You couldn’t walk through this year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival without bumping nose-first into politics. Both fiction films and documentaries, from many different countries of origin, covered abandoned, ravaged, or forgotten people; even Hollywood’s Fair Game addressed Iraq. Audiences got in on the act by discussing films politically, rather than aesthetically. Every post-screening Q&A that I attended featured at least one impassioned speech about whether the film was a good representation of Egyptian/Syrian/Lebanese/Palestinian life. I soon caught the fever, and approached nearly every movie looking for what it had to say rather than how it said it. I’m still considering the validity of this approach. One could say that aesthetics is a wimp’s retreat from meaning; one could also say that invoking politics helps avoid mentioning whether a film is any good. Both views are right, but if the festival has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t assess a movie without considering what it says about the world outside the theater. The wealth of festival films—both documentary and fiction—openly wrestling with race, class, and gender disparities suggests how cowardly any film is that pretends they don’t exist.
A piece later this week will offer festival conclusions. Meantime, here are capsule reviews of a few entries I haven’t yet discussed:
How Bitter My Sweet!: Since 1948, Lebanon has agreed to house Palestinian refugees. A large population still resides there. This documentary follows many as they ponder their future, often venting at the powers that displaced them (“Does it make sense to you that those of us who spent years in Israeli jails should get out to find those dubious characters in charge?”). It’s a sloppy, ungainly film, but a stimulating one. The talking heads prove eloquent on their situations, which surprisingly extend beyond Palestine. The film expands to include other refugee groups in Lebanon, including the Sudanese, who make up a large chunk of the lower class. How Bitter My Sweet! is dedicated to the director John Ford, who in movies like Judge Priest showed American Southerners and former slaves happily coexisting. Watching it makes you consider how accurately Ford’s societies mirror real ones the world over by including many different groups within them, while still organizing hierarchies based on race, ethnicity, and skin color.
Living Skin: Eighty-five percent of upper Egypt lives in poverty. This documentary follows six poor kids, ages 12 to 17, over a few days as they look for work. The end titles list a number of substances (dry chrome, hydrogen peroxide) that have damaged them irreparably. The film isn’t all gloom and doom, though, and even contains a few outright lovely moments—a scene of men building caramel blocks, a nighttime fire-breathing show. You watch it longing for a stronger sense of structure and organization, while also knowing that you’re catching a piece of the globe that you’ll never see on film again. It hits your thinking, in a good way. Movies often show poor people in servant roles, but how often do they follow them home?/p>
Orion: An Iranian fiction in which a few young men discuss what to do about a woman that one of them has deflowered; she sits, weeping and terrified, in a room nearby. The film feels raw and crude in multiple ways: shaky low-quality claustrophobic camerawork, one-note acting, dilemma-posing that often sounds like bad theater. The piece picks up in intensity, though, building to a great concluding scene in which a male-dominated culture’s destructive closed-mindedness blows everything else away. The plight of Iranian women has been shown on film before, and better, but it also can’t be shown enough.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs through October 23. For more information, click here.