2012 Dubai International Film Festival: The wrap-up

December 17, 2012

As I write this, it’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting on a train rolling along the Hudson River under gloomy skies in chilly weather, heading into Manhattan for an assignment.

It’s a little mind-boggling to realize that, a little more than 36 hours ago, I was half a world removed from here, watching movies within spitting distance of the Persian Gulf.

My trip to the Ninth Dubai International Film Festival was a fascinating one, filled with sensory and intellectual surprises, from the lavishness of the surroundings to the startling cultural contrasts you ran into.

Just one: the image of men in thobes and women in burkas wandering the Mall of the Emirates, as other people in western garb paused to take pictures of each other in front of a glittering silvery Christmas tree that was part of the decorations. Even at the various Jumeirah resorts strung along the beach where the festival was headquartered, it was that mix of architecture that looked like something out of the Sheherazade (yes, I know – Persia, not Arabia) accessorized with trappings of Christmas for the western visitor.

That constant tug-of-war between tradition and the future played out in the final two films I saw at the festival, both of which addressed that struggle on the Saudi peninsula and elsewhere.

The first was “When Monaliza Smiled,” from Jordan, a charming and self-assured first film from a young filmmaker named Fadi Haddad. It told the story of a young single woman in Amman, Monaliza (Tahani Salim), who has lived under the thumb of her agoraphobic older sister for most of her life. She finally applies for a job – and takes it – in a government archive office, where no one seems to do much of anything.

There, she meets a coworker named Hamid (Shady Khalaf), who cracks Monaliza’s icy veneer. Monaliza, a dour and buttoned-up young woman who never goes out without her hijab and never, ever smiles, finds herself falling for this young Egyptian immigrant – just as the work permit that allows him in the country, is about to expire.

There are other complications, involving her sister (who doesn’t want to lose her live-in companion and helper) and her neighbor, who is trying to match-make a union between Monaliza and her aging bachelor brother, the local grocer. Haddad builds it all with understated humor, unforced performances and writing that is naturally funny, without being jokey. The film manages to take characters whose personal beliefs occasionally bump up against the realities of 21st-century living and shows how they negotiate the unpredictability of the human heart.

The other film I saw on my last day was “Gulabi Gang,” a startling and even shocking documentary from India. Filmmaker Nishtha Jain followed Sampat Pal, an uneducated woman from a lower caste who has started a movement to give power back to women. But her struggle is all the more stark because, in the poverty-stricken villages of central India where she lives, women are constantly subject to abuse and even murder, with the same kind of impunity that leads to honor killings in other cultures.

Gulabi means the color pink – and Pal and her growing cadre of women wear pink saris and use the power of their numbers to fight back: against gender violence, discrimination (based on caste) and the corruption that undermines authority. In a way, they’re reminiscent of the Black Panther Party of the 1960s – a grassroots movements by a beleaguered segment of society which empowers itself to fight for its rights when no one else will.

It’s a stark film that opens with Pal visiting a village where a woman has burned to death. But Pal can see that this is not a suicide, as the woman’s husband and the other villagers are trying to tell the authorities. The woman obviously was strangled and burned somewhere else, then had her body placed indoors and explained as self-immolation (despite the lack of any burn marks anywhere in the room).

Pal’s aggressive, confrontational tactics eventually force the police to consider the case, even as the villagers join ranks in telling the suicide story. As Pal tells the camera, this is a too-frequent occurrence in this region, in which women are routinely subjected to abuse. What’s amazing is how logical and strong Pal is, in the face of threats of violence and even death from the men she comes up against.

My trip to Dubai was a treat, a chance to experience a culture and a part of the world I otherwise might not have seen – and to feel the growing interest in film by a society for which it is not second nature. It felt as though excitement about the festival grew as the week went on – and the quality of the work was relatively strong throughout.

Can Dubai become a player on the world film scene the way Cannes or Venice or Berlin are? Perhaps not in the same way, given the distance that western players have to travel to get there. I’d mention the expense as well (Dubai is the most expensive country in the Arab world, apparently) – but then it’s not cheap to go to Cannes, either.

But the Dubai International Film Festival has positioned itself as the gateway festival to the cinema of the Arab world, as well as the work of Africa and south Asia. Its reputation continues to grow and the festival itself is managed with expertise and precision.

It was an eye-opening trip; I hope they invite me back.

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