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.
A Sunday morning spent absorbing the extraordinary array of landmarks that make of Abu Dhabi so popular a tourist destination saw to it that the afternoon’s first film was just missed. Nought was more anticipated here by me than Night Moves; to have missed it, no matter how wonderful the things seen in its place, is a terrible shame. Never the matter: time freed up all of a sudden, it was onward to the video library to explore a selection of the short films on offer, a promisingly international assortment as varied in topic as technique. The highlights, by convenience, were all animated films dealing in darker subject matter: Juliette Bailey’s Allez Hop!, a minimalistic sketch that services surprising existential depths; Anna Budanova’s The Wound, an eerie evocation of isolation and insecurity; and Kyu-tae Lee’s The Big Boy, a deceptively delightful piece that suddenly and strikingly explodes to brilliant effect. Similar though their concerns may be, each explores its issues with its own inimitable variation on traditional animation. An uncanny triple bill they made: each outshining everything else yet seen, this trio reminds that often the quickest route to the deepest truth is by way of an artist’s impression.
That’s a fact only emphasised by the following feature, Jasmila Žbanić’s admirable but outnumbered atrocity exposé For Those Who Can Tell No Tales. Tracing the efforts of an Australian tourist in Bosnia and Herzegovina to discover the truth behind her hotel’s grisly past as an alleged wartime home to institutionalised rape, it’s obviously well-intentioned but unfortunately ill-equipped: Žbanić—who co-writes with Zoran Solomun and star Kym Vercoe—has difficulty decentring the story’s focus on this makeshift investigator, leaving the film to feel curiously removed from the real horrors it reveals. It doesn’t help that the device with which the movie reveals its protagonist to us is so creaky: she records travelogues, though never once do they feel like anything more than an excuse to explain her emotions to us face-to-face. It’s tempting to jest that the title applies to the filmmakers themselves, though the impact of some excellent visuals render that ridiculous. For Those Who Can Tell No Tales is a film not without its successes. Unfortunately, this story just demands more of them.
Another of the festival’s sidebar celebrating the best in Middle Eastern debuts next, with Oday Rasheed’s Underexposure, an incredible Iraqi effort shot in the ruins of Baghdad in 2003 with a documentary edge that invites comparisons to the more immediate of the post-war Italian films. As though that weren’t enough—and it is, some of this footage is extraordinary—the movie’s host to a marvellous metafilmic framework whereby Rasheed and pals play themselves trying to decide what to do with discarded film stock they discover in the wreckage. It’s from that we get the title, and the eerie aesthetic that adds twenty years to the imagery, as though this were some lost classic rather than a movie made only a decade ago. Foregrounding the fatigue and fury of a nation left crippled and clueless as to where to go next, Underexposure is all the more absorbing for its amateurism, referring to the difficulties and desperation of its own production with an urgency that’s as powerful a picture of this place at this time that we could possibly get. Like a bizarre blend of Rome, Open City and Camera Buff, Underexposure is film fulfilling its political potentiality, even if it doesn’t understand quite how.
Further afield in the Gulf region next, with a brief foray into the Emirates Film Competition, a shorts showcase for filmmakers from GCC member states, namely Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and of course the UAE itself. Inevitable few duds aside, the screened selection comprised a promising portrait of these developing national cinemas’ futures, with an expectedly varied slate of styles and sensibilities. Among the standouts: the wildly offbeat mini-musical Freshman by Deena Stevens, an often hilarious and always irreverent offering with all the heart you could ask for; Vachan Sharma’s My Pink Room, a sumptuously sensual story of Syrian refugees with imagery as loaded with meaning as it is with ironic beauty; Feeding Five Hundred, in which Rafed Al-Harthi and Ray Haddad’s fortune in finding so fascinating a story is matched only by the filmmaking savvy with which they explore it; and Maitham Al Musawi’s Crossing, an exceedingly affecting ode to the power of youthful optimism in the face of the big, bleak world. This festival has thus far proved the region has the resources to be a bigger player in world cinema; these filmmakers, each in their own way, are bringing the talent.
There’s plenty of talent, come to mention it, on display in Rags and Tatters, Ahmad Abdalla’s near-silent, sombre drama about one of the many Egyptian prisoners released from custody in the midst of the 2011 revolution. Suitably stoic, Asser Yassin has often only the benefit of a gaze to tell his character’s story, a feat he manages formidably. Abdallah’s exceptional framing captures with chilling clarity the distant chimneys of smoke that suddenly fill the cityscape; perhaps more than would be the case had he set this story right in the midst of the action, our seeing the revolution only from an indistinct distance makes all the more apparent the seismic shift the country undergoes before our eyes. Particularly when contrasted with Cairo Drive from earlier in the fest, Rags and Tatters’ measured mood and particular pacing give it both the scale and the severity the subject matter deserves, demands even.
It can’t have helped Phillipe Garrel’s case, having that act to follow. So convincing a capturing of one of the most significant civil uprisings of our time, Rags and Tatters is an undeniably important film. Jealousy, focusing on the romantic quibbles and middle-class quandaries of separated actors raising a child together, is not. Which isn’t to suggest, of course, that a film can’t set out to be about any kind of problem it sees fit; rather, it’s a suggestion that we might at least be made to care. Sparely shot in black and white, the movie’s intellectual airs aren’t uninteresting, they just make of the characters more conceptual constructions than emotional, leaving us with little to get attached to save the amplified cuteness of their daughter. Garrel plays her like a pawn, milking her comic non-sequitirs for all the charm that’s in them. It’s almost like a recognition of the loveliness—and the sense of love, at that—the rest of the film so sorely lacks.
Twenty-fourth time lucky, as the old saying goes: excellent though some of the films thus far seen might have been, none had crossed that all-important line to enter into the territory of the toutable. A film festival is like an exotic expedition into uncharted territory, from which every cinephile hopes to bring back a rare new specimen. Allow me to present, then, Néjib Belkadhi’s Bastardo, an exceptional piece of work that’s at once bleakly funny, dramatically deft, and immeasurably important in its piercing political allegory. Scripted in 2010, the story’s plentiful parallels to events that have since then taken place in Tunisia point, perhaps, to a powerful prescience on Belkadhi’s part, but also to a prevailing sense that the changes seen since then in that country and others have long been brewing. Prominent early similarities to Miracle in Milan belie a far darker drama, whose true depths—delivered via pristine plotting and an excellent cinematic eye—are simply stunning to behold. It’s rare to see a movie and to know at once that it will be definitive; Bastardo is essential cinema, irrevocable evidence of the art’s ability to understand the world around.
Tough task following that, but few better equipped to do so than the wonderfully witty and self-effacing Uberto Pasolini, the Italian producer—Oscar-nominated for The Full Monty—turned writer-director. Still Life is his second effort, the story of a London council worker whose job it is to oversee the funerals of deceased residents with next of kin nowhere to be found. Almost like a narrative alternate to Dreams of a Life, this is a film similarly shunning sentiment, instead meeting the lonely truth of life with a firm and steely gaze. Rarely anything but the best part of each film he’s in, Eddie Marsan assumes his first leading role here, employing the uncannily expressive mannerisms he does so well to create a character as complete as any he’s played before. It’s an extraordinary performance, around which Pasolini delicately balances a wealth of elements that might come crashing down with less steady a hand. A questionable few final moments play their cards slowly, almost scary for how close they come to botching it all. It’s worth the bated breath: the tears that flow freely through Still Life’s finale, so easy to shrug off as sappy sentimentality, are entirely earned.