As though I were going on vacation.
Certainly there are vacation-like aspects to these trips: travel, a hotel stay, escaping from your daily routine into a new environment.
On the other hand, when I go to a film festival, I’m usually devoting my time to seeing movies, often four or five a day. And once I’m finished going to movies, I have to spend a couple of hours thinking and writing about what I’ve just seen.
Still, I admit that, when I was invited to the 9th Dubai International Film Festival, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t going on holiday. Yes, there’s golf and scuba diving (neither of which are ever distractions at Toronto or Sundance) and sightseeing in a part of the world I’ve never visited.
But I’m not here to relax. While I may be able, in the coming week, to play hooky occasionally from the movies and see the wonders of Dubai (including a dinner scheduled for Tuesday at At.mosphere, a restaurant near the top of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building), I’m still here covering a film festival.
As with most such festivals, I come in having seen several of the most visible films: “Life of Pi,” “Cloud Atlas,” “Hitchcock,” “The Master.” But in scanning the DIFF schedule, I found more movies than I’ll have time to see in a week.
And, unlike Sundance or Toronto, where I’m at least partially devoting time to scouting for films that might work for the film clubs I program, I come to DIFF with no agenda other than to see movies from around the world that seem interesting.
I have to admit that the holiday part of my brain got a workout on the way over, flying business class on Emirates Air. It’s a 12-hour flight that started on Saturday morning at JFK Airport and, with the nine-hour time difference from New York, ended when we landed Sunday morning in Dubai.
The experience was almost guilt-inducing: Between the seat that folds back into a bed; the 17-inch TV screens in the back of the seat in front of you (with roughly 600 movie and entertainment choices); the flight attendant who is as obsequious as a good restaurant waiter; and the menu for meal service that included lunch, a late-night snack and breakfast, it felt like being encapsulated in a very small luxury hotel room and a tiny restaurant, while flying halfway around the world, all at the same time.
I arrived at Dubai International Airport, whose Air Emirates terminal seemed roughly the size of the Mall of America, but with gilt-accented white columns everywhere, along with breath-takingly elaborate tile work. And I checked into the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, overlooking the Burj al-Arab, the iconic structure built over the water that looks like a billowing sail.
It’s opening day here and the only film was the opening night gala, Ang Lee’s dazzling “Life of Pi,” which I skipped because I’ve seen it (twice). But I did go to a press screening in the afternoon of the second night’s gala film, “Bekas,” by Karzan Kader.
“Bekas,” in Arabic, means orphans or abandoned children. The film itself focuses on a pair of orphaned boys, Dana and Zana, roughly 11 and 6, in a small village in Kurdish Iraq in 1990. Both parents have died in Saddam Hussein’s ongoing conflict with his own Kurdish people; the two boys are homeless, living on rooftops and feeding themselves by shining shoes.
When one of the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies plays at their local cinema, it inspires Zana: He wants to go to America, where Superman lives, and bring th,e super-hero back to Iraq to get rid of Saddam and punish everyone who has ever been mean to him.
And so these two youngsters – who are illiterate and have no clue where America is – set out on foot. Their adventure includes traveling by donkey and by clinging to the underside of trucks, as well as being hidden in the trunks of cars to cross the border. The film is rarely subtle and yet the two young actors in the film have a natural energy and feistiness that makes them believable as scrappy street kids.
Yet Kader, whose Kurdish family left Iraq for Sweden, where he grew up, isn’t afraid to be serious at times, whether placing this pair in jeopardy – singularly or together – or dealing with the sense of brotherly betrayal when the older one leaves the younger one behind, asleep on a rooftop, while he runs off to meet a girl he’s interested in.
Kader isn’t trying to make big points about the mistreatment of children in Iraq (though adults regularly beat these kids with hands and shoes), or the situation under Saddam, or even life as an orphan. Instead, it’s about that family connection, when you miss it and when you need it. The kids have little, but they have each other – until they’re separated.
At one point, Dana climbs aboard a parked truck to try to steal a couple of bottles of Coke for his brother and himself – only to be carried away by the truck when it takes off unexpectedly. But Zana follows doggedly on the donkey they’ve purchased for the trip. His loyalty makes the older brother’s distractions seem like betrayals, even when they’re simple thoughtlessness.
Well, it’s late on Sunday night – time to go to the opening night party. At this point, my body clock is so screwed up that I’m not sure what time it is, even when I’m looking at my watch. More tomorrow.Print This Post