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.

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