Dubai Film Fest: Mid-fest report

“In the early stages, there was fairly egalitarian access to public land, but as the Roman state became more powerful…and the lords and the, uh, generals…”

After he says “state,” his nose twitches. He starts gesticulating. He realizes he’s off-message: “state” is the solution, not the problem; lords and generals are the problem. The clip is so brief, perhaps a second, many viewers won’t notice it. Even the filmmakers, Canadians Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, seem to have let it slide. But if you do see it, suddenly you are no longer watching a movie, but measuring it. Your trust has been eroded, and the poignant images and clever editing and doomy music seem like tools of the propagandist.

You might be suspicious, too, of a documentary about Yasser Arafat. You either loved or loathed the former leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization; just convincing both sides to speak on camera is a diplomatic coup. Yet, that is what director Richard Symons and producer Joanna Natasegara accomplish in The Price of Kings — Yasser Arafat, which features candid comments from former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres — “He was very courageous No Arab leader would have done what he did” — and Arafat’s wife, Suha — “He was married to me, but he was really married to the cause.”

“We come from a general place and a non-judgmental place,” Natasegara says. “We tried our hardest to have an open conversation about what [the leaders] were trying to achieve. We were very honest about what we were looking for — an emotional response.”

The filmmakers received support from the Palestinian community at their premiere on Dec. 8 (unsurprising given an anecdote in the film about how every family in the occupied territories has a family photo with Arafat). Both the General Consulate and the Palestinian ambassador to the United Arab Emirates also showed up at First Group Theatre. “We are quite new to festivals, so it was heartwarming to see the response,” Symons says. “It was a strong showing from the Palestinian community,” Natasegara adds. “The response was one of gratefulness.”

Bits from the Emirates…

Variety presented its 2011 International Star of the Year to actor Owen Wilson, who shared a conversation he had with Woody Allen’s daughter on the set of Midnight in Paris. “She thought her dad should include a blooper reel at the end of his movies. I thought of how odd it would be at the end of Annie Hall or Manhattan to have a blooper reel.”…Tom Cruise might be the most recognizable star at DIFF, but he might not be the most popular. That would be Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, who sold-out the 800-seat Madinat Jumeirah Arena on Thursday…for a preview. After screening 3D clips from his upcoming Don 2, in which Khan plays a mob boss, he took questions from the audience, half of which began: “I love you Shah Rukh.”…Twenty-five people were turned away from a screening on Dec. 8 at Mall of the Emirates. This wouldn’t be news, except the film was a documentary, Amal, by an Emirati woman, Nujoom Alghanem. This space will feature a conversation with the director, who won DIFF’s Muhr Emirati Special Jury Prize last year for her film Hamama.

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There’s a moment in the documentary Surviving Progress (which screened as part of the 8th annual Dubai International Film Festival) that gives away its agenda. Ronald Wright, the author of A Short History of Progress, the book that inspired the film, is speaking about the Roman Empire and how it relates to his thesis that civilization is just an experiment and that the current state of the world is proof that perhaps it’s time for us humans to try a more communal approach. Wright looks straight at the camera when he speaks, his eyes bulging with intensity.