Live from the Dubai International Film Festival: Monday, Dec. 9

December 10, 2013


How bad can a film-festival day be when you see four movies – and only one of them is terrible? And the best one is the last one of the day?

That was my Monday at the Dubai International Film Festival.

The best film of the day was a joint production from Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and the USA: “Traitors,” a film by American filmmaker Sean Gullette (who was the star of Darren Aronofsky’s breakthrough debut, “Pi”).

Starring newcomer Chaimae Ben Acha as a would-be punk-rocker in Tangier named Malika, the film starts with her meeting with a producer, who tells Malika she likes her songs on the rough demo she sent her. So she’s willing to produce a real demo for Malika and her band, Traitors, and try to get them signed.

One catch: Malika has to come up with the money for the recording studio time, a fairly princely sum for an unemployed singer. “I’m a producer, not an ATM,” the producer notes.

Desperate, Malika takes a job that will earn her all the cash – but which could cost her more. She agrees to help a drug smuggler by driving an SUV into the mountains, where the car’s cavities will be filled with drugs. Then she and another young woman, Amal (Soufia Issami), will drive it back to Tangiers – through the various drug-interdiction roadblocks along the way. But the farther into the job Malika gets, the less she wants to do it.

There are not a lot of actual incidents in the film: no chases or shootouts. Yet Gullette creates real tension, through silences, quiet encounters with the drug lord and the extremely expressive face of Ben Acha. She looks like a cross between Rashida Jones and a young Joan Jett and has the tough swagger of Lisbeth Salander from the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” books. Issami also brings a blend of the callous and the vulnerable as her new acquaintance and partner in crime. It’s a strong, gripping film from start to finish.

Less so, but still compelling, was “Apaches” by Thierry De Peretti. Based on an actual incident, it looks at the world of a group of young Arab teens on the French resort island of Corsica. One of them, Aziz (Aziz El Hadachi), works for his father, doing the maintenance at a fancy vacation home.

One night, to impress his friends, Aziz invites them up to the house, which is temporarily vacant, for a party. His friends get out of hand, drinking liquor and stealing some items from the house, including an expensive pair of shotguns. That sparks anti-Arab rage that somehow forces the teens to turn on each other, leading to the film’s disturbing ending: a blend of violence and complacence.

Like a blend of “River’s Edge” and “Kids,” De Peretti’s film captures the fecklessness of these kids and the casual racism that surrounds them. If the script is occasionally vague or spends too much time driving around with these characters, it also creates real suspense and even horror by the conclusion, without trying to delve too deeply into motivations or psychology.

may in summer

I also liked Cherien Dabis’ “May in the Summer,” a romantic comedy-drama set in Amman, Jordan. In the film, which debuted at Sundance, Dabis plays the title character, May, a Jordanian-American writer who lives in New York but has come home to Amman to her mother (Hiam Abbass) and sisters (Alia Shawkat, Nadine Malouf). The sisters are all visiting from America for part of the summer – and May is there to marry her college-professor boyfriend, who will arrive in a month

But there are tensions almost immediately: May’s mother is opposed to the wedding because, as a Christian, she disapproves of May marrying a Muslim. Meanwhile, there’s also some weirdness with their father (Bill Pullman), who left their mother eight years ago and has barely been in touch with his daughters ever since. And, finally, there’s May herself, who isn’t actually sure she wants to get married.

Dabis is a confident, inventive director who takes the basics of this tale of family squabbles and bonding and gives it new juice. She’s also a solid actress, capturing the contradictions and conflicts within this strong, self-assured young woman, who finds herself torn between opposing feelings. Abbas is a great resource: tough, funny, steely but also soft. And Dabis’ comic (and sometimes emotional) interplay with Shawkat and Malouf definitely feels familial.

I almost missed “Traitors” because I nearly walked out of the film before it and called it a day. Thankfully, I slogged through Jillali Ferhati’s dreary, obvious “Pillow Secrets” and hung in for that final film.

“Pillow Secrets” focused on a young woman whose memory of her childhood is triggered after she must identify her mother’s body in the morgue. She’s plunged into flashbacks of her youth, when her mother was notorious for the brothel she ran and the way she dominated their Moroccan neighborhood. But the potato-faced actress who plays the daughter keeps popping up, walking into scenes of the past before letting the youthful version of herself take over. It’s a tired device that gets strained past the breaking point – in a story that seems to go nowhere.

It’s Tuesday morning as I write this: time to start another festival day. More tomorrow.

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