The bulk of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival screenings take place in a mall. Unlike the Emirates Palace, the swanky site of the festival’s gala opening night, the Cinestar multiplex theaters offer stadium seating. The rooms not showing festival films screen Eat Pray Love, Devil, and The Town. Fuddruckers is among the most popular nearby restaurants, Carrefour and Ikea among the most popular stores. I wandered around nodding to men in white and women in black in search of an authentic cultural experience, until realizing that I had already found one.
The festival’s first public show, a Friday mid-afternoon gathering, filled the house. It’s a shame that the movie wasn’t better. Coline Serreau’s Think Global, Act Local starts with jumps between talking heads discussing Western agriculture as a postcolonial practice; one expert claims that the First World is practicing genocide both against farmers and against women. I’m not sure how the movie makes this argument, but it involves lots of shots of rural parts of India and of Brazil. We learn that oat has twice as much DNA as human beings have, and close with close-ups of smiling interviewees. The film knocks you dizzy.
I latched onto a loudly bleeped word at one point, which made me wonder if Secretariat had been a good opening-night choice because of its offensive desire not to offend (in a religious country, it’s worth considering these things). Neither of the subsequent two films contained profanity that I recall. The first, China: The Empire of Art?, focuses on “a community of artists with long hair and utopian ideals” who worked at a key moment. In February 1989, the Chinese government closed a modern art show, prompting an artist to fire a bullet at his own work; four months later, the military fired bullets at student protesters in Tiananmen Square. The film cannily claims that the uprising helped fuel a Western interest in contemporary Chinese art, much of which we see in clear images: a black-and-white photo of a man with multiple pins in him, a loud orange-and-red painting of another man in pain. Art’s reception depends on its cultural context—a tired point, but the film makes it well.
“To do a successful exhibition, you had to inject some exoticism,” one of China: The Empire of Art?’s artists says. He could have been speaking about the festival, which offered the world premiere of the new Adrien Brody film Wrecked (with Brody attending) at the Emirates Palace an hour after China: The Empire of Art? That coincided with a world premiere of a documentary so small it doesn’t even have an IMDb entry. But Children of the Stones—Children of the Wall is a wonderful film.
The German director, Robert Krieg, tracks down six boyhood Palestinian friends who posed triumphantly in a photo together during the 1989 Intifada. Twenty years later, their minds have mainly left uprisings and moved on to daily routines. One man, who slaughters chickens for a living, says that if Israel proper were open to Palestinians they’d leave their grimy settlements ASAP; another man clamors for isolationism, only to hear his wife sigh for Israeli citizenship so that she could simply move around.
Krieg said after the film ended that he first cut the film to focus on day-to-day labor before filming more material of the men discussing their perpetual imprisonment (“The wall rules our lives now”). He did well; concerns about an outsider speaking for the guys vanish as soon as they start speaking clearly and cogently for themselves. Children of the Stones—Children of the Wall’s funniest scene shows one of the men explaining to an American woman he meets online that yes, he’s a Muslim, but he’s also a free (“fry”) man. Its most pointedly dialogic comes when one group member claims that soldiers should back off because “I belong neither to Fatah nor to Hamas,” and another group member stumps him by asking how to handle community members that do.
The film is appropriate for a Muslim country, partly because it’s so relevant to Jews. Much of the greater Jewish community, a frequently liberal, historically oppressed group, turns staunchly, oppressively conservative on Israel. (I know several American Jews who voted for George W. Bush because of Israel alone.) The urge to protect a homeland is understandable, but when two of the film’s characters hold up a map that shows how much land the Israeli government’s seized from Palestine since setting the original border, it’s difficult not to feel one’s liberal sympathies aroused. They’re stuck, and the space they’re stuck inside is shrinking—and expatriate Palestinians aren’t usually allowed inside. I have some issues with the film’s structure and pacing, but for a work like Children of the Stones—Children of the Wall, those problems don’t much matter. It’s effective for people of all faiths. The world should see this film.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs through October 23. For more information, click here.