Live from the Dubai International Film Festival: Dec. 10

December 11, 2012

No two film festivals are alike – and those of us who attend them professionally tend to judge them by different standards than the average festival-goers.

First and foremost: the films. Is the quality high? Is there a wide range of material? Do you feel like you’re seeing things you might otherwise not see? Are you glad you did?

Then there’s the organization itself: Is there a system in place to keep the lines moving and the movies starting on time? Do the volunteers seem to know what they’re doing?

And finally, the venues: Are they up to the technological demands? Are they comfortable? Are they accessible?

(This is the one where, for example, Sundance still has problems, with public screenings held in a huge high school auditorium and the converted interior of a racquet club, among other places. Plus the venues are scattered all over a mountain town, far enough apart to prohibit walking and require mass transportation, without actually having it – though Sundance’s shuttle-bus system works well.

(I remember that, in one of my first years going to Park City, the venue for press screenings was called The Garage. And it was exactly that: a maintenance garage into which folding chairs had been placed, a sheet hung as a screen and a makeshift projection booth built to mask the sound of the projector. It was frequently as cold inside as it was outdoors in the Park City winter. I often wondered whether the filmmakers were aware that critics were getting their first look at films these directors had spent years making while sitting on a folding chair in a room where you could almost see your breath.)

But so far, the 9th Dubai International Film Festival is getting my vote of approval as an audience-friendly event. The organization seems well-thought-out, the venues (a multiplex at the luxe Mall of the Emirates and two well-appointed theaters in the Souk Madinat) are comfortable and the volunteers are friendly and knowledgeable.

And the films? I saw four on Monday, two of which I’d rate as among the strongest I’ve seen this year.

The first was “Kill Me,” a German film by director Emily Atef. The film stars Maria Dragus (who was in Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon”) as Adele, a teen so depressed at her life working with her dull parents on their dairy farm that she wants to commit suicide – but lacks the nerve. One day, she comes home to find the police talking to her parents. When she goes in the house and into her own bedroom, she is grabbed by the man the police are hunting for, who is hiding there.

His name is Timo (Roeland Wiesnekker), and he’s just escaped from a nearby prison during a fire. She’s unafraid when he threatens to harm her if she makes noise – and then tells him that she will help him get away if, when he’s clear, he promises to kill her, because she can’t do it herself.

The film becomes a quietly desperate road movie, as they head for the hills and try to avoid the police, while Timo tries to get to Marseilles to hop a boat to Africa. Latef is a disciplined and unfussy director – and a spare writer who has crafted a lean and compelling story that never feels the need to have the characters explain themselves at any point.

Their personal demons eventually come out – but again, unlike a Hollywood film, there is no moment of obvious emotional bonding, no need for lengthy personal revelations or catharsis. We learn everything we need to in a couple of lines of dialogue that sketch in the needed facts. We’re left to imagine the backstory for ourselves. It’s a tough, wonderfully self-contained little film built around two alternately flinty and vulnerable characters, played with great restraint by Dragus and Wiesnekker.

For sheer emotional devastation, it’s hard to beat Joachim Lafosse’s “Our Children,” which I missed at this year’s New York Film Festival and which won the best actress award for Emilie Duquenne at Cannes. Beside Duquenne, the film reunites Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup, who made such a fascinating odd couple in “Un Prophete.”

Rahim plays Mounir, born in Morocco but raised in France by Dr. Andre Pinget (Arestrup), who has also helped arrange permanent residence in France for Mounir’s sister and brother. Mounir still lives with and works for Pinget – and when he marries a schoolteacher named Murielle (Duquenne), the newlyweds continue to live with the doctor.

But that proximity – and Pinget’s controlling, manipulative hand on both of them – begins to wear on Murielle. She starts having children – three daughters – and show signs of not being up to the challenge of that many kids as the third girl moves into the toddler stage. But when Murielle becomes pregnant a fourth time, the wheels truly start to come off.

It’s a little like watching a horrible car accident unfold in slow motion. We know where this film is headed because one of the film’s opening shots is of four tiny caskets being loaded on to an airplane. But Lafosse takes his time bringing us to the film’s most horrifying moment – and shows us every opportunity that was missed to avoid what we know is coming.

Duquenne has a crying scene in the film – by herself, in a car, triggered by an innocuous pop song – that is wrenching and real. Even before that, from the birth of the second child, she performs the neat trick of looking as though she has been crying in private before each scene. Rahim, meanwhile, is painfully malleable and self-absorbed, easily influenced by Pinget. Arestrup, with his laser-like gaze and leonine head, is the puppeteer, pulling strings (and pushing buttons) on both of these young people, all with a quiet, seemingly caring passive-aggressiveness. It’s a movie that will knock the wind out of you.

I also saw “Radioman,” a brief (70 minutes) documentary about a noticeable (if not notable) New York eccentric. His real name is Craig Castaldo, but he got his nickname because he rides his bike around New York with a boombox hanging around his neck on a rope.

His shtick is that, for the past 20 years, he’s been showing up on every movie and TV location in Manhattan, wherever a film is being shot. He talks to the stars (who all seem to know him), mooches food from the craft-services table and even winds up being cast in background or walk-on roles in the various films and TV shows he crashes. Director Mary Kerr gets everyone from Meryl Streep to George Clooney to Whoopi Goldberg to comment on his significance.

Yet when Castaldo himself talks, there isn’t much there; everyone else seems to be reading meaning into his existence that has little to do with him. And while he talks a little about his childhood, his problems with alcohol that led to a spell of homelessness and his ongoing relationship with the stars, he’s not a deep thinker or a natural clown, though he’s just wacky enough to say inappropriate things that will make you laugh. Ultimately, however, it feels as though Kerr is exploiting, rather than explicating, Castaldo. Even at 70 minutes, it feels long.

The first movie I saw Monday was a press screening of one of the gala films: Andrew Adamson’s “Cirque de Soleil: Worlds Away,” which amounts to a lengthy 3D infomercial for the high-priced troupe’s Las Vegas shows and other pieces. “Presented” by James Cameron and “written” by Adamson, the film’s nonexistent plot focuses on Erica Linz, as a young woman who attends a rickety circus and falls for its aerialist (Igor Zaripov). They both fall through a hole in the center ring, which deposits them in a magical land full of tents, in which CdS troupes are hard at work.

Unfortunately, Adamson can’t seem to focus on what’s most interesting in any given scene. The choppily edited sequences rarely give you a chance to really watch the astonishing acrobatics and feats of strength and agility. The settings and costumes, meanwhile, suggest an overly precious avant-gardeist with too much money and time on his hands. It’s so unfocused that I can’t imagine small children having the patience to engage with it. On the other hand, it’s probably much cheaper to take them to see this movie than one of CdS’s live performances.

Tuesday is not exactly an off-day – but one in which I only have one film on my schedule. So it’s that rare opportunity to actually explore a city where I might otherwise spend all my time sitting in the dark. More tomorrow.

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