Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Object as Mediator

Flemish artist duo Robbert&Frank/Frank&Robbert brought their performance art piece, The Object as Mediator, to the city this week. It's rare to see something of this abstract level here, even deep under the dermis of Dubai's art world. I had to miss their show at the Mahani event on Dec 10th, but there was, fortunately, another opportunity to see them perform today at The Mine, along with an unexpectedly strong turnout.

One especially interesting dimensions to their 45-minute performance was the lighting. The performance began with the gallery lights shut off, and all the lighting from then on came from performance props, including a film projector and the headlamps of a MINI they drove through the gallery. Featuring no dialogue, their performance, as well as the occasional audience members' participation, took place silently, with an oddball music track mix playing in the background.

Employing such props as wooden blood pools, forensic brushes, and miniature pine tree cutouts, the artists' actions during the performance seemed to be portraying the construction of violence, and depicting as farce the process of investigating, analyzing, and assigning responsibility for it. Such themes could be particularly relevant now, given recent events in the US and in the Middle East.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Dubai International Film Festival 2014

DIFF: the week in which I go to a film theater more than during the entire remainder of the year. And attending the biggest cinephiles' carnival in town is not just a way to see films that do not typically make it to theaters here -- it also means bumping into and catching up with many people I've not seen in a while.

I had to be particularly selective this DIFF, though, since my busy schedule that week meant I could take time off only during the weekend evenings. Looking back, I'd say I was generally pleased with my six choices, which encompassed documentary, comedy and drama in equal measure.

(clockwise from top left) Afia Nathaniel on the right, director of Dukhtar; Hind Shoufani on the left, director of Trip Along Exodus; Ali F. Mostafa on the far left, director of From A to B; Gautam Sonti on the left and Usha Rao on the right, directors of Our Metropolis.

Except Haemoo, all of my films had Q&As with filmmakers and/or cast afterwards. I was especially fascinated by the journeys of Ms Nathaniel in making Dukhtar (10 years, in her case), and of Sonti/Rao in making Our Metropolis.

Following are some of my thoughts on the films.


Whatever people may think of wasta, this Emirati comedy by Tent Pictures makes its titular character come out likable. The film is set in many locations viewers, Emirati or otherwise, would likely recognize, like Zayed Sports City, and the ADNOC on Sheikh Khalifa Highway, and otherwise avoids glitzy spots in favor of run-down freej alleyways, homely homes, and tranquil terraces. This, in addition to such sequences as the lingering shot of the preparation of the familiar-to-old-timers Oman Chips sandwich, establish Abood as "one of us". The soundtrack was very nice too, and I liked the guerrilla style (well, mostly).

Perhaps this film is about how people don't need wasta, and will be freed from insincere friends/crushes if they are kind and generous. In terms of plot, though, that results in subplot similarity to many "redemption of the good guy" type films, and therefore a good deal of predictability that's not helped much by the obvious Chekhov's treasure chest in the beginning. The deus ex moment that brings the film to a resolution is also jarring in how it does not clearly follow from the plot of film to that point.

I thought the lead actor, Abdulrahman Al Nakhi, was a good fit for the dorkwardly comedic Abood Kandaishan. The supporting cast, however, was mixed among those who did excellent work of it (such as the Indian housekeeper and the Emirati rooftop sage), and some others who seemed to be, well, just going through the motions. The grating perception of the latter was exacerbated by some of the dialogue that might look better on paper than it would in a spoken conversation.

Abood Kandaishan is still trailblazing in Emirati cinema in its genre, and I think this path of portraying the real lives of people who live here through comedy should definitely be explored further.


South Korea is home to one of my go-to film industries, so I had high expectations. This one had a nicely gritty and realistic style, with good action scenes and dialogue, and good acting talent. The exposition scenes in the beginning were concise, and the tilt was implemented well. Much of the film was shot in nighttime outdoors or low-light indoors, and the scenography for this was done superbly.

Character development was a bit predictable, though, as the established archetypes' traits were simply amplified in response to the escalating horror. A couple of them were outright cartoon characters, and the film was overall very heavy on tropes. Despite these, Haemoo, which was based on a true story, did a good job portraying the perils of human trafficking and the high seas through drama.


Excellent actors and world-class cinematography made this film about a dramatized escape from child marriage one of the best I've seen this year. The writing was most commendable; although there were a few cliche bits written to very obviously drive the plot (telling a child to stay put is a good guarantee that they will scoot in a few moments), the filmmakers subverted a few tropes and played a couple of naughty tricks with timelines to spring tactical-level surprises on the viewers. The character development and plot complexity was outstanding too. The natural beauty of the tribal regions of Pakistan is also showcased in all its magnificence, rounding off a very satisfying film.


This sorta-documentary presents a rarely-seen face of Palestinian nationalism: erudite, uncompromising, and secular. Its lead filmmaker and interviewer is the daughter of the focal character, the (recently) late Dr Elias Shoufani, and there is as much family album in here as there is political/historical content. This is just something one gets used to as the documentary progresses.

The interviews take place in unassuming, everyday, home surroundings in an apparently very candid, ex tempore manner, filmed unprocessed and crisp, usually with only ambient background sound. There is a lot of editing, as bits from countless reels of archival footage is played in background exposition montages set to electronic ambient music. An additional artistic element is present in overlays of sometimes cute animated drawings that illustrate moments in the interviews.

Other people in his then-present or past lifetime are also interviewed -- interestingly, with no title cards, bringing the focus to the content rather than to the relationships. Dr Shoufani's interviews themselves span several topics, including sometimes scathing analyses of regional political situations and figures. Much editing is therefore also used to splice together soundbites from different interviews into single-topic sequences. These reveal very interesting composite perspectives (some of them even coming across humorous) and together paint a comprehensive picture of a simple yet multi-faceted man -- one who made many hard choices, and of whose life the world should really know more, especially in these times.


This documentary follows five years of conflict between human heritage and globalized visions of modernity, depicting the struggles of urban conservationists, entrenched residents, and laborers against metro construction, road widening plans, and stingy government bodies in Bangalore.

Our Metropolis started out uncomfortably kids'-show-like with the "time travel" intro, and is a bit dragged-out in some parts (mainly the protests), but it has overall good editing and shooting techniques, and tells some interesting stories. Especially commendable of the filmmakers was their emphasis on being in the thick of the action, and they mostly let the people and events do the talking live. It's a good documentary, and especially relevant to me, both as a resident of EXPO-bound Dubai and as a likely future frequent visitor to Bangalore.


You know it's a road trip film. Which means you have some idea of what's going to happen: misunderstandings, detours, improbable encounters, etc. Even so, Ali F Mostafa's second big feature is one of the best road trip films I've ever seen, as well as the one of the best films I've seen come out of this region, period.

Pay attention to the title sequence, as it includes some exposition details that are later referred to. The trip-bound trio -- a Saudi foil, a straight Syrian, and an Egyptian who straddles the two roles (Fahad Albutairi, Fadi Rifaai, and Shadi Alfons, respectively) -- are all fluently bilingual Arab expats in the UAE, written as novel youth characters in different interesting life stages and situations, and played by fresh but very impressive acting talent.

After the exposition and character establishment sequences are over, and the road trip actually gets underway, the comedic aspect goes through the roof, inducing genuine belly laugh after genuine belly laugh, using well-written and clever jokes that transcend culture and language. Many of bits took me by surprise, and it's not often that this happens. I applaud the writers, as well as the actors for their comedic delivery and timing.

The nice bilingual soundtrack spans a good range of music from classic hits to contemporary, and the cinematography is excellent. The road trip plot also affords opportunities for diverse scenic and interesting locations, of which full advantage was taken. While there were a few morality points, I'm guessing that because the leads were expats traveling through mainly other countries, the film included more bold topics, references, and traits, and was definitely less preachy than City of Life. An excellent supporting and cameo cast -- including some seemingly big names in Arabic celluloid -- ices the cake.

This brilliant comedy, with its themes of friendship and serendipity, is worthy of stocking for repeat watching, and I hope that we'll someday see as bold and as funny a film with a lead Emirati cast and local setting.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

An Emirati feast for National Day

It's been a few years since I began my culinary tour of the world through home-cooked theme meals. December 2nd of 2014, though, would mark the day I did some "adopted home: cooking, as I finally got around to putting together an Emirati meal, in celebration of the UAE's 43rd National Day. With some downloaded Emirati traditional music playing, and with flags and flag-colored balloons decorating my apartment, I welcomed my 9 guests to the most authentic Emirati feast I could muster.

First came procuring the essentials. Samen (ghee, or clarified butter), in the yellow jar, is one of the main fats used for frying, cooking, and garnishing in Emirati cuisine. For desserts and beverages, ma2 al ward (rosewater), here in the bottle, is frequently used. If you're doing anything savory, you almost certainly will be using the Emirati spice mix they call bezar, here in the silver packet with the green label. And last, but not least, I got those two bags containing sufficient quantities of loomi (dried lime), one bag of whole and one bag of powdered. These make a world of difference in giving that distinctive aroma and taste to many Emirati dishes. They are all available in major hypermarkets around here -- definitely in Union Co-op, which visibly markets towards the Emirati demographic.

As a light starter, I made Emirati street and snack mainstay, dango, by soaking 2.5 cups of dried chickpeas overnight with 1.5 tsp soda bicarbonate, and boiling the drained chickpeas with salt and 10 small dried red chilies on low-medium heat for about an hour, until tender. For such a simple dish, it's surprisingly tasty and hearty.

For my other starter, I made the Emirati comfort food they call harees. I had about 650g of lamb on the bone and 2 cups of whole wheat (sold under the name of harees itself) boiled with 6 cups of water and simmered for two hours, until the free water had evaporated. I then added a tablespoon of salt and another cup of water for a further hour of sealed simmering.

After removing the bones, I used a handheld blender to blend it all down to a thick puree, and served it the traditional way: warm, spread into a platter, and garnished with samen. A subtly flavored dish, with a unique texture.

I made two entrees of seafood, the first of which was the Emirati staple called jesheed -- a dish made with the meat of the local baby shark. Probably because it's primarily an Emirati thing, I could only find this in Union Co-op, and you need to buy a whole shark at a time, which they will skin, gut, and partially cut for you.

I boiled about a kilogram of shark meat chunks for about an hour, until they became firm enough to easily debone and shred. While I was doing the deboning and shredding, I fried 4 sliced onions golden in vegetable oil, then adding 2.5 tbsp loomi powder, 1.5 tbsp turmeric, 1.5 tbsp bezar and 4 crushed garlic cloves to fry and let the flavors mingle. I then stirred in 5 chopped tomatoes, followed by the shredded shark meat and a little water, and simmered it all under a lid for about half an hour.

I believe this was my first time eating shark, and I found the texture a bit strange at first. But once I mentally digested the fact that this wasn't regular fish, I came to quite like the mildly spicy, umami-rich taste of this dish.

My second entree was robeyann nashif, a spicy shrimp dish that's popular at Emirati dining tables, and the curry leaves in which might indicate some influence from my own home country.

I again fried 4 sliced onions golden in vegetable oil, then stirring in 2.5 tbsp bezar, 1 tbsp turmeric, 1 tsp ground fennel seeds, 5 crushed garlic cloves, 3 tbsp loomi powder, 1.5 tsp cummin seeds, 15 curry leaves, 1.5 tbsp tomato paste, and 2.5 tbsp grated ginger for a few minutes of frying. Finally, I added the cleaned, shelled large shrimp, and cooked on low heat for about 15 minutes.

Served with store-bought markouk bread (my attempt at making regag failed, due to my lack of a proper gas griddle), this dish, with its sharp, spicy taste, turned out to be an unqualified hit, and not a lick of it remained.

Then came the main course: fogga diyay (diyay being the Emirati pronunciation of dejaj, Arabic for chicken). A fogga, known also as machboos/makboos/kabsa, is basically a dish of rice cooked in a meat stock, flavored with loomi and other spices. The previous night, I prepared its typical accompaniment, daqus (center), by pureeing 4 chopped tomatoes with half a chopped onion, 4 fresh chili peppers, and a tablespoon of hot sauce.

Late in the morning of the lunch, I rubbed in pieces of chicken (mostly drumsticks and thighs) with some salt and a lot of bezar (top), cooking them in samen until they were slightly cooked (right). I then added 6 cups of chicken stock, 3 chopped fresh tomatoes, 8 chopped cloves of garlic, 5 whole loomi, 2 large sticks of cinnamon, and 12 bruised pods of cardamom, simmering covered for about 20 minutes (bottom). Finally, I added some salt and 5 cups of rice that had been soaked and drained. Without stirring, I let this cook, loosely covered, until the stock was absorbed and rice had risen, and then placed a tight lid on it to cook for 15 minutes.

I served it hot with the daqus and some cold yogurt that had been mixed with chopped mint. The chicken was so tender that it was falling apart, and the stock had imparted a wonderfully savory flavor to the rice, all enhanced with the taste of bezar and the aroma of the whole loomi. Next time, though, I would cut the quantity of rice to half, or two-thirds at most. Rice-heavy is apparently how it's done in the khaleej, but it's too much for my tastes.

And finally, for dessert, I prepared a quintessential Emirati pudding called aseeda bobar. While this pudding can be and is made without pumpkin -- which would be just aseeda -- the bobar version is more popular for texture lent it by the pumpkin flesh.

I first steamed 850g of local pumpkin flesh cubes, while roasting 400g of whole wheat flour (top). I then mashed and mixed these together with 350g date syrup (most recipes call for honey, but I used date syrup instead, for that really local taste), a teaspoon of saffron threads, and a teaspoon of ground cardamom (bottom right), moistening as necessary. After cooking for about 10 minutes, I added 3 tbsp of ma2 al ward and half a cup of samen (bottom left), and cooked it for another 10 minutes.

I served generous lukewarm scoops of the resulting fluffy pudding with plenty of brown raisins and almond flakes, and it went down a treat with everyone.

To punctuate the meal, I prepared some core Emirati beverages. First, I made a welcome drink of aseer tazza (right), a blend of 6 cups of orange juice with 1.5 cups of lemon juice, 3 teaspoons of ma2 al ward, and sugar to sweeten.

To help wash down the entrees and prepare for the main, I brewed some chai jerfau, a "tea" made by boiling 8 sticks of cinnamon with a little sugar and 1 tsp saffron in 5 cups of water (bottom).

Finally, to end our authentic Emirati meal, I brewed some gahwa (coffee) local style by boiling half a cup of freshly ground coffee beans in 5 cups of water, and steeping it with 1 tsp saffron, 1 tsp crushed cloves, 4 teaspoons ma2 al ward, and 2 tsp coarsely ground cardamom (bottom). Served in shot quantities, it helped get all the hearty dishes and eclectic tastes of the local cuisine settled in our tummies.

Recipes based on those in "The Complete United Arab Emirates Cookbook" by Celia Ann Brock- Al Ansari (1994)