Abu Dhabi seemed like a city of palm trees, construction, and concrete. A friend and I wandered around after checking into our hotel, but mostly found highway. The road seemed like a symbol of how people keep coming here; less than a quarter of the population is native, and the rest have arrived from nearly 140 countries. After seeing a food court full of South and East Asian, African, and European complexions the next day, we agreed that New York looked homogenous.
We came for the fourth annual Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF), with over 170 films. Like the city, the lineup extends multiculturally: Only three of the 15 films in the Narrative Competition come from Middle Eastern countries (none from the United Arab Emirates), and several others are high-profile Western choices like Miral and Never Let Me Go. Throughout the other categories, too, the area’s work keeps slipping in between films from the Americas, Europe, and India (here, Bollywood yields big box office), several of which do feature characters of Arab descent. Yet the only fully Arab festival categories this year are a series of shorts programs and a brief retrospective sidebar—and the sidebar films have been programmed by MoMA.
I don’t know enough about Middle Eastern film industries to comment on how accurate a representation this is, but last year’s far more region-friendly lineup here and at the neighboring Dubai Film Festival makes me wonder if large film festivals are growing so homogenous that they exclude the locals. ADFF choices like Carlos and Silent Souls (both of which I like) have already played at Cannes, Toronto, and New York festivals this year, and will also be playing in São Paulo’s festival this month. Cane Toads: The Conquest, a 3D nature documentary, has played in at least nine festivals already, including Sundance, Zurich, and Tokyo. I’m going to skip these movies, and look for films here that I won’t see elsewhere.
No choice on Thursday, though, as we rode through the opening night film, Secretariat. A lot’s been written about Andrew O’Hehir’s Salon review of Disney’s new live-action film, which identifies it as a work of benevolent Christian fascism. Little’s been said about how right he is. Secretariat is an oddly disjointed piece where people declare “Amen” over a horse that dominates races to the tune of gospel music, and where incidental heroism lies in the conservative American South’s willingness to accept blacks, hippies, housewives, short people, fat people, sick people, and (coded) gays. This felt like a strange choice to open the festival; perhaps other audience members felt so too, since so many walked out within the first half hour, while others stayed talking to their neighbors or kibitzing on Blackberries. Of course, it was also possible that they had come for the lavish party afterward, an outdoors affair with at least six buffet stands and live dancers in the shadow of a hotel-cum-palace.
But cinema itself can build a community. The short that showed before Secretariat offered hope. Like many films here, Jafar Panahi’s The Accordion has already played at other festivals, and will probably continue to. But the film’s screening here was unique in that Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker who was unfairly arrested earlier this year and who is still unable to leave Iran. By presenting the film, festival sponsor Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage was justly criticizing a neighbor, and by watching it, audience members joined in.
The piece is a beauty, an eight-minute tale in which a man steals an accordion from two young brothers because they’re playing it inside a mosque. The older boy grabs a stone, despite the little one’s pleas, and seems destined to kill the man until he sees him on the street, playing the accordion for money. The boys take their instrument back, then all three characters make music together.
The Accordion recalls the Italian neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, both because of strong performances from child actors and because of their ultimate class sympathies. One of Bicycle Thieves’s most startling epiphanies is that the man who stole the poor, desperate hero’s bicycle is even poorer and more desperate than he is; similarly, the boys here seem at a loss until we realize how much worse off the man who robbed them is.
Yet Bicycle Thieves ends despairingly, with each man isolated. The Accordion’s harmonic resolution more closely approximates that of a wonderful short film called Two Solutions for One Problem, made by Panahi’s mentor and sometimes screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami. Solutions shows two school kids seeking petty vengeance on each other, until they realize how much easier life would be if they just helped each other instead. This is a good political lesson as well as a good classroom one.
It’s amazing how much a filmmaker can do to shape your worldview. I’ve been realizing recently how much Kiarostami has shaped mine. Before the opening ceremony, two other critics and I went to Dubai, an even more extravagantly developing city than Abu Dhabi is; the world’s largest mall opened in Dubai less than two years ago, and the city unveiled the world’s tallest building this past January. We traveled to the top of the Burj Khalifa (named after the Abu Dhabi-based source of a generous loan), and stared down over the city, with its roads, deserts, skyscrapers, and sudden, startling bursts of green. As I looked I kept thinking about Certified Copy, Kiarostami’s new film and the best new movie that I’ve seen in at least three years, because of how it’s expanded my vision. The film shows the two main characters in a car with people and buildings reflected off their front window, or walking through piazzas with small stores and milling locals in view. You realize at these moments that the world is larger than you ever thought it could be, and that there’s more to see in it than you ever could.
I started cursing myself, because I didn’t have a camera. But I also knew, even while I was standing there, that I would lose the moment eventually, and that a picture wouldn’t have helped. I comforted myself by thinking about the climax of Kiarostami’s earlier film, Close-Up, in which the director (so we’re told) tries to record a pivotal conversation between characters but can’t because his sound equipment breaks. It’s a privileged moment for the characters, but the silence also privileges the viewer: We all get to see what’s happening, and we all get to imagine our own version of it.
A benefit of moviegoing is that it offers both a public and a private experience, during and after which viewers can share separate impressions of what they’ve undergone together. A good festival offers myriad opportunities for community building. For the next two weeks I’ll be seeing what communities emerge here.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs through October 23. For more information, click here.