Editor’s Notes: The following article is part of our coverage of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit abudhabifilmfestival.ae and follow the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on Twitter at @AbuDhabiFF.
The high-ceilinged halls of the obscenely elegant Emirates Palace were thronged with talent from the UAE and abroad on Thursday night as the ninth annual Abu Dhabi Film Festival kicked off with an invite-only screening of Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime. The ceremonies typical of such lavish events had each successive speaker increasingly emphasising that the movie really was coming quite soon now don’t worry. It needn’t have hurried; a good deal less interesting than Forest Whitaker, who’d burst into Arabic song as he accepted the Black Pearl career achievement award, Life of Crime is a forgettable comedy thriller that never manages to balance its elements with much success at all. Adapting the work of Elmore Leonard, Schechter—who’s shown some promise in the past with Supporting Characters—can’t handle the characters he inherits from his source, and reduces each to bare caricature. Still, there’s some fun to be had courtesy of Leonard’s tremendously twisty plotting, not to mention no shortage of acting talent: Tom Robbins, John Hawkes, Will Forte, and a surprisingly scene-stealing Jennifer Aniston are on hand to do all they can to keep things interesting. It’s a frustrating film of only fleeting functionality: see “>my review for the full story.
Cairo Drive served to start the festival’s first full day of films, a deeply witty documentary that examines the changes Egypt’s undergone of late by way of its capital’s infamously pervasive traffic problems. Honing in on a handful of humorous figures—taxi drivers; learners; American expatriates—director Sherief Elkatsha ensures the many rides on which he takes us are packed with little observances as amusing as they are enlightening. It’s a surprisingly absorbing concept; so much so, in fact, that Elkatsha can’t quite tear himself away, and ends up lending far too uneven a spread of time to the respective before and after stories. The result is a movie that never seems to know what it’s saying, as though the fortuitous presence of the project through such a time of utter upheaval has shocked its makers to the point where they can’t think what to do but present it at is. A pleasure to watch it may be, but Cairo Drive concludes more a historical curio than a cinematic success.
Another road movie next, albeit in a less literal sense, in the form of Norwegian-Iraqi co-production Before Snowfall, the gorgeously shot story of a young Kurd whose father’s death demands he be the one to track down and kill the sister who has dishonoured the family by fleeing an arranged marriage with another man. Taking an exceptionally dark, potentially difficult premise as a starting point, director Hisham Zaman—a Kurd himself, and winner in the short category here back in 2009—makes unlikely fun of this story, using the generic structure of a movie together with a penchant for sudden scenes of wacky humour to enact an unconventional coming-of-age tale that’s often deeply affecting. Newcomer Taher Abdullah Taher is compelling as the unwavering antihero, whose staunch faith is both established with respect and undercut for its ferocity. If the ending feels, in a sense, a little too neat, it’s because Zaman has succeeded so well in capturing the terrible moral mess that constitutes this journey, and this character.
From there to one of the festival’s most anticipated events, if not for the film itself then for media circus that’s crowded around its long-delayed post-production. Djinn, the UAE’s first horror feature, was directed by genre legend Tobe Hooper, whose prestige attests the extensive efforts the country’s been making to kick-start a major film industry. Chances are we’ll never know the truth behind the tumultuous journey to the screen—whether mitigating political circumstances are to blame remains a much-suspected mystery—but what we can say for certain is that this movie is a travesty, an audaciously unimaginative and utterly uninteresting rehash of every horror cliché in the book loosely hidden beneath a novel new cultural context. Image Nation CEO Michael Garin insisted, before the screening, that the lengthy delays were down to extensive special effects work which is nowhere to be seen on screen. In visual terms—as indeed in narrative, thematic, tonal, and technical—this is an inexcusable wreck that’s all the more atrocious for the excellence it ought to have been.
Celebrating the centenary of Indian cinema, ADFF this year presents a selection from the country that’s at once cinematically important and somehow surprising too. Among the other offerings, for instance, is the eerie Duvidha, a rarely-seen spiritual romance that interweaves issues to which any of us can relate with a fundamentally Indian narrative. Closing Friday’s films was Pyaasa, Guru Dutt’s romantic epic that beautifully mixes lavish musical numbers into a comic tale of a downtrodden prostitute and the poet with whom he struggles to connect. Dutt’s soft-focus photography adds to the quiet songs’ hypnotic qualities, which constitute momentary reprieve from the dark reality of his protagonist’s tragic tale. Heavy religious symbolism pervades, as does a penchant for confronting difficult questions of humanity and art head-on. The earliest film among the selected showcase of Indian cinema, Pyaasa is a genre-juggling great whose presence here is easy to understand.
A quiet start to proceedings on Saturday with Nahid Persson Sarvestani’s intimate confessional documentary My Stolen Revolution, with which she attempts to come to terms with the guilt she feels at fleeing Iran decades ago when friends and family remained imprisoned behind her. Powerfully punctuated with sequences of former inmates removing the veils and blindfolds they were forced to wear, this is a harrowing revelation, exploring the issues that engulfed Iran on Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power, and those that continue to affect it today. The aforesaid visual conceit aside, Persson Sarvestani’s direction is primarily only functional, yet she evidently sees herself as more storyteller than filmmaker per se: the camera is not her calling, but rather her means to realise it. Never more so than in those brief moments where they allow themselves to laugh, the women herein are living relics of an oppressive regime that—Persson Sarvestani is sure to say—is far from fallen, much less forgotten.
From the direct power of documentary to the allegorical ability of narrative; next came Giraffada, Rani Massalha’s sweet if simplistic story of a Palestinian veterinarian desperate to save the self-starving giraffe with whom his son is infatuated. Often more cute than anything else, it’s a movie certainly not without something to say, yet its pervasively saccharine way of saying it feels more slight than substantial; important and affecting as Massalha’s drama can be, it’s a touch easy at times, never more so than in a ludicrously fantastical finale that leans far more toward fable than the factuality an opening title card claims. Still, a little sentimentality’s no crime in and of itself: Giraffada may simplify the complexity of its context to deleterious degrees, but its child’s-eye view of the world isn’t ever unimpactful.
Rounding out Saturday was Algerian auteur Merzak Allouache himself, in town with his latest The Rooftops but here honoured in the programme of great Arabian debuts with this special screening of 1976’s Omar Gatlato. Visibly moved to see this new digital restoration, coming after decades of censorship on television broadcast, Allouache spoke fondly of the people with whom he made this poignant portrait of the aimlessness of contemporary youth. Coming in the wake of Algeria’s independence, the movie stands apart from the tide of titles directly exploring the revolution itself, instead preferring to trace the day-to-day existence of a cocksure young man whose newfound freedom—and the directionlessness that accompanies it—stands in for his nation’s. Playfully perforating the fourth wall and often indulging in amusing absurdities, Omar Gatlato is a striking and substantial effort, a standout statement that clearly deserves its place as an exemplar of great Arabian cinema.