Live from the Dubai International Film Festival: Sunday, Dec. 8

December 9, 2013

railwayman

As a critic who regularly attends a couple of film festivals a year – i.e., Toronto and Sundance – I average seeing four films a day and have been known to see as many as six in one day (always early in the festival, while I still have stamina).

So I have to admit I appreciate the more casual approach to scheduling at the Dubai International Film Festival. The movies get shown and seen – but unlike Sundance or Toronto, where press screenings can start at 8:30 a.m. (and public screenings shortly after that), DIFF rarely starts its daily schedule before noon.

As I look at the schedule I’ve assembled here in Dubai, my busiest days will include four films. But, given the relaxed approach to scheduling, I find that I can see almost everything I want to without a strain.

Indeed, the Sunday schedule was so light that I played hooky from the festival for the whole day and took a bus tour of Abu Dhabi.

Which brings up the other thing I like so much about this festival: It’s all set in the midst of a culture that is almost as old as time – and yet rocketing directly into the future. It’s startling to realize that, just 60 years ago, none of the skyscrapers even existed. Dubai and Abu Dhabi were essentially small ports, a step above villages full of Bedouins and tribesmen.

That all changed, of course, with the discover of oil in Abu Dhabi in the late 1950s and in Dubai in the mid-1960s. The United Arab Emirates only came into being in 1971; the country celebrated its 42nd anniversary a few days ago and the country is still festooned with the black/red/white/green UAE flags in honor of the day. Along various streets in both towns, there are large “42”s hanging from the lampposts – and they aren’t there to honor Jackie Robinson.

My tour of Abu Dhabi included a stop at the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, an astonishing bit of architecture that can accommodate 40,000 worshippers during Eid. And yet, if you stand outside the mosque and do a 360 turn, you see all sorts of modern-looking buildings that contrast with the almost glowing white classical structure.

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About that architecture: The skylines of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai are rife with the most modern-looking buildings you’re likely to see, structures that routinely defy convention in striking and beautiful ways. The New York skyline is massive, but the distinctiveness of the buildings in Dubai puts the Big Apple to shame.

The designers of these buildings here on the Persian Gulf rarely think in squares and rectangles – at least not exclusively. If there is a rectangular building, it’s got a swooping design on the side, where a cylindrical section of building suddenly shoots up.

But they also think in other shapes (and colors). There are buildings that resemble cones, ones that look like corkscrews, buildings that are designed to look like an uneven stack of Jenga blocks. And the landscape of both cities is dotted with building cranes, where more buildings are going up. Indeed, there seem to be even more new skyscrapers between the Dubai airport and the festival headquarters than there were last year.

And both cities continue to expand. There’s a massive model at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai of something called Falcon City, a new subdivision that will be a small planned city unto itself. With its global theme, it will feature nearly life-size replicas of landmarks from around the world: the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids, the Colosseum of Rome.

Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital city built on islands in the Persian Gulf, we saw Saadiyat Island, a massive piece of undeveloped land which, by 2020, will house an entire community, complete with residences, resorts, golf courses and a cultural center.

Did I say cultural center? How about the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi designed by Frank Gehry? Or the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in collaboration with the French government? And that’s not to mention a performing arts center, designed by Zaha Hadid, that will include spaces for musical performances, theater, dance and more.

What’s fascinating is that, even as the UAE launches itself into the future, it clings to tradition. You frequently run into the phenomenon of seeing the shockingly modern alongside the grimly conservative. While Dubai tends to be more liberal, this is still an Islamic country run by a ruling family of sheiks. Abu Dhabi and the other five emirates are considerably stricter in their observance than the more tourist-friendly Dubai. So the impression is one of welcoming the future – just not the parts that clash with Islam.

The trip to Abu Dhabi was fascinating. And my day ended with the only film I saw Sunday: “The Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. I’d missed it at Toronto and relished the chance to see it. It left me emotionally wrung out.

Based on a true story, it focuses on Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), who still suffers post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences in a brutal Japanese prison camp in Thailand during World War II. Now it’s 1980 and he spends all his time on his one enthusiasm in life: trains. On one such train, he meets Patricia (Kidman), whom he semi-spontaneously woos and marries. But their union is threatened because of his violent hallucinations and inability to focus on the real world, caused by his PTSD.

Then one of his fellow prison-camp veterans, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), shows him a news clipping: The prison guard who led in Lomax’s torture in the camp is still alive; he’s now giving tours of the prison camp (now a museum) in Thailand. Can Eric finally find peace if he can exact revenge against his tormenter?

Director Jonathan Teplitzky shifts back and forth in time (Jeremy Irvine plays the young Lomax), as Lomax’s memory is triggered. Ultimately, this is a film about coming to terms with anger and hatred in an effort to turn it to forgiveness and regain control of one’s life. This one should wow audiences when it comes out next year.

Well, back into festival mode on Monday: four films in one day. Now that’s more like it.

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