Even if this paradox applies to a great many film festivals, the notion of flying halfway across the planet to sit in a dark room and watch movies is especially pronounced in Dubai, where little is more than a few decades old, island formations are exploded to resemble Qu’ranic verses, and office buildings look like spaceships retired into the ground at 90-degree angles.
On December 6, a short drive from the canyons of high-rises making up the city-state’s turbocapitalist business district, elites and journalists assembled at the Souk Madinat—a beachside network of malls, restaurants, and luxury hotels connected by artificial seawater canals—for the opening night of the 14th Dubai International Film Festival. Tributes were tendered first to both Patrick Stewart and Cate Blanchett before the kickoff of Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, about a bigoted U.S. cavalry officer (Christian Bale) tasked with escorting a Cheyenne war chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from New Mexico to his original territory in Montana.
On opening night, festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma took the stage, introducing the film as “an open invitation to experience cruelty, violence and toughness, and to cleanse our souls in the water of mercy.” Cooper then appeared in a video thanking the festival, offering that “It’s no secret that Americans are living in dark and polarized times…Our racial and our cultural divide is getting wider by the day, just as it was in 1892, when our film is set.” When the razzle-dazzle finally subsided and Hostiles began, more than a few attendees took their leave for the after-party, a Daisies-worthy buffet of food and drink scored to smooth jazz covers of American pop songs.
Between the Madinat and the multiplex at Dubai’s three-story, Nocturama-worthy Mall of the Emirates, DIFF would boast an enormous slate of Middle Eastern debuts over the next six days, both for Hollywood productions like Hostiles and international selections rarely otherwise shown in the Emirates. DIFF is also a chance for residents to watch films uncensored; one cinephile decried the UAE theatrical edit of Blade Runner 2049, which zoomed in on hands and feet during the nude-robot-unveiling scene.
Priority A for me was Sergei Loznitsa’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s 1876 short story, A Gentle Creature. The film follows a middle-aged Russian woman (Vasilina Makovtseva) whose trek to get a package delivered to her imprisoned husband becomes an odyssey into the dirt-poor countryside. The obvious takeaway is how little this territory has changed since Dostoevsky’s time; misery and cynicism abound, absolutely everything has a price, and the protagonist’s attempts to register a complaint with the prison’s official organs only lead to more trouble. What really lingers is Losnitza’s skill as choreographer: Many of his scenes consist of long single takes starting from a seemingly innocuous in-point and slowly jostling both audience and heroine into the next phase of this punishing environment but never stopping the film’s flow to scream “bravura set piece.” The effect is enveloping, naturalistic, yet claustrophobic; old and new Russias are aligned in a horror-movie finale, where a midnight Orthodox ceremony masks the commingling of security-state bureaucracy with black-market criminal blocs.
At a radically different tempo, Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here could be similarly boiled down to a one-line plot synopsis that gives zero indication what the experience of watching it is actually like. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a swole Afghanistan veteran working in the shadows; he’s hired to rescue the daughter of a New York state senator, a preteen runaway who’s come under the thumb of an elite-protected sex trafficking ring. Ramsay laces the film with jittery insert-cut flashbacks from Joe’s traumatic life, but these departures don’t pile up to a neat unraveling; they just undergird the film’s sweaty, deranged, and meticulously designed headspace. Rumor has it that this cut was quite different from the one that (divisively) premiered at Cannes; to me, You Were Never Really Here was a boldly anti-cathartic experience, a capillary-busting whirl of violence that suggests the whole world lost its mind a long time ago.
In general, the selections got better the further out I went from the big premieres. Kang Yoon-sung’s The Outlaws was an action-movie retelling of a real-life 2007 police operation in Seoul’s low-rent Garibong-dong district, where police pitted Chinese-Korean street gangs against one another, culminating in a massive roundup that ultimately implicated a big-time real estate developer. While these tropes are already a mainstay of Korean-exported cinema, the film is anchored by a Mitchum-worthy lead turn from former MMA fighter Ma Dong-seok. Kang’s film, comparable to a Lethal Weapon for the way it makes corporal punishment the inverse of knuckleheaded slapstick, had the DIFF audience in constant hysterics.
Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni’s magical-realist tragedy I Am Not a Witch sees a young girl named Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) accused of witchcraft and condemned to a camp for the accused, where she’s outfitted with a giant white ribbon anchoring her to the ground—a surrealist flourish. A corrupt government functionary makes her his golden goose, and eventually Shula has cause to wonder if she’ll ever reclaim her right to life; the indignity of being photographed by condescending vacationers adds another layer of outrage to the film’s indictment of societies beholden to traditions that hurt women, whether old-time religious or neoliberal tourist. It’s arguable that Nyoni is stretching a thin premise, but this film is one of the obvious breakouts of the year: exactly the kind of young work—brash, committed, and narratively unpredictable—that film festivals are supposed to champion.
Sharp Tools is poet Nujoom Al Ghanem’s portrait of Emirati performance artist, cartoonist, and sculptor Hassan Sharif, who died in 2015 at the age of 63. According to Sharif’s wishes, Al Ghanem didn’t interview anybody else about him or his career, and so the resultant biography is made of loose impressions and glimpses at his process, such as the way he assembled sculptures from mundane objects: old sneakers, toys, ribbons of packing cardboard. Heavily inspired by Duchamp, Sharif remains a unique figure in the burgeoning world of Gulf art; he studied in the United Kingdom and founded a contemporary art atelier in Sharjah, a charming older city half an hour’s drive north of Dubai. I found the film intriguing for its lack of context (along with Sharif’s unease at pigeonholing himself), though an Emirati art collector would spend the rest of the festival teasing me for my outsider enthusiasm, alleging that Sharp Tools was a blown opportunity. He cited Al Ghanem’s refusal to say anything purposeful about Sharif, the decision to include her own poetry in structuring the film, and the foregrounded of her friendship with Sharif, exposing the lapse in awareness between us.
It takes many all-you-can-eat buffets to set in, but being hosted and accommodated by a festival eventually exposes a kind of double standard. American and European journalists have their run of the place; in Dubai it’s easy for them to have a marvelous time smoking shisha, buying wristwatches, dropping in on turtle sanctuaries, desert-drifting near the Dubai-Oman border, and grading the movies on the according curve of their vacation experience. Meanwhile, Arabic-language journalists have much more to criticize, yet they’re anxious they won’t be invited back next year if their coverage approaches sounding unsupportive. The funniest film I saw at DIFF was Khaled Diab’s Induced Labor, a black comedy about an Egyptian couple who take the staff of the U.S. embassy hostage so that their child can be born there—and, thus, be an American citizen. Diab’s film becomes a parable about the tiny flint that sets off a popular movement, so some Egyptian attendees criticized it (as well as the excellent thriller Clash, co-written by Diab and directed by his brother, Mohamed Diab) for embalming the revolution of 2011 as a historic milestone and not an ongoing—and, at the moment, bedraggled—process. Here was another instance of context defining outsider reception.
DIFF’s most promising tenet is probably its crossroads of new and established regional talent, including lavish nightly parties where participants—ranging from filmmakers to critics to “celebrity” YouTubers—could kibitz over an unending flow of cigarettes and espresso-vodka cocktails. Well before festival’s end, a deal had been put in place for a Hollywood remake of Induced Labor set at the American embassy in Mexico City; while this kind of agreement is surely encouraging for Arab filmmakers, I had to wonder if the original would ever see stateside release. (At DIFF, as at other festival markets, the films exist as capital-C content first and cinema second.) From tipoffs at these gatherings I saw some excellent work that hadn’t been heralded in the West. Sofia Djama’s The Blessed probed the aftermath of the 1992 Algerian civil war as boomer hangover, seeing two well-meaning secular parents come to the bitter realization their teenage son would have a better life studying in Europe. Mahdi Fleifel’s fleet, gripping short film A Drowning Man depicts a refugee who finds himself making a brutal tradeoff in the streets of Athens. And Fadi Baki’s mockumentary Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow uses an improbable gag—a clunky, exquisitely rendered automaton, gifted to Lebanon by Charles de Gaulle—to riff on the impossible postcolonial identity.
On closing night, moviegoers had to choose between two long-time-ago sagas: Star Wars: The Last Jedi or Moustapha Akkad’s 1976 un-biopic of Muhammad, The Message. Starring the ever-reliable Anthony Quinn as Muhammad’s sabre-wielding uncle, Hamza, Akkad’s film is a spiritual journey structured as rousing historical actioner, originally intended to foster understanding and promote a vision of Islam concurrent against colonialism (in the guise of slavery) and sexism. Everything that happens is dictated by Akkad’s refusal to depict Mohammed in any form beyond the impressions he leaves on other people, his cane, or the movement of the feet of his camel. Occasionally the camera occupies his perspective (shades of Dark Passage), and the actors, most of them English thespians wearing tons of makeup, directly address the audience. Maurice Jarre’s eerie, echoing leitmotif for the camera-as-Muhammad adds otherworldly sheen to this bold but inconsistent choice, but people’s ability to take it seriously differed wildly. For me, one late first-person tracking shot of a false idol being knocked to the ground held solemn power akin to the arrival at the Buddhist temple in Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, or the Nazis flanking the Arc de Triomph in Army of Shadows.
Until a documentary coda, The Message interweaves three kinds of shots: those from Mohammad’s perspective, the more conventional ones of respective human performers, and awe-inspiring, unfakeable outdoor battle sequences devoid of dialogue. Without squinting you could notice a small chicken running circles in the foreground as 3,000 troops (borrowed from the armed forces of Muammar Gaddafi) galloping toward Mecca on horse and camelback—an image which was probably too expensive to allow for a second take. The spatial disagreement of these with the conventional dialogue scenes is probably a byproduct of the fact that Akkad shot two different versions of the movie with separate Arabic- and English-speaking casts.
Despite an opening-credits placard explaining the decision not to depict Mohammed, the U.S. release of The Message led in part to the Hanafi siege in D.C., wherein 149 people were held hostage by Hanafi Muslim terrorists who demanded an end to the film’s theatrical run. The release was canceled, and Akkad’s film saw its reputation battered. It’s tragic: Akkad strived to make a Middle-Eastern version of Lawrence of Arabia, and The Message deserves to be as widely known as its companions in the genre of inaccurate and wildly expensive sword-and-sandal actioners, which themselves obviously harkened back to early waves of war and cowboy movies. A 4K restoration undertaken by Akkad’s son (who’s restoring the Arabic-language version as well) made for perverse viewing at a not-packed IMAX amphitheater knowing The Last Jedi, which one could only assume would be a repackaging of a copy of a rip-off of those same tropes, was making its Middle Eastern debut just across the skyscraper-studded Sheikh Zayed mega-freeway.