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Dubai International Film Festival

Jafar Panahi in This is Not a Film

[This is the third installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Peter Rorvik. Peter is the Director of the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as Director of the Durban International Film Festival.]

With a curious mix of ultra-modern amenities alongside or often overriding traditional values Dubai is the largest city in the cluster of emirate states that comprise the oil-rich United Arab Emirates. With Iraq now very messed up, and changes afoot in previously stable Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar are perhaps the Western world’s best bet for oil if for some terrible reason(s) the supply lines from Iran are shut down.

The Dubai International Film Festival, now in its 8th year, opened with Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol, and the red carpet presence of Tom Cruise invested star fizz to the occasion. There is a scene in the film in which our hero (Tom) climbs Dubai’s landmark Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Construction on this Dubai ode to itself stalled when Dubai ran into serious financial crisis in 2009, and funds for completion had to be found from neighbouring emirate Abu Dhabi, with whom there is high-pitched competition. Originally called Burj Dubai, the building is now called Burj Khalifa after Khalifa Bin Zayed, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, and also the president of the United Arab Emirates.

High competition also exists between the three film festivals in Dubai, AbuDhabi and Doha. All part of an urgent effort to develop a film industry in the region and to create visibility for Arabian cinema there is no apparent shortage of financial backing for these flagship events. The question is whether having three festivals in these centres, all within a six-week period, is sustainable. Supported by extravagant budgets, they compete for premieres of Arabian productions, few that they are, and for now depend on the attraction of the international programmes. Oldest of the three, Dubai has a well-rounded film programme and a highly professional approach that draws on best festival practices. Development initiatives such as the Dubai Film Connection also facilitate financial and co-production opportunities for Arabian productions, which are still to a large extent funded out of France, Germany, and Italy. A number of competitions specifically for Arab films provide incentive for local filmmakers. Arab films draw reasonable attention from local audiences but the Hollywood blockbusters dominate at the box office.

Prolific German filmmaker Werner Herzog, with over 50 films under his belt, was on hand to receive a highly deserved Lifetime Achievement Award. The festival included his most recent work, Into the Abyss, a well-constructed documentary that follows the last days of a young man sentenced to death in Texas for a triple homicide. Herzog unfolds many revealing and surprising backstories and, of course, asks probing questions about capital punishment. Other films that caught the eye included Alexander Payne’s The Descendents (starring George Clooney), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Death of a Japanese Salesman, My Week With Marilyn, The Price of Kings - Yasser Arafat, Man on Ground, while The Muppets spearheaded a strong children’s programme. Indian films did not pull as strongly this year as they usually do, despite the large Indian community here.

This Is Not a Film has been shown at various festivals to highlight the plight of award-winning Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. For planning to make a film deemed “anti-republic” Panahi has been sentenced to 6 years in prison and been banned from making films for 20 years. Apparently smuggled out of Iran in a cake for its screening at Cannes earlier this year, This Is Not a Film focuses on Panahi confined in his apartment (with a giant iguana), talking us through a screenplay he hoped to make, but also giving updates about the ongoing court case. I am unimpressed by snootier-than-thou governments with rapacious economic agendas ganging up on hapless countries whose value systems lend themselves to human rights abuses, and why the (supposed) possession of nuclear weaponry is a crime for some but not for others, but Iran is certainly making things difficult for itself. A revealing insight into cinematic techniques as well as the legal and political backdrop, This is Not A Film reminds us of harsh realities facing filmmakers in paranoid and repressive parts of the world.

10th December: A lunar eclipse hung a dramatic red moon in the Dubai sky. Back in my hometown of Durban, politicians were failing to deliver meaningful solutions to the challenges of climate change. These were good reasons to break out of the main festival and sprawl on beanbags on a Dubai beach for one of the outdoor screenings. The film was Neil Young- Journeys, third in a trilogy by Jonathan Demme. Demme has a way of getting intimate access to his subjects so that you feel as though you are hanging out with them. Deploying the same tactic as in his other recent effort, I’m Carolyn Parker: the Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful, there is a lot of driving around in a car. This works especially well with Neil Young who loves cars, especially old classics, crocks included. We are in the town of Omemee, with Young giving commentary on how things have changed since he grew up there. But the heart of the film is of course the music, a solo concert at Massey Hall where Young unleashes virtuosity that helps us understand why he was recently rated seventeenth in the top 100 guitarists of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine ranking. It’s a powerful one-man band display flowing out through a powerhouse concert-level sound system onto the beach of Dubai. For, “Ohio,” Young’s signature protest song, Demme adds historic footage of the anti-Vietnam demonstrations that day in 1970, and the film offers a dedication to the four victims. Young is grizzled and unkept on stage, but he gets unceremoniously on to the business of singing and playing. Just a momentary glance around the hall, where he played killer concerts forty years back, is enough. Demme makes it more than just a concert.

Dubai is well-geared to provide luxury services that enhance the visitor experience, especially for festival guests. There is space-age architecture to marvel at, nearby desert tours, labyrinth-like souks to get lost in and exotic goods to spend your money on (prices are not cheap though). However, purpose-built centres of commerce such as Dubai result in a rather brittle social fabric and if you dig beneath the skin there are some uncomfortable issues. Of the overall population of 8 million people in United Arab Emirates, a staggering 80% are immigrants from India, Pakistan and elsewhere. Grateful for paychecks bigger than they could ever hope to earn in the own countries, they are also subject to stringent and sometimes abusive labour practices, and are quick to voice disgruntlement at their 2nd class status. Even if you have lived and worked diligently in the UAE for 30 or 40 years you still cannot earn citizenship and will be compelled to return to your country of origin once you turn sixty. This adds an unsettling contrast and sense of superficiality to the overt extravagance of Dubai lifestyles. These contexts should not, however, detract from the dedicated and professional efforts of the team who put the film festival together. Money will be a significant determinant of how things play out between the three regional festivals but Dubai certainly has paid its dues and looks set to last.