30 December 2005


Stuart needed to make a trip, which involved us taking him to Amsterdam airport, spending a day in Amsterdam and picking him up again in the evening. Simple.

So we leave at 5.30am and it's snowing. Never mind, we make it to the airport in time for the flight, only it's delayed for one and a half hours arriving into Copenhagen. Even more snow there, not surprisingly. We spend the day in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum looking at lovely Rembrandts and Holland's grand history of empire. Wander through the park, chill in a cafe, buy some shoes for Anna.


It's freezing, but still everyone gets on their bike

When we get ready to go to the airport to pick Stuart up from his 8.30 pm flight we find out that there is a delay, Copenhagen is snowed in. The flight will go that day, but no-one seems to know when. There are de-icing problems, runway problems, just general too-much-snow-and-ice problems. We decide to wait. Matthias goes to sleep in the car and Luca is a trooper and sleeps in the play area next to beeping, whirring, flashing playground rides. DSC01484-2005-12-30-10-46.jpg Tired, but undeterred Eventually, at midnight, the plane arrives. We get home at 3 am, after another snow flurry on the Dutch plains. The lesson? Don't expect easy travel in Northern Europe at the end of December.

17 December 2005

Dubai Film Festival Day 5

It's Friday, which means the Mall is actually populated by people other than film festival attendees.

Actually, I started out with a screening of 'The Constant Gardener' at the Madinat Arena, again the most glamorous of occasions. This one was sold out with a long stand-by queue while outside the waiters were setting the buffet for the night's entertainments. Next year I have to make sure to get myself accredited or invited. The Madinat looks like the perfect networking location.

Anyway, after days of intelligent and relevant films it is really quite a shock to be reminded of the kind of films Hollywood undoubtedly terms 'discerning', it being set in Africa and starring the smart woman's crumpet Ralph Fiennes. Unfortunately it insults and abuses Kenya by portraying the whole country as a savage and criminal cesspit with the usual visual clichés of poor, but brightly-dressed black women queuing for hand-outs, noble but doomed black intellectuals, colourful crowd scenes amidst dirt and rubbish and vicious tribesmen who enslave children and raid villages. 'The Hero' has to be lauded for showing a more complex image of African reality, where Blacks are involved characters and not just ciphers. I am not looking forward to going back to this for another year.

This afternoon saw the screening of five short films in the Emerging Emirati section of the festival. There has only been a film industry in the UAE for the last four years, according the programme scheduler Masoud Amralla Al Ali, and it shows. The outstanding film in the group was 'Dying for fun', a documentary about chicks that are sold in Sharjah market after being dipped in colourful dyes. It was simply powerful, not relying on a voiceover to explain the situation, but letting the pictures speak for themselves, as the chicks are hatched on racks behind metal doors in a vast factory and dipped into dye at the pet shop until they almost drown before being sold to children in paper bags. After the screening there was a lively discussion about the support local filmmakers think they need, undoubtedly fuelled by the presence of Sheikh Abdullah, the UAE minister for information and culture, and Amina Al Rostamani, head of the soon-to-be completed Dubai Studio City.

'The Last Moon' is the autobiographical story of the Chilean director's grandfather, a Christian Palestinian, who helped an immigrant Jew build a house in Palestine after the first World War. It was a personal story that threw an interesting light on the historical background of a country ruled always, it seems, by others. At the beginning of the movie it was the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, later the British. The narrative was simple, with beautiful characterisations of each individual. The story came from a different angle, being that the main protagonists were a Jew and a Christian, rather than the usually perceived Jew vs. Muslim issue.

I was lucky to get a ticket for 'Underexposure', the first film to come out of Iraq since the beginning of the latest war there. Whether the fact that a film can be made in Iraq is a sign that normal life is returning remains to be seen. The whole films runs through with a certain desperation and sadness, like moments snatched. It's about a film maker trying to capture the feeling on the street of Baghdad in August 2003 and 6 months later. It has a documentary feel, showing the crew on location and witness interviews, discussions between director and camera man and musings to camera.

16 December 2005

Dubai Film Festival Day 4

Another day at the mall...

I finished early today, to have dinner with Stuart and Mark, my brother and his wife, Martina, who are here on holiday (not Stuart, obviously - oh, this sentence doesn't really work, does it?). Still managed to get three movies in, specially as I didn't have to shuttle between the Madinat and here. It was sufficient to wander out of one screening over to the cafe, stock up on coffee and wander back in for the next one.

Today I watched two very different documentaries and a super-stylish crime/love story. 'A Decent Factory' sees the filmmaker follow the manager responsible for ethical management at phone manufacturer Nokia to China where she oversees the audit of a local supplier. It was pretty straightforwardly observational, and didn't expose anything most of us didn't know before: Namely that Chinese workers, mainly young women, are not paid minimum wage; don't get work contract so they can't complain if agreements are broken and live in terrible conditions sharing rooms with eight people and always in fear of being sacked if they complain. So far so simple. The strength of this film is the portrayal of individuals like the dogged consultant trying to get round the tricks of the factory managers; the fake-chummy overseer who treats the workers with less than disdain; the English manager who passed every contentious question (and responsibility for awkward answers) to his local sub-ordinates. The tension of everyone trying to be polite while trying to hide/expose as much exploitation as possible, is palpable.

'Stroke', on the other hand, is an intensely private history, filmed by a German artist whose husband has a stroke, and the recovery process. She was relentless in her filming, even at the hospital where her husband is in a coma, at the rehabilitation clinic while he is struggling to regain use of his legs and during arguments after he returns home. In the discussion she said that she did the film initially as a form of coping, to deal with this sudden change in her life situation and to make sure that no mistakes were made. I was equally impressed with her consistence in never putting the camera down even when the situation was difficult, as well as with her husband agreeing to be subject to this intense scrutiny during an extremely vulnerable time of his life.

'The Consequence of Love' starts very subtly. Like the life of the protagonist, a quiet man living in a hotel in Italian Switzerland, nothing much happens. He goes to a cafe, suffers from insomnia and uses heroin every Wednesday at 10am. Oh, and every now and then a suitcase arrives in his room, at which he springs into action as a money launderer to the Mafia. His solitude is occasionally interrupted, first by a visit from his brother and then by calls to his wife and children, but it's not until a young waitress confronts him in the cafe he frequents does he take a step out of his isolation and everything goes out of control. The story is spare to the point of simplicity, the cast is minimal with no extraneous crowds - the town is deserted whenever we see an exterior shot, and the atmosphere is smooth and elegant. Lovely.

15 December 2005

Dubai Film Festival Day 3

Dashing between sites today, I realised that the Madinat venues are way more glamourous, they even have red carpets.

But then again, the movies I want to see are mostly here at the thoroughly populist shopping mall. I only dashed over to the Madinat to watch 'Walk the Line', the new Johnny Cash biopic. That's when I noticed the glamourous red carpet, complete with huge spotlights and black-suited bouncers. All the gala events are at the Madinat arena, which houses a huge auditorium with super-comfy seats and a massive screen. Pity I never get invited to the star events...

Anyway, after all the hard-core films I watched yesterday it was a strange experience to see a Hollywood movie like 'Walk the Line', albeit a serious, unfussy biographical effort like this. The production values were way up there ('The Hero' by comparison, one of the more expensive films so far, had cost €800k, while I suspect that most other films have been self-funded), as was the emotional manipulation, using well-worn techniques we have all learned to react to in just the way the filmmakers expect. Still, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon were quite believable and those kind of films are certainly an easier ride than heavy-duty docs like 'Massaker', for example.

'Kiran over Mongolia' was not heavy-going at all, but certainly illuminating about other cultures and remote parts of the World (to us). A young man who wants to carry on the tradition of eagle hunter that his grandfather once practiced goes out to find a teacher and learns how to catch and train an eagle to hunt for foxes and rabbits. A film in the vein of 'The Story of the Weeping Camel', this film was four years in the making, entirely self-funded by the director and sound designer, and had a lightness of touch that came through despite the utter remoteness of the subjects. Why don't they show films like that on the discovery channel?

And at last some more shorts! I love shorts, they give you so many stories in such a short space of time. Plus the filmmaker can be more creative in a short, as it's not such a financial commitment as a feature film. The films were all made by Arabic filmmakers, based in Algeria, Palestine, Egypt and Switzerland. 'Haunted' was a scary and accomplished ghost story about a murder in a house at night time. Can the burglar solve the mystery before he is the next victim? 'Cow and Company' (I liked the French title '100% Vache' better, somehow) is a circular story of a peasant swapping milk for a car repair, the car repair man using his satellite box to bribe the teacher about to expel his son, and the teacher's husband who picks up the milk from the peasant. It was badly let down by terrible sub-titling, which ruined any funny moments there may have been. '6 Girls' takes a simple premise, that is to film one's own living environment and creates a spirited result. A documentary of 6 students living in a communal flat in Port Said, it shows an unexpected reality for women in a Muslim country as well as general acceptance of their lifestyle choice from family and neighbours. Unfortunately it was way too short. The last last short, 'Yasmine's Song' was a beautifully developed love story set in a Palestinian area of Israel with the added urgency of the building of the wall by the government. The increasing enclosure of the community is brilliantly visualised when more and more obstacles appear in the path of the young man cycling to see his lover's father to ask for her hand in marriage before she is given to someone she doesn't love.

The last movies today were by far the best, with 'West Bank Story' topping the chart of today, and 'Being Osama'. 'West Bank Story' is a hilarious take on West Side Story set in the West Bank where the Kosher King fast food joint fights for business with Hummus Hut while a love story develops across the border between a Palestinian girl and an Israeli soldier. It has a great future as a Broadway musical, but funnily it's the most contentious film in the post-screening Q&A so far. 'Being Osama' takes the very simple premise of Canadian Arabs who have the feared name of Osama in common. They talk about their background and their reality, how 9/11 has affected them when people find out they share the name of the most hunted terrorist in the World.

14 December 2005

Dubai Film Festival Day 2

More film reviews, still no star sightings (if you don't count the lead actors of 'The Hero').

Another day spent at the Mall of the Emirates, not to shop, though, but to cram in as many movies as possible. Donna kept me company, so it wasn't just me and a Starbucks frappuchino during the breaks.

The first two films of the day were pretty intense, while the third was incredibly funny and encouraging. They were set in Lebanon, Angola and Turkey respectively. Hoorah for cheap film making technologies that bring the World to us!

'Massaker' is a documentary of interviews deconstructing 'individual and collective violence', according to the director. It was filmed by a Beirut-based German team who miraculously managed to find 6 of the military perpetrators of the Sabra and Shabila refugee camp massacres during the Lebanese civil war. Amazingly they got these men to speak about their training, which took place partly in Israel, their preparation and reasoning and the attack on the two villages. It was visually relentless, mainly because the device they used to assure anonymity for the interviewees was extreme close-ups on hands, shoulders, knees and other parts of the body, avoiding faces, which were also kept in the dark. According to the director this film was not meant to be a reconstruction of this specific massacre, so there was very little visual information about the events: all descriptions came from the speakers apart from some stills which were shown to the interviewees to elicit their comments. The viewing experience was deeply disturbing and focussed on those voices calmly describing unspeakable events.

'The Hero' is a first feature film for Angolan director Zeze Gamboa. It is a 'City of God'-esque story of a street kid in search of his father lost in the Angolan war; a veteran of that war who lost a leg to a land mine and tries to get back into peaceful society; and the kid's teacher. Filmed partly with amateur actors and partly with professionals, the narrative jumped between these people's attempts to re-create some normality in a land recently recovering from 20 years of war. One of the most poignant moments was a scene in a public square where children and adults queue up for the opportunity to speak to camera searching for lost relatives, to be broadcast on public television, an initiative to re-unite families torn apart by the fighting.

'The Play' was an entirely lighter and funnier experience. A documentary following a group of village women in rural Turkey who are determined to stage a play about their lives to the rest of the community. They tell their stories to the headmaster of the local school who scripts them into a play for them to rehearse. From an opportunity to do something away from the daily drudge the rehearsals become a forum for the women to open up about their personal histories, from drunk husbands to forced marriages, from lack of schooling to elopements, from mean mother-in-laws to lack of healthcare.

Top film today: 'The Play', by a long shot, because the characters were so much larger than life.

13 December 2005

Dubai International Film Festival Opens

It opened yesterday, actually, with a gala showing of Palestinian film 'Paradise Now', but I wasn't invited to that, of course.

Laurence Fishburne was, though, and Morgan Freeman was back, as well as assorted Hollywood, Bollywood and Arabian film stars. The festival lasts till December 17th and most films are shown either at Mall of the Emirates or the Madinat Jumeirah. I have tickets for 19 movies, so will be living at the local Starbucks in the Mall of the Emirates between movies. I expect my diet to get even worse than it normally is.

Todays films have been 'From Dust', about the aftermath of the Tsunami on Sri Lanka's fishermen; 'An Ordinary Day', a fiction short; 'Under a Desert Sun', a collection of sequences from a nature series about the desert; 'Shooting Dogs', set in Rwanda during the genocide; and 'The Axe', a French black comedy.

'From Dust' is a rough and ready documentary filmed on mini-DV over most of this year. The director/camera operator went there in January to capture a story of how people re-build their lives only to find himself without a crew, having to teach his Tuk-Tuk driver to become his sound man and living with people who were not actually able to re-build their lives because of government policies and inefficiency. Soon after the Tsunami struck the Ministry for Tourism realised that by creating a 100 meter exclusion zone for re-building for local residents they could claim valuable coastal lands to sell to international developers for tourism projects, even if that meant that people who had lived there (and some of whom needed to live near the sea, being fishermen) were made homeless. The film follows a few young men struggling with red tape and empty promises who try to be re-located or re-build, as well as an Australian acupuncturist who travels the coast trying to organise new housing for families.

'An Ordinary Day' won best short at this year's Abu Dhabi film competition. It was snappy and looked good, with the clever idea of being non-verbal, thus broadening its potential audience, but I felt that the initially straightforward story of a man who, while minding his own business in a cafe, suddenly sees lots of people who look just like him everywhere around him, got a bit lost when he is suddenly transported to roam the desert until he falls over from exhaustion. The titles were cool, though, with nifty animations based around the debris on the cafe table.

'Under a Desert Sun' is a collection of sequences culled from a nature programme about the environment of the Arabian Peninsula. It focusses on the conservation efforts being made to rescue the Arabian oryx and local variants of the gazelle from extinction. It documents the efforts of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and other countries to take the fast disappearing animals from their natural habitats to breed them in safety at wildlife centres before attempting to re-introduce them back into the wild. This last step has been thwarted over and over again as the main threats to the animals survival, poaching and human encroachment onto their natural habitat, can't be prevented from endangering them again. While the film itself was mildly critical of the fact that there seems to be little official will to stop poaching, as some of the demand for animals (they are captured live for private zoos) comes from very high levels of society indeed, I was gob-smacked to hear from the director in the Q&A session afterwards that some of the so-called eco-tourism hotels in the desert buy these animals from possibly illegal sources to use in their own 'wild habitats'. Oman actually has to guard its herds of oryx with armed rangers who trail the animals across the unfenced nature reserve.

'Shooting Dogs' is Michael Caton-Jones' (director of 'Scandal') latest offering, a fictionalised account of the events taking place in a Catholic school compound during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. An important subject, that has this year already been covered in 'Hotel Rwanda' (strange how there is nothing on a subject and then two films come along at once), this film is let down by the symbolic characters that turned the story into more of a series of tableaus than an engaging narrative. There was the wise Catholic priest, the naive NGO teacher, the jaded journalist and her hardcore camera man, the helpless UN commander, the promising black student, and fated pregnant woman, and so on. From his post-film talk it sounded as if it was a life-changing experience for Caton-Jones and his lead actor, who filmed on location in Rwanda and had a lot of help from their local crew and extras who had actually lived through the genocide. Their first-hand knowledge saved the film from too much cliché, as well as the director's attempt not to sensationalise the subject matter - "almost like a horror movie, where there is more tension because the monster isn't shown".

'The Ax' is a French black comedy directed by Costa-Gavras, of an unemployed man who attempts to get his dream job by killing any potential competition. It's smirky rather than hilarious, and I swear the lead actor is a re-incarnation of Jack Lemmon.

Best film so far: 'From Dust', for the directors persistence in the face of adversity.

That's it for today, more films tomorrow.

PS: You can download the complete festival guide with a description of all the films in the festival from the DIFF website. Very useful if you want to get an idea of what's new in Arab cinema.

06 December 2005

Dubai Ski Club

Yes, you read correctly, we are now officially members of that elite group.

This week Dubai skislope finally opened, almost three months behind schedule. It's a 400 meter long indoor slope with 5 runs of varying difficulty, all attached to Dubai's newest and shiniest shopping centre, the Mall of the Emirates. Finally I will be able to learn to ski, and for the rest of my life, when asked where I learnt, be able to say: "Dubai, of course!"

Admittedly it is the most strange sight to see parents buying fleece gloves for their children and men in dishdash trying on big puffer jackets prior to hitting the piste. There was a very cute picture in the paper on the day of the opening of Sheikh Mo and his mates with warm hats and coats going up on the ski lifts.