashion, culminating with his expulsion from school.

Trying to sort himself out, he tracks down his absent father Ernesto (Germán Palacios), a respected hunting guide in Patagonia, living a serene and settled life. When estranged father and son confront each other, a welter of emotional tides and waves rise and fall in conflict and tension.

Bonus reason to see it: This feature debut won the Venice Film Festival’s Critics’ Week prize.

I am Not a Witch
Director: Rungano Nyoni   
12+ | English, Bemba and Nyanja dialogue with English subtitles | 95 min

This debut feature from Zambian director Rungano Nyoni artfully satirises her homeland’s more esoteric traditions and beliefs. ‘I Am Not A Witch’ is a blackly comic account of a young girl, Shula, who is declared a witch by her neighbours in a rural Zambian village.

She’s sent to a bizarre ‘witch camp’, under the care of a creepy, pompous official Mr Banda who gets busy exploiting the child’s supposed talents in ever-more bizarre situations. There’s more than a whiff of black comedy here, and the performances, especially by Shula Maggie Mulubwa as Shula and Henry BJ Phiri as Mr Banda are superbly pitched.   

Bonus reason to see it: The film received high praise from audiences and critics alike at the Cannes 2017 Directors’ Fortnight. 

Love Me Not
Director: Alexandros Avranas
18+ |Greek dialogue with English subtitles / Colour / 103 min

A wealthy Greek couple hire an impoverished migrant to act as a surrogate mother. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty, as it transpires. As the narrative unfolds, emotions bubble and roil to the surface, tension builds and the trio are soon sparking off each other as the situation descends into horrific tragedy and heartbreak. 

Touching on themes uppermost in the Greek collective consciousness today – ethical, financial and familial pressures conflict with the reality of migration, cultural issues and the unknowable wiles of the heart. These various facets are brought to bear upon a narrative that examines a marriage, a society and a nation in a state of unknowing turmoil, in a superbly-crafted, thrilling and suspenseful drama.   

Bonus reason to see it: The same director made Miss Violence, one of my favourite films from DIFF 2013.

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
18+ | Russian dialogue with English and Arabic subtitles | 127 min

A compelling meditation on the complexities of life in modern-day Russia, from acclaimed director Andrey Zvyagintsev, that takes a broken family as a metaphor for the state of a nation in flux. Middle-class couple Boris and Zhenya are divorcing and starting new lives.

The split has been extraordinarily bitter, an emotional rupture of seismic proportions, and their 12-year old son Alyosha has borne the brunt. When Aloshya vanishes, after a particularly ugly encounter between his warring parents, they are forced to work together to try and find him. Full of darkness, tension and suspense, ‘Loveless’ brilliantly casts a critical eye over the morals and hypocrisies of everyday life in Russia.    

Bonus reason to see it: Andrey Zvyagintsev is a thought provoking director holding a mirror to Russian society. Also, look out for one particular scene featuring the boy which has stayed with me ever since I watched this film at the London Film Festival.

Man of Intergrity / Lerd
Director: Mohammad Rasoulof  
12+ | Persian and English dialogue with English subtitles | 117 mins  

A powerful tale of tradition and moral rectitude in the face of creeping commercialism, A Man Of Integrity is the story of Reza, a taciturn and reserved individual, happy to run his goldfish farm and exist peacefully with his wife and small child in the beautiful landscapes of rural northern Iran.

But his serenity is shattered when a corrupt local company, with links to the authorities and apparently, every intention of crushing the local population to its will, threatens Reza’s tranquil life. How does he retain his integrity in the face of shameless commercial bullying? A Man Of Integrity is an inspiring examination of the resilience of the human spirit, that shows you how.

Bonus reason to see it: The film was screened in Un Certain Regard section at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and won the main prize. 

My Pure Land

Director: Sarmad Masud
15+ | Urdu dialogue with English subtitles | 92 mins      

British director Sarmud Masud delivers a taut, wired story based on true facts, set in rural Pakistan. Set over the course of a single night, it sees a homestead being attacked by a group of marauding men, intent on seizing the property from two girls.

The star of the film is Suhaee Abro, playing teenager Nazo, who has to look after her younger sister and defend their home from her frankly, revolting uncle Mehrban, who has already killed Nazo’s father and brother. As the fighting intensifies, Nazo needs every molecule of strength and fortitude to deal with these men - who will stop at nothing to get their hands on the property.

Bonus reason to see it: The buzz around this film described as a feminist Western set in Pakistan is enough reason for me to watch it. 

No Date, No Signature / Bedoune Tarikh, Bedoune Emza
Director: Vahid Jalilvand
PG | Persian dialogue with English subtitles | 104 min 

Dr Kaveh Nariman (Amir Agha’ee) is a forensic pathologist. He’s a tough, hard-working, dedicated professional, whose life takes a dangerous turn one night when he accidentally hits a motorbike, on the highway. To Nariman’s horror, the bike is carrying a young family, a couple and their eight year old son, Amir Ali, as well as a baby.

Although nobody is seriously hurt, when the body of Amir Ali arrives at Dr Nariman’s autopsy room a few days later, he is shaken to the core. Was his death caused by Nariman’s carelessness? Or was it, as the child’s father believes, brought on by spoiled meat?

Amir Ali’s plunge into grief-stricken despair and Dr Nariman’s parallel internal anguish and fear, powers this quietly forceful, magnificent second feature by acclaimed director Vahid Jalilvand. 

Bonus reason to see it: The film won the Orizzonti Award for Best Director and Best Actor at Venice     

The Outlaws / Beomjoidosi
Director: Kang Yoon-Sung
18+ | Korean and Chinese dialogue with English subtitles | 121 min 

Based on real events that occurred in 2007 dubbed the "Heuksapa Incident", this South Korean crime thriller follows a turf war in Seoul that grows between the local Garibong-dong gang and the fearsome Heuksapa gang from China, led by the bloodthirsty Jang Chen.

When the police get involved, they cook up a tense and thrilling plan to tackle Jeng and his gang with extreme prejudice. 

Bonus reason to see it: Who could say no to a Korean crime thriller?

Director: Rouzie Hassanova
12+ | Bulgarian dialogue with English subtitles | 84 min 

For a young rock 'n' roll fan, Bulgaria in 1971 was a distinctly un-swinging place to be. An oppressive Communist government blamed it firmly on the boogie and for a young hip cat like Ahmet (Aleksander Ivanov), life is grey and dull. So, when his father walks almost 100km to the nearest town, to buy him a new radio, it’s a truly heartwarming gesture.

But beyond this tribute to paternal love, this fantastic screenplay addresses deeper issues that were at play behind the Iron Curtain. Director/writer Rouzie Hassanova’s film portrays the difficult lives of Muslims in Bulgaria, eking out a living in the rough, wild countryside. The family’s local Party officials are pressuring Muslims to convert to Christianity and Ahmet’s radio is broken – there are difficulties to surmount everywhere, large and small. 

A beautifull and poignant film is part paean to the director’s own childhood in Bulgaria and a subtle, powerful treatise on dignity and fortitude in the face of bigotry and totalitarianism.

Bonus reason to see it: A portrayal of life in Bulgaria in the 1970s we don't get to see at the cinema.

The Seen and Unseen
Director: Kamila Andini
PG | Balinese and Indonesian dialogue with English subtitles | 86 min 

We love this beautiful Indonesian dream-like film, less a story and more a sustained art piece, that meditates on love, loss, duality and symbiotic relationships. Tantri (Ni Kadek Thaly Titi Kasih) adores her brother Tantra (Ida Bagus Putu Radithya Mahijasena), who is seriously ill in hospital.

Detailing the intangible yet deep link between these twins, director/writer Kamila Andini invokes drama, fantasy and the outer reaches of the imagination to create a haunting homage to traditional Balinese spiritual beliefs. As Tantra retreats into a world of make-believe, fantastical stories and wonder, the contrast with his grim hospital surroundings and worried family are thrown into clear relief.  

Bonus reason to see it: Magic and fantasy through the eyes of children. As escape we all need.

Sweet Country
Director: Warwick Thornton
15+ | English dialogue with English and Arabic subtitles / Colour / 112 min

Watching this breathtaking Australian epic, the first thing that strikes you is the harsh beauty of the rural Outback landscape. The second is the ghastliness of the white men who exploit and abuse the Aboriginal natives working on it. One exception is a kindly preacher, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), who treats his workers with dignity and respect.

When Sam (Hamilton Morris)  is sent to the homestead of a fierce bad hombre, Harry March (Ewen Leslie) to help with renovations, things soon turn ugly, before getting really bad. Bullets fly, blood is spilled and Sam is on the run. But will he be believed? Having scored a critical triumph with his previous feature, 2009’s ‘Samson and Delilah’, director Warwick Thornton was tipped as a talent to watch. This memorable and poignant masterpiece thoroughly vindicates that prediction.

Bonus reason to see it: Lots of critical acclaim for this film, it won the Special Jury Prize award in Venice. 

The Square
Director: Ruben Östlund
15+ | English, Swedish and Danish dialogue with English subtitles | 142 min

A hilariously biting satire on the contemporary art world that scooped a Palm d’Or at Cannes this year, The Square is set in a museum in Stockholm, and neatly sends up the hollow puffery of the art world, the egotism of wealthy curators and collectors and the ridiculous pretentions that pass for meaningful art.

Museum curator, Christian (Claes Bang), is a wily, enigmatic character who has just unveiled ‘The Square’, an installation piece that challenges viewers about their moral and ethical values.

But the gap between art and reality becomes increasingly vivid as Christian’s life takes an unexpected turn, sparked by the theft of his cellphone. Along with a reporter (Elisabeth Moss) and a crazed performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), Christian finds himself heading into a shattering, existential crisis which threatens to derail that fragile skein of make-believe and delusion that make up his comfortable, complacent world.   

Bonus reason to see it: Same director who made Force Majeure in 2014. 

The Workshop / L'atelier
Director: Laurent Cantet  
15+ | French dialogue with English subtitles | 113 min 

A well-known novelist arrives in a rural French village to run a creative writing class. Antoine is one of a group of youngsters, selected to work on a crime thriller with the novelist, Olivia, but things soon start getting strange. As Antione gets reluctantly pulled into the deep, dark history of his hometown, his angst and violent behavior causes mayhem amidst the other members of the writing circle.  

Bonus reason to see it: Laurent Cantet is best known for the 2008 Palme d’Or-winning docudrama The Class.    

You Were Never Really Here
Director: Lynne Ramsay
18+ | English dialogue with Arabic subtitles | 95 min 

Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames, this is a brutal, brilliant thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix which won him the Best Actor prize at Cannes this year, with its inspired direction by the acclaimed director Lynne Ramsay. 

A missing teenage girl. A brutal and tormented enforcer on a rescue mission. Corrupt power and vengeance unleash a storm of violence that may lead to his awakening.  

Bonus reason to see it: The music in the film is by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead).